The bizarre murder of Jamal Khashoggi – what it tells us about the post-truth world

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The bizarre murder of Jamal Khashoggi – what it tells us about the post-truth world
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On 02 October a Saudi journalist was murdered in bizarre circumstances in Istanbul – John le Carré meets Stephen King. Everything you think you know about this event is the product of the rampant global information war. Victor Hill joins some dots.

Epiphanies

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Every once in a while an event happens that, though it might seem obscure and of only local importance at the time, in hindsight turns out to be a trigger of transformative change.

The bizarre murder of a not very well known Saudi Arabian journalist who had fled his home country in fear for his life in 2017 and sought refuge in the United States is not, on the face of it, an Earth-shattering event. But the ramifications of this incident have huge consequences and it reveals much about the world in which we now live. The world today is characterised by a perpetual information war between key global players. Whom should we believe, if anybody?

If this sounds academic I’ll explain why this incident could damage the shares of pivotal defence equipment manufacturers and pep the existing upward trend in the oil price – with potentially massive impact on global markets. It could also help bring Labour to power in the UK.

Information War One: Turkey against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

I’m assuming my readers know the gory basics. Khashoggi went into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 02 October to get a certificate of divorce – and was never seen again. It is not necessary to rehearse the exact sequence of events that befell Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul – such as we know them to be. But it is necessary, from the off, to emphasise that all the information we have so far has been elaborately spun by the Turkish government from its highest echelons – almost certainly at the behest of President Erdoğan himself.

There have been weeks of drip-drip allegations coming from Turkish media. In particular, the Turkish newspaper Sabah seems to have been fed daily chunks of meat (if you will forgive the pun) from Mr Erdoğan’s information machine. (Sabah is partially owned by Mr Erdoğan’s extended family.)

Turkish sources have demonstrated that 15 Saudi hitmen carrying diplomatic passports arrived by private jet the same morning and returned that evening. The entire macabre murder – involving amputation of fingers while the victim was still conscious and his dismemberment while still breathing – was apparently taped. Initially, the Turks claimed that Khashoggi had been wearing an Apple watch which broadcast events inside the consulate. I’m told this is unlikely. More probable, Turkish intelligence had bugged the Saudi consulate – something to which they will never admit. In fact, while the murder looks pre-meditated, the Turks probably anticipated it.


On 23 October Mr Erdoğan addressed the Turkish parliament on the matter. The word was that he was going to reveal everything– the naked truth – but he didn’t. Instead, he held back. He said that the Saudi authorities had committed a savage pre-meditated murder on Turkish soil and that he wanted the perpetrators to be tried in Turkey. He was gracious about the Saudi monarch, King Salman, and did not mention the Crown Prince at all – a subtle move which could be an attempt to divide the two.

Mr Erdoğan is not exactly a friend of free speech. Under his increasingly autocratic rule dozens of journalists have been incarcerated on spurious charges. It is absurd to suggest that Turkey has a free press. When the Turkish President talks about getting to the naked truth we should ask why he has suddenly become a proponent of transparency. The whole affair could easily have been glossed over if the President had thought that in Turkey’s interest.

The real reason why Mr Erdoğan has taken aim at Saudi Arabia is that the incident offered an opportunity – a stick with which to beat his tormentors. Turkey’s economy is in poor shape, its currency is in free fall, and there is still a massive refugee problem on the Syrian border. The country needs money. Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia have deteriorated steadily during the Syrian civil war as both states backed different factions. Turkey is now aligned with Qatar – a state with which Saudi Arabia is in open conflict – where it has established a military base. The two countries are bitter rivals in East Africa where they both seek influence and resources. In Nairobi, their respective embassies – both large, aggressive structures – compete for ostentation.

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Hannah Lucinda Smith thinks that the contest is for nothing less than the political leadership of the Muslim world[i]. Consider that, until 1922, the Ottoman Sultan was nominally the Caliph (i.e. spiritual and temporal leader) of the entire Islamic world. Turkey’s all-powerful President has welcomed exiles who are broadly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood from across the Muslim world – from Morocco to Indonesia. For Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood is the devil incarnate – it represents a totally different form of political Islam which is republican rather than monarchical, and populist rather than tribal.

