Quentin Tarantino’s classic 1994 gangster film Pulp Fiction has many memorable scenes but with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flying out to Riyadh and then on to Turkey, the one that sticks in my mind involves Harvey Keitel and the character he plays: “I am Winston Wolfe. We solve problems.”
The problem is a dead body that needs to be removed in a hurry. “If I was informed correctly, the clock is ticking. Is that correct?” says the nattily attired Mr Wolfe to the two hitmen played by John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson. With precise instructions delivered in a staccato monotone, he advises them to move quickly: “What you need to take care of are the really messy parts.”
The abduction and murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 created a huge mess for Donald Trump and the Saudis, most principally the crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The Saudis spent two weeks prevaricating, spreading fake news and attempting to smear Jamal Khashoggi using regime friendly columnists in the West, among them the Daily Telegraph’s Con Coughlin. It didn’t work. Neither did Donald Trump’s studied silence in the days immediately after Khashoggi disappeared.
The simple question which the Saudis have never answered is if, as Mohammed Bin Salman claimed in an interview with Bloomberg on October 3, Khashoggi left the consulate “after a few minutes or one hour”, why did he not immediately meet up with his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside?
As the Turkish authorities continued to release damning evidence – that a 15-strong Saudi hit squad had arrived at the embassy before Khashoggi entered, that among them was a forensic specialist with a bone saw, that they left Istanbul and Turkey the same day – it became increasingly clear that stories such as Qatar being behind the disappearance were not worth the paper they were written on.
The Saudis threatened to use oil as a weapon against any country who raised questions. And if not oil, then they would take their massive arms budget away and spend it elsewhere with, say, the Chinese or the Russians. They also threatened their own citizens with a five-year prison sentence and fines of $800,000 for spreading rumours while busily and ineffectually attempting to retail a clutch of lies and rumours.
Meanwhile, Western allies and business recoiled in horror as the appalling details emerged: that Jamal Khashoggi was tortured before he was killed and that his body was cut up and removed in separate containers by the hit squad. The Turks are said to possess a video, though they are not saying how they acquired it; most likely it has come from their security services’ clandestine bugging of the consulate.
Mohammed Bin Salman’s Future Investments Initiative conference slated for October 23-25 in Riyadh is now being shunned by major media and corporate sponsors and participants, among them Bloomberg, the New York Times, the Financial Times, Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi, Viacom’s chief executive Bob Bakish and the head of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim.
“Davos in the Desert”, as it has been nicknamed, was supposed to perform like a glitzy hi-tech racing car designed to bring much needed foreign investment into the kingdom to fire up MBS’s vaunted overhaul of the Saudi economy Vision 2030. It now looks like little more than a broken-down banger, parked up by the roadside.
As the crown prince cut an increasingly forlorn and isolated figure, Donald Trump, after making vague but threatening noises of punishing those responsible, finally bestirred himself, putting in a call to the prince’s father, King Salman. After their conversation, Trump said that Salman knew nothing about the Khashoggi affair, which may be a rare moment of truth on the president’s part as the king is often unaware of what his brash and arrogant favourite son is up to.
Trump then threw out a lifeline. “It sounds to me like these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” the president mused to reporters on October 15. Ah yes, the old rogue killers ruse. To which Mike Pompeo, aka Winston Wolfe the Pulp Fiction problem solver, will seek to apply the finishing touches.
It will go something like this: rogue elements, 15 of them, within the Saudi security service, acting on their own initiative conducted an unauthorised interview which became a little too aggressive and, most unfortunately, resulted in the accidental death of Jamal Khashoggi.
Utterly unbelievable. MBS has accrued to himself more power than any Saudi leader since the days of his grandfather Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern-day kingdom. Nothing of any significance happens in Saudi Arabia without his direct knowledge and approval. The plot to remove Khashoggi had been brewing for months and included the journalist being wooed by the Saudi ambassador in Washington (and MBS’s younger brother) Khalid bin Salman with promises of a welcome home. Significantly, Khalid left Washington, DC, last week and is not expected to return.
So, the Trump lifeline may, in fact, prove to be a boat anchor that sinks MBS. The key is whether Mike Pompeo is able to secure a buy in to the rogue element narrative from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he meets with Erdogan’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara. Erdogan has played a cat and mouse game with the Saudis, using a Turkish media he has already tamed to ratchet up the pressure by, for example, releasing names, photos and CCTV videos of the hitmen while at the same time avoiding a direct condemnation of the Saudis and MBS.
Erdogan has good reason to do so. The Turkish economy is struggling and he is looking for Saudi money to help him through a looming crisis. Squeeze too hard and the Saudis – who are already heavily invested in areas such as Turkish real estate – will retaliate. Squeeze gently and they should come through with significant investments. A delicate and nuanced game to play, but Erdogan has already shown himself to be a master at such games with the Russians and the Israelis.
If Pompeo can solve the mess that MBS made by having the Turks buy into the “rogue elements” narrative, then perhaps it will somehow go away. The trouble is, the crown prince is already responsible for so many messes: the awful war in Yemen, the kidnapping and forced but temporary resignation of the Lebanese prime minister, the blockade of Qatar, the sweeping arrests of women’s rights activists after giving women the right to drive, the diplomatic attack on Canada for having the temerity to protest the arrests of those women, the stalled IPO of Saudi Aramco which was supposed to pour $100bn into Vision 2030.
At least until the November midterm election, Trump does need to keep MBS’s head above water, if only to ensure that petrol prices at the pump do not go through the roof. But increasingly, he will look at the crown prince and think “loser”. Trump wants to keep selling arms to the Saudis, to keep the price of oil down and to keep them onside in the campaign against Iran. At this stage, he is not particularly bothered by who delivers, he just wants them delivered.
In gangster world, that’s not a good position for MBS to be in. But this is not a gangster movie. This is real life and a good man and a brave journalist has been foully killed. We must remember Jamal Khashoggi and never forget who ultimately is responsible for his death.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.