The mystery of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has been cleared up and it appears that only the Trump administration believes that the journalist’s death was accidental.
If anyone missed the story, Mr. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and contributor to the Washington Post, went to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul and never came out. A team of 15 operatives including the personal security chief of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, flew into the country the night before and apparently killed the journalist. According the Guardian, he was tortured for seven minutes before his body was cut up and dissolved in acid.
In my view, Mr. Khashoggi’s death, and the very public response to it, has at least five potential repercussions like a stone thrown into the pond of global geo-politics and business.
The first implication is that the upcoming Future Investment Initiative Conference which is supposed to start tomorrow in Riyadh will have to do so without a number of prominent speakers and sponsors who have cancelled their participation due to Khashoggi’s murder. The list of cancellations include U.S. Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, The Director of the IMF Christine Legarde and the Word Bank President Jim Yong Kim, just to name a few. Stratfor posted a list a few days ago of who has cancelled and also who is still planning to attend.
The second implication has to do with the struggle for leadership of the islamic world currently underway between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. It seems the Saudi Consulate was under surveillance by Turkish intelligence and Turkey’s President, Recep Erdoğan, knew Mr. Khashoggi personally and supported his idea of re-starting the Al Arab Television Network. This struggle has to do both with relations between the Islamic states of the region and also with the West. By highlighting the brutal killing, Erdoğan is also saying to the West that only Turkey is a legitimate partner in the region.
The third implication of the murder and widespread outrage is that it may have an impact on the internal politics of the Kingdom and the future of the Crown Prince. The New York Times reports that there is opposition to the Prince in the royal family and questions whether the 82 year old King will be able to contain the situation.
The fourth implication has to do with domestic politics in the United States due to the fact that President Trump made his first state visit to the Kingdom, has supported it in its devastating war in Yemen and has praised Crown Prince Salman, known as MBS, as a “strong person”. All evidence so far seems to indicate that the Crown Prince ordered the murder of Khashoggi.
As discussed in a post back in May, Trump has given the Saudi leadership his full support ignoring the Kingdom’s history of supporting terrorism as told by Kristen Breitweiser whose husband was killed in 9/11. As the story spreads, the link between the Crown Prince and Trump and his son in law, Jared Kushner, may impact the mid-term elections.
As discussed in the Atlantic, Trump’s remarks about Khashoggi’s murder was that “This one has caught the imagination of the world, unfortunately”. Apparently President Trump is more concerned about the viral impact the murder was having than the fact that Saudi Arabia would have a journalist tortured and murdered.
The last implication is that for companies doing business with Saudi Arabia, and that includes many of the West’s leading firms, the murder highlights the ethical dilemma of working with authoritarian governments in general and the Arab monarchies in particular. One thing such firms should look at is the impact of their geo-political exposure on their brands for both clients and employees. Many of the leading consultancies, for example, are active in the Kingdom and have not withdrawn from the upcoming conference at the time of this writing.
The fact is that international companies need to understand and deal with geo-political risk. If any one of the firms doing business with Saudi Arabia pretended not to know the kind of regime they have been dealing with. Khashoggi’s murder makes things clearer..