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The Courtroom Drama of the Jamal Khashoggi Murder

The Saudis and the White House agree that the divine right of a crown prince must not be interfered with. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

Lacking a judicial framework to stage the trial of the assassins of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the media have become the virtual courtroom and the international public as the jury. As no one can agree on the venue — neither in Turkey where the crime took place nor in Saudi Arabia, where the criminals reside — Washington, DC, has become the theater for the public trial, with the US Senate playing the role of prosecution and the White House as the defense, while also claiming to be the judge.

The chief witness, the only one allowed in the courtroom for the moment, the foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia, issued this statement: “The recent position of the United States Senate, which has been built on baseless allegations and accusations, includes blatant interference in its internal affairs and the role of the kingdom at the regional and international level””

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Interference: 

1. (As used in American football and Saudi Arabian politics) Stepping between two authorized players to disrupt a legitimate play

2. (As used in Saudi Arabian politics alone) Expressing a logically consistent conclusion based on observed facts that turns out to be inconsistent with a narrative agreed by two sovereign leaders

Contextual note

In American football, the penalty for pass interference grants the team on offense the right to advance the ball after a broken pass play, as if the pass had been successfully completed. Saudi Arabia wants to reap the benefit of its own broken play in the Istanbul consulate. To make its case, it claims that the Senate is interfering with its sovereignty. The case reveals that the Saudis have a very special notion of what sovereignty consists of.

Al Jazeera reports: “The senators’ move came after senior intelligence officials from the US spy agency reportedly said that such an operation would have needed the approval of [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman].” The Saudis and their defense team in the White House claim that this is circumstantial evidence. But the senators deem that well-established circumstances can be more reliable evidence than a “smoking gun.”

The CIA confirms the testimony of all observers: That the crown prince never tolerates the slightest personal initiative by subordinates. The Saudis complaining that criticism is “interference” confirms the point. For them, anything an empowered sovereign — Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) — says must be respected and anything he does must be allowed to be have its intended effect without being interfered with from within or without.

Bloomberg cites another statement by the Saudis: “The kingdom categorically rejects … any and all accusations, in any manner, that disrespect its leadership represented by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the Crown Prince, and any attempts to undermine its sovereignty or diminish its stature.”

Historical note

In Western cultures, sovereignty is an attribute of the nation and its territory. This notion applied even in the era of absolute monarchs. Sovereignty has always referred to “supreme authority within a territory.” For the Saudis, “within” isn’t enough. Which explains why, under the veil of sovereignty, MBS felt free to order the murder in a place that was without, of a citizen living and working without.

If, in this virtual trial, the presiding judge were anyone other than the defense attorney (President Donald Trump), the objection of the prosecution that a third party’s decision to stop doing business with the accused cannot be deemed “interference in [the accused’s] internal affairs” would be sustained. It violates the notion of the other party’s sovereignty, the ability to decide what takes place within its own territory. But this is no ordinary courtroom in which logic, unimpeded testimony, preponderance of the evidence and the assessment of motivation may be factors leading to a verdict. The result is that Trump has put Saudi sovereignty above American sovereignty.

Like the Senate itself, most of the news agencies have focused primarily on the Khashoggi murder and, to a lesser extent, on the costly war in Yemen, while avoiding coverage of a more significant issue: the legitimacy of the historical ties between the US and Saudi Arabia, a relationship that goes back to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The New York Times quotes this plea of the Saudi authorities: “[T]he Kingdom hopes that it is not drawn into domestic political debates in the United States of America, to avoid any ramifications on the ties between the two countries that could have significant negative impacts on this important strategic relationship.” Instead of calling into question the relationship on the grounds of incompatible values, the Senate resolution asserted that the American-Saudi ties were “important” and timidly called on Riyadh to “moderate its increasingly erratic foreign policy.”

What this appears to mean is that the senators most critical of MBS, like Lindsey Graham, would like to see the US dictate its foreign policy to Saudi Arabia, rather than what it sees with Trump: America slavishly following Saudi Arabia’s lead, as it has done with the war in Yemen. But if Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, decide to wage a “real” rather than a useless proxy war with Iran, there can be little doubt that Graham will be the first to cheer.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.