And there is something else that Mr Erdoğan wants and needs. That is to improve his tattered relationship with the United States – the country that kicked Turkey with new sanctions when it was economically down. This was a great chance to tweak the lion’s tail. The country that would be most embarrassed by these revelations was never going to be thick-skinned Saudi Arabia but hyper-sensitive America whose intrusive media would judge the administration by its response.

Information War Two: KSA against the Muslim Brotherhood and its western apologists

President Trump has been blowing hot and cold since the incident was first disclosed. Mr Khashoggi was no friend of his. First, Mr Trump threatened to punish Saudi Arabia; then he appeared to go along the farce that there had been a fist fight; then (on 23 October) he accused the Saudis of the worst cover-up, ever. The episode has been almost as uncomfortable for the Americans as for its perpetrators.

If Khashoggi’s brutal killers were monsters – that doesn’t mean Khashoggi was a saint. He was a one-time insider within the House of Saud who became a dissident and a critic of the Crown Prince, Mohammed bi Salman (“MBS”). He left Saudi Arabia (possibly even then in fear of his life) in 2017 and took refuge in the USA. There, he became a darling of the liberal American commentariat who follow events in the Arab lands, with regular TV appearances. He built up almost two million followers on Twitter and got himself a column on The Washington Post.

The Washington Post, let us recall, was bought by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, out of his small change for $250 million in 2013. The newspaper has been a consistent opponent of President Trump and all his works and represents the globalist Olympian billionaire liberal establishment which small town, red neck America so reviles.

Mr Khashoggi was not a typical US newspaper columnist. You might assume that he was a progressive voice fighting for freedom and democracy in Saudi Arabia – in which case you would be wrong. He was an avowed supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the loose political form of militant Islam which held power in Egypt from 2011 to 2013, when it was overthrown by President el-Sisi’s coup.


According to John R Bradley[ii], who worked with him, Khashoggi never had much time for liberal democracy. He supported the “moderate” Islamist opposition in Syria – whose crimes are a matter of record. He was anti-secular. His vision was that the ruling cadres of the Arab world should embrace the Arab Spring. Turkey’s ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) is, to all intents and purposes, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Apparently, Khashoggi’s plan was not just to marry a Turkish bride but to move to Istanbul and to run a TV station that would broadcast across the Arab world. What’s more, Mr Bradley thinks that Khashoggi had “dirt” on the dealings between the House of Saud an al-Qaida.

But why would the Washington Post take on a dark horse like Khashoggi? Of course: to get up the Trump administration’s collective nose. That is why the crazier element within MBS’s inner circle probably thought the Americans would let their infamy go.

The Iranians, of course, have now picked up on this. On 24 October a senior spokesman for the Islamic Republic declared that Khashoggi’s murder could not have taken place without American connivance. But the Islamic Republic against America is another very long-standing information war.

Information War Three: Saudi Arabia against the West

The narrative from Saudi Arabia over the last two years has been remarkably credible – until now. MBS is the great reformer. He is young, dynamic and modern. He has allowed women to drive cars at last (though, apparently, the female campaigners for this cause languish in prison); he has relaxed the official animosity towards Israel (Israeli spokespeople have even appeared on Saudi TV news); he has curtailed the religious police (they no longer thrash people at will for not observing prayer times). Wow! Progress!

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The former Foreign Secretary, Mr Johnson, once said that MBS was the best thing to happen to the region in a decade. The 33-year old prince, he thought, was utterly different. Perhaps Mr Johnson had failed to read his red boxes again: the mandarins knew all along that the young prince has had a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness since he was a teenager. In a Newsnightcameo on 23 October the Prince was compared to Saddam Hussein by a Saudi insider. He’s impulsive, narcissistic, he’s a psychopath and he’s also suffering from delusions of grandeur. (I wonder how many fingers that will cost this brave man.)

The Crown Prince, who can be charming if not exactly charismatic, has created a cult of personality around himself – but until now Western commentators have been happy to laud him as a champion of change. Last month a Saudi dissident who runs a satirical website was attacked and beaten up by thugs outside Harrods. The dissident shouted: You can’t do this – this is London. The thugs replied: F**k London – the Queen is our slave and her police are our dogs…

So it’s not just the Russians who plot amongst us with impunity. Refugee Uighurs have been beaten up by Chinese agents on the streets of London too. But the Metropolitan Police are too busy arresting pensioners for being in arrears with their council tax to take any notice of such foibles.

