Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was busy sending another, almost identical hit team to assassinate Saad al-Jabri, once foremost court adviser, longtime intelligence kingpin and secret keeper to the Saudi despots.
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threatened to expose everything and everyone in a way that could bring down palaces on both sides of the Atlantic, sending Riyadh, and Trump’s White House in particular, running for cover.
The man holds Pandora’s Box and has made clear he is ready to open it. But for now, he is willing to heckle. Clearly, al-Jabri is not driven by conscience but by predicament.
As far as his ethics go, he had plenty of time to expose the crimes in high places. He didn’t.
Instead, he served successive despots, then stole their secrets and is now using these as a bargaining chip to save himself and get the best deal. Once he gets his deal, al-Jabri will be very happy to keep the lid closed and let the ruthlessness he served for so long continue under a different despot. That’s not a man driven by conscience but by cynicism.
Al-Jabri and others before him are not really the cause of our sorrow. Rather, we celebrate that the brutal Saudi mafia is coming apart at the seams for all to see and that many of us will be vindicated in the process. Al-Jabri and others among all the regime’s men were part of the system and knew the rules of the game. Like any mafia, the Saudi omertà is a sacred code of conduct at the price of death: You break it, you die. Al-Jabri also knew how to protect himself. Jamal Khashoggi didn’t — and paid the price. This is not a court case between a ruthless despot and a frustrated human rights advocate. It is a lawsuit against a current despot by a former subordinate trying to position himself favorably under a future despot in a palace power struggle, racing against time.
And therein lies the opportunity. The summons for MBS and 12 others by a Washington court has put more pressure on that time frame and created a dangerous urgency in Riyadh for the crown prince, who must hurry to ascend to the throne and guarantee himself immunity as king, and also in Washington, where the Trump administration seeks to replace MBS with an acceptable alternative. Suddenly, Mohammed bin Salman and the White House are at once allies trying to keep closed al-Jabri’s Pandora’s Box but also opponents in the race for the Saudi throne. You couldn’t dream up this saga if you had the world’s best imagination.
At the time of writing, I am told there’s already a highly-placed Washington “team” in Riyadh trying to figure out an acceptable solution, one that will clearly result in a change on the throne. And that is what we must fear most. Changing the face, not the substance, then carrying on with business as usual. The most dangerous thing — and this is what Washington is currently trying to do — is substituting the liability that is MBS with a new smiling face it can present to the world as the vanguard of reform.
This is something akin to how MBS was originally presented, despite strong indications to the contrary. The crown prince’s nickname among Saudis is, after all, “Abu Rasasa” — father of the bullet. But Mohammed bin Salman is not the only culprit for the crimes committed against so many for so long — not even close. That reality should be the guiding principle for Washington as it looks for a replacement. Failing to change a system is not only a disservice to the region, but also to the United States and to the rest of the world. It is time the US took a long-term view of its relations with our region. Despite our repeated past disappointments, if Washington demonstrated a serious willingness to engage with the forces of change, there is enough wisdom in this part of the world to promote a revised view of the United States.
So far, Washington’s political dogma espoused by successive administrations has inherently conflicted with our regional interests, in the short as well as the long term. Essentially, the US and its Western allies have been unwilling to level the playing field. Consequently, they opted for a relationship with the ruling despots instead of supporting democratic forces. Blindsided by short-term opportunism, the US and the West chose to identify themselves with the worst forms of despotism across the Middle East. We have become relegated to bystanders as we watched destructive policies being carried out in our region, including the protection and arming of the most ruthless, tyrannical and corrupt regimes that serve to legitimize extremism — views that are intrinsically abhorrent to everything we stand for.
This imperialist view has not served the US well in the past, and it will certainly not do so in the future. When it comes to the Saudi regime, Washington has an almost unique opportunity not only to cause positive change but to be seen doing it. For far too long it has done the opposite. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, when the US appeared to take a positive position toward the changes demanded by the Arab peoples, we were willing to move on from our past bitter experiences. Tragically, Washington did not allow that honeymoon to last. Instead, it chose short-term benefits derived from its relations with the regimes leading the counterrevolution.
With the events currently unfolding within the Saudi regime, an opportunity is opening up for the US and the rest of us to mend ourselves. Will the United States be led by prudence and long-term, albeit lesser gains of a stable relationship with the forces of change or revert to its shortsightedness? If the US lets this opportunity slip, the future will be unforgiving. In Arabic we say, A little that is stable and consistent is better than a lot that is short and inconsistent.
If all that happens is a US drive to change the face of Saudi tyranny and not its substance, then we will be better served by keeping MBS at the helm of a regime that the world is too embarrassed to do business with. Going forward, boycotted as an outcast, the Saudi regime under Mohammed bin Salman will be less destructive than a new smiling face presented as yet another “reformer” but who will only maintain the same ruthless policies of all his predecessors. You don’t just cut the branches off a decaying tree — you dig it up with its roots.
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