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Fintan O’Toole: Khashoggi’s murder reveals a reality the West wants to hide

The deal with Saudi Arabia has always been: everything’s fine as long as the oil flows

In June 1921 the British colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, addressed the House of Commons. He explained the situation on the Arabian peninsula – and by extension the truth of the current crisis precipitated by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

During the recently ended first World War, Britain had encouraged, most famously through TE Lawrence (“of Arabia”), an Arab revolt against the Turks, blessed by the ruler of the holy city of Mecca, King Hussein. The British had sworn eternal friendship to Hussein but now, Churchill noted, there was a new force on the peninsula: “powerful nomadic tribes, at the head of whom the remarkable chief Bin Saud maintains himself”.

He described Saud’s gang very much as a western politician in this decade might have described Islamic State.

Less than seven months before he most probably ordered the murder, Mohammad bin Salman was swanning around Silicon Valley

These people, Churchill explained, were to orthodox Islam what “the most militant form of Calvinism” would have been to mainstream Protestantism “in the fiercest times of the religious wars”.


Bin Saud was using the zealotry of the extremist Wahhabi sect to fuel his war on Hussein. Churchill drew a blood-curdling picture of the horrors inflicted on the ordinary Arabs who came under their control: “They hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahhabi villages for simply appearing in the streets. It is a penal offence to wear a silk garment. Men have been killed for smoking a cigarette.”

So of course the British would continue to support their ally Hussein against what Churchill called the “austere, intolerant, well-armed, and bloodthirsty” Sauds? Not a chance.

A good bet

The gang that murdered “all who do not share their opinions” looked like a good bet for the future. Without skipping a beat, having described Saud’s methods and ideology, Churchill immediately added that Bin Saud “has always shown himself well disposed towards Great Britain”.

Therefore “we have arranged to continue the subsidy which Bin Saud has hitherto received from the British Government of £60,000 a year, together with a lump sum of £20,000”. The money, he explained, would give Bin Saud “the power to establish the authority on which … order and control depend”.

This is closely equivalent to the British government explaining that, in spite of its unfortunate habit of murdering women for appearing in the streets, it was subsidising Isis because, after all, it brought “order and control” to Iraq and Syria. But it created a template that has never been broken.

“We desire,” said Churchill, “to live on friendly and amicable terms with this potentate”. It is by no means clear, even as the Saud family’s habit of killing “all who do not share their opinions” has been playing out in the most lurid detail with the butchering of Jamal Khashoggi, that this desire has diminished in any way. The Sauds may be vicious tyrants allied to an extremist sectarian ideology but they are “our” murderous misogynists.

The reasons are easily grasped: 266 billion barrels of proven and easily accessible oil reserves. Had its own interests changed, Britain would have dumped Bin Saud as carelessly as it had betrayed his rival Hussein.

World power

Except, that is, for Well No 7 at Dammam on the eastern coast of what had by then become Saudi Arabia. It started gushing on March 4th, 1938. The murder gang whose loyalty had been bought for £60,000 a year became a trillion-dollar business. An extended warlord family that had fired up its warriors with ideals of extreme asceticism became filthy rich, staggeringly self-indulgent and an accidental world power.

And so, less than seven months before he most probably ordered the murder, dismemberment and disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the effective current head of the Sauds, Bin Saud's grandson Mohammad bin Salman, was swanning around Silicon Valley, being flattered and feted by, among others, Apple chief executive Tim Cook, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and current Google chief executive Sundar Pichai.

It seems apt that Magic Leap's chief executive Rony Abovitz gave MBS – as this cool guy is known – a personal demo of the company's latest augmented reality headset. It has suited both the Saudis and the West to "augment" the reality of a violent kleptocratic regime that systematically degrades women, tortures and kills even its mildest opponents and funds the spread of its own toxic ideology throughout the Islamic world.

The most violent expression of this collusion is, of course, the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, recklessly indiscriminate in its slaughter of children and adult civilians but carried out largely with American weaponry and with British and American support. It was in full flow when MBS was in Silicon Valley in April.

One of us

If you look at the photographs from his visit to Apple’s headquarters, what is striking is how broadly indistinguishable he is from the other cool guys in the picture, wearing the same well-cut blue suit, the same, open-necked white shirt, the same expression of understated earnestness.

He is “one of us”: even if people in Saudi Arabia itself who have tried to use the high-tech tools created by Silicon Valley, like the young blogger Raif Badawi, have been locked up and savagely flogged for “insulting Islam through electronic channels”.

So, in the end, what’s the murder and dismemberment of an annoying journalist between friends? The eagerness with which most of the western media, politicians and business leaders hailed MBS as a champion of freedom because he had allowed women to drive (with the permission of their husbands) and opened cinemas (for safely anodyne movies) showed a deep need to evade the moral corruption at the heart of this alliance.

The grotesque murder of Khashoggi raises the fear that MBS may be too stupid, impulsive and reckless to maintain the order of things as they have been for 80 years

Let’s not kid ourselves – had Khashoggi been deftly kidnapped and quietly disappeared, leaving suspicions but no proof, how many governments would have gone beyond, at best, expressions of vague concern?

The real concern in the West is not that MBS is a brutal killer – anyone paying attention to Yemen already knew that.

As Churchill said of MBS’s grandfather Bin Saud, we could “live on friendly and amicable terms” with him – provided he shows “the power to establish the authority on which … order and control depend”.

It is with this proviso that the problem lies: the grotesque murder of Khashoggi raises the fear that MBS may be too stupid, too impulsive and too reckless to keep control and maintain the order of things as they have been since the oil started flowing 80 years ago.

He has had the bad taste to present us with the unaugmented version of the Saudi regime’s reality. When all the fuss dies down, it may be better for everyone to have a more astute killer in charge of things – and in a family business, there is no shortage of more carefully ruthless princes.