Information War Four: The BBC against Saudi Arabia

Every night this last week she has given us her renderings of doom (in a South Dublin accent) from the front line in Yemen. Ms Guerin is a woman who wears flak jackets as others wear Prada. Like Cassandra, she speaks of dreadful deeds. And she has a case.

The BBC TV Yemen correspondent reports that the people of Yemen are starving; they are dying of communicable disease and are facing periodic bombardment by Saudi forces using British-supplied weapons. She pins the blame squarely on the Saudi regime and its backers.

This is, of course, exactly the propagandist perspective disseminated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The countervailing view – not aired aby the BBC nor elsewhere in mainstream media – is that it is the Iranians have unleashed this plague of locusts.


There is not space here to untangle the complex history of a marginal, unhappy country. Suffice to say that Yemen has been in a state of civil disturbance – either in the form of civil war or disunion – since the British vacated the territory of Aden in the 1960s. The Iranians have now stepped into this snake pit. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized power from the elected President in January 2015. (OK, President Mansour Hadi was the only candidate in the 2012 presidential election.)

This is Saudi Arabia’s back yard – even if the Saudis look down on Yemenis as proles. (Despite Yemen’s ancient history: the Queen of Sheba was from Yemen.) Just to focus their minds, ballistic missiles have been fired from Houthi-controlled areas against the Saudi heartland. That was enough for MBS to set out to lance the boil.

Just stepping back from the fray for a moment, Ms Guerin is a radical leftie with a particular narrative of her own around the oppression of the Palestinians. A year before she moved from Ireland to England to work for the BBC she stood as an MEP for the Irish Labour Party – a bunch of extreme Corbynistas daubed in emerald green. When she was the BBC correspondent in Gaza she attracted the fury of the Israeli commentariat (not just Likud) for her pro-Palestinian stance. She even declared that there was “no evidence”that Hamas had been using human shields, despite Israeli assertions of such a practice[iii]. It is not just Israelis who were appalled by her reportage.

Ms Guerin is part of that element within the BBC which has sympathy with Mr Corbyn’s Momentum and its anti-Israel, pro-Hamas stance. Ex-BBC journalist Paul Mason is now effectively head of ideology within Momentum. Many observers in Israel and America are deeply concerned that such elements within the BBC have gone feral.

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I am not anti-BBC. The other BBC Middle East correspondent, Sebastian Usher, much on our screens of late, and the BBC Security correspondent, Frank Gardiner are outstanding journalists and writers. Their pronouncements are reasoned and well sourced. We may conclude that the information war exists even within the ranks of our own beloved BBC.

And it’s not just the Beeb. Recently, I tuned into ITV to watch Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road. Ms Lumley, resplendent in a multi-coloured chiffon veil, air-kissing her Iranian guides, told us all how absolutely fabulous the country was. Do these people have any idea of the horrific extent of human rights violations in the Islamic Republic? Or that it aspires to the total elimination of Israel?

By the way, the official Houthi slogan is derived from that of the 1979 Iranian Revolution: God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. God curse the Jews. Victory for Islam.

Should Britain sell arms to Saudi Arabia?

The accusation is then that British weapons are being used to kill innocents in Yemen. For Labour-inclined opinion the issue is clear: Britain should cancel all arms shipments forthwith – as Germany (a minor supplier) has done. It is a fundamental issue of principle said human rights lawyer Philippe Sands (whose critique of American foreign policy has been translated into Farsi) on BBC R4. Labour’s Lady Thornberry and Ms Lucas of the Green Party have said much the same. But that might ignite more problems than it solves.

Firstly, there would be massive economic cost. Lord Lamont revealed in the House of Lords on 23 October that Saudi Arabia accounts for 40 percent of all British arms sales. According to the Financial Times, British arms sales to Saudi amounted to £10 billion last year. In 2013 it was £30 billion. These figures represent many thousands of highly skilled jobs at BAE Systems (LON:BA.) and its suppliers.

