From the start, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has worked tirelessly to modernize Saudi Arabia and move it into the 21st century. He has exerted all possible efforts to open up the kingdom and make it more attractive to Western businesses, capital and talent, which he views as critical to his 2030 plan of moving Saudi Arabia into the future. From a strategic standpoint, his entire future vision rests on cooperation with the West.
So why would he risk losing all of that just to get rid of a journalist who is mildly criticizing him? Jamal Khashoggi’s criticism of MBS was moderate in comparison with the Saudi voices who have criticized monarchs, crown princes and the royal family in the past. Khashoggi did not in any way represent a serious threat to the legitimacy or rule of MBS.
In fact, few people around the world have ever heard of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi before his disappearance in Turkey; even some close followers of the Middle East had never heard of him.
So why would MBS take this extremely risky move on the strategic level, potentially risking the derailing of his future plans, just to get rid of a minor nuisance?
Is MBS so naive to send his personal royal guards and senior military advisers to commit an assassination? Who in the world today doesn’t know that there are cameras on every street and in every building — and that embassies and consulates are particularly under high human, audio, visual and communications surveillance?
Wouldn’t it make sense that a hit squad would have had Khashoggi under surveillance before he came to the consulate and would have known that someone was waiting for him outside? One only needs to read the news and watch some documentaries to know that it would be crazy to send a hit squad of well-known advisers and guards to commit a murder of somebody who has his fiancée waiting for him outside a heavily surveilled consulate.
Anybody who studies Saudi Arabia knows the Saudis suffer no shortage of highly trained and capable former foreign special forces and intelligence operatives who could have advised and/or carried out a proper clandestine rendition or assassination attempt if there was ever an intention of conducting one.
If Hollywood celebrities nowadays rely on intelligence agencies to collect information for their legal defense teams and even to conduct surveillance of potential opposing witnesses in court (think Harvey Weinstein and Black Cube) would it not make sense that MBS would have employed the vast networks of contracted entities to conduct a properly planned and executed operation — as opposed to what appears to be the most amateurish assassination of the 21st century?
In this connection, it is important to also recognize that MBS is not some isolated and disconnected leader like Saddam or Kaddafi. He is rather a globally well-traveled and well-connected leader who knows the extent of technological penetration in our society today and is very much aware of the expertise out there that he could rely on if he wanted to conduct an operation to assassinate Khashoggi.
Given the endless opportunities to assassinate a globe-trotting journalist like Khashoggi, it could have been done in many places around the world that would not have pointed to direct Saudi involvement (as opposed to killing him in their own consulate).
All this leads to the conclusion that MBS could very well be innocent of what happened to Khashoggi, and is being framed, most likely by very senior elements in the Saudi royal family trying to remove MBS and restore the previous order to the monarchy.
General observers are simply unable to wrap their minds around the idea that something like the assassination of Khashoggi could happen without its being ordered by MBS, who is the strong man of the kingdom. Nonetheless, the circumstantial evidence highlighted above does not point to MBS.
At this time it is hard to speculate about who specifically in the kingdom, and maybe outside, is behind this. MBS has made many enemies who oppose modernization. Corrupt royals and bureaucrats, radical Wahhabis, and many other seniors in the kingdom want him gone so they can go back to their dominating old ways.
Whoever wove this conspiracy against MBS structured this operation to appear very similar to MBS’s prior MO (particularly the arrests in the Ritz Carlton and the holding of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harriri) with the intention of implicating him.
MBS is in a tough bind. He certainly does not want to come out and say that he is being framed and that he knew nothing about this and had nothing to do with it. Such a confession would show he is not in perfect command and control of the actions of some of the most senior advisers and royal guards. This could be construed as weakness, and he does not want to project that image. (We now know that even though Saddam Hussein did not have WMDs, he would not confess that he didn’t have them from fear of looking weak.)
Instead of leaping into condemnation of MBS, the world might want to take another look at what happened on that ill-fated day at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and try to get to the bottom of it. At stake is not only justice for Jamal Khashoggi and his family, but possibly the future of a young Arab Saudi modernizing leader who now may end up paying the price for a conspiracy woven against him by regressive corrupt radical elements inside his kingdom.
Aref N. Hassan is a professor of political science at St. Cloud State University, a Middle East politics expert and native of the region.