Moreover, BAE Systems and others are locked into long-term contracts with the Saudis to maintain the aircraft and weapons platforms that they have been supplying for many years. A blanket embargo would force them into breach of contract which would put all other British exports – even dairy products, of which the Saudis are increasingly fond – into question. There would most certainly be costly litigation and painful reprisals. We can be sure that the Saudis would reduce oil production so as to increase the oil price as much as possible. That could even tip the world into recession.


Secondly, there would be costs in terms of Britain’s influence with Saudi Arabia and its close partners in the Gulf. Britain is a player in this region by virtue of both hard and soft power. To ban arms sales would remove our diplomatic clout. As Lord Heseltine has said, we would lose all influence we have to persuade the Saudis to behave better.

Thirdly, an arms embargo would simply not achieve the desired result of forcing the Saudis to be nice. On the contrary, they might cut up nasty: bomb the Yemenis even harder and kill more dissidents. How could we stop them?

Fourth, we are not even the principal supplier of arms to the Saudis – that position is occupied by Mr Trump’s America. When President Trump visited Riyadh in May 2017 he signed off a $110 billion letter of intent with King Salman to provide high-grade weaponry. (Though, apparently, only $14.5 billion of that deal has been delivered so far.[iv]) And if the Americans were not to take up the slack, the Russians or the French would readily step into the void.

Fifth, be careful what you wish for. Even if it were possible to starve the Saudis of arms, let’s consider what might happen. If the Saudis were to withdraw from Yemen, the Iranians would almost certainly gain a free hand to set up a client state there dedicated to destabilising the entire region. Not only could they then continue to fire rockets at Riyadh, they would also encroach on Oman – Saudi Arabia’s friend and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member.

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The Omanis are not majority Sunnis – three quarters of them are of the Ibadi school of Islam, a product of an early schism within the Islamic tradition. Oman has been fortunate to have had a strong and outward-looking leader in the form of Sultan Qaboos bin Said (Sultan since 1970) who is a great friend of the UK. Were it not for the intervention of Britain’s SAS in Oman in the 1970s and 1980s the country would almost certainly have fallen to Marxists insurgents – as did benighted Yemen.

And the contagion would spread to neighbouring states in the Horn of Africa – to Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. The Iranians would probably wrest the strategically vital naval base in Socotra island (currently leased by the UAE) enabling them to project their particular form of millennial, theocratic Islam across East Africa.

No American president would allow that to happen without a major war. Is it really “moral” to hasten such a cataclysm?

America against Corbyn’s Britain

If Mr Corbyn comes to power, possibly as soon as next year in my estimation, he will take British foreign policy in an entirely new direction – away from America and her allies and towards Iran and its satellites, of which Hamas. I can imagine that Mr Trump would cancel all US-UK intelligence cooperation within a month of Mr Corbyn’s arrival in Downing Street. That would toll the end of BAE Systemswhich relies extensively on high-tech US suppliers.

At a moment when Brexit makes our future relationship with Europe highly uncertain, to break with America would be suicidal. The London market, already traumatised by the prospect of mass nationalisations, could go into total meltdown.

Nothing is true and everything is possible…

We shall probably never know the full truth of the strange and disturbing end of Khashoggi’s life. As I write, there is still no body – though many rumours of where the pieces may lie. The Crown Prince has made a smiling address to the Riyadh investment conference, Davos in the Desert, vowing to find the culprits. (One does not suppose that Dr Fox was much missed.)

The one thing we canbe sure of is that we live in a global information war. Peter Pomerantsev wrote a book about Mr Putin’s Russia which I have referred to in these pages before entitled Nothing is true and everything is possible. His thesis was that post-modern autocrats rely on getting people to believe their…I won’t say lies– rather I’ll say…their narratives.

We live in an era of intensively competing narratives. Of course, each atom of information can still be adjudged true or false (and that is still essential). But the more important question is: Which narrative is it in your interest to believe?


[i]The Spectator, 27 October 2018. See: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2018/10/turkey-vs-saudi-the-real-story-behind-khashoggis-murder/?utm_source=Adestra&utm_medium=email&utm_content=271018_Weekly_Highlights_43_NONSUBS&utm_campaign=Weekly_Highlights

[ii]Death of a dissident, The Spectator, 13 October 2018.

[iii]See: https://honestreporting.com/tag/orla-guerin/

[iv]See: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/10/12/politics/trump-khashoggi-saudi-arabia-arms-deal-sanctions/index.html

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