The murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi represents another attack on capitalist democracy, but it is also much more than that: It represents a potential crisis in the Saudi regime and, therefore, a potential crisis for US imperialism in the Middle East. Here’s why:
Attack on Capitalist Democracy
Throughout the world, reporters are under siege.
According to Reporters Without Borders so far this year there have been 71 media workers killed and 335 imprisoned. Saudi Arabia has imprisoned 13 media workers, second most to… Turkey. This is part of the global attack on capitalist democracy. Trump is participating in this by his attacks on “fake news” and his labeling of the press as the “enemies of the people”. He recently stepped it up a notch when he hailed Montana Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte for having physically assaulted a newspaper reporter.
This wave of attacks on reporters – which is in fact an attack on capitalist democracy or “the rule of law” as it’s known in the US – is generated by the crisis of world capitalism and the absence of a united, working class response. One result of this situation has been the tendency towards one-man/strong man rule. Trump is part of that tendency, and so are Putin in Russia, Xi Jinpeng in China, Duterte in the Philippines, Assad in Syria, and Bolsonaro in Brazil (whether he wins the runoff election or not). But so is Muhammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, as we will show.
It is one thing to throw a reporter out of the window in the middle of the night with no potential witnesses present, as happens in Moscow. It is another to have him murdered in a foreign consulate by a special assassin squad which includes a doctor of forensic medicine and, reportedly, a bone saw, all flown in the previous day specifically to carry it out. This is a direct violation of all the rules of capitalist diplomacy. How could Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman possibly think he could get away with that? The answer to that leads to another fundamental process of world capitalist development today: The weakening of domination of US imperialism and the resultant rise of regional powers and the fragmentation of the capitalist society, both within and between the different nations. (See this article for a more thorough discussion of this.)
In Northern Africa/Western Asia (also known as the “Middle East”), one result has been the rise of Iran as a regional imperialist power. Inevitably, the Saudi state would respond by trying to boost itself as a rival. This is exactly the plan of Crown Prince bin Salman. Among other things, he has led his state into a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, where he has been responsible for horror after horror, for the slaughter of Yemeni people.
Bin Salman is trying to develop Saudi Arabia as a regional imperial power. Several years ago, he drew up a plan called Saudi Vision 2030. Under this plan, Saudi Arabia would become a modern capitalist powerhouse, including having its own manufacturing industry – especially arms manufacturing. Whereas right now Saudi Arabia produces less than 5% of the arms it deploys, under Saudi Vision 2030 that would increase to 50%. He also envisioned opening up Saudi Arabia to international tourism. Neither of these goals is possible with the domination by the feudal Islamic clerics in the country.
To curtail their power bin Salman needed to establish himself as the sole ruler. And to accomplish that, he would have to transform how the country has been traditionally ruled. In the past, this was more or less “by committee”, with that “committee” composed of leading members of the royal family. Now, bin Salman would have to gather the reins in his hands alone:
As the NY Times explains: “The sons of the former king, Abdullah, who died in 2015, have been neutralized. One was removed as the head of the National Guard, accused of corruption and stripped of assets, including the horse track he inherited from his father. His brother, a former governor of Riyadh, is detained, as is another son of another former king. Yet another brother is hiding out in Europe, scared that he could be kidnapped and sent home.” (This is a process similar to how Putin became the one-man ruler in Russia, repressing one capitalist oligarch after another.)
Khasoggi was connected with rival factions in the Saudi royal family. He probably also knew all sorts of dangerous secrets about bin Salman. He had to go. And from bin Salman’s point of view, he’d been able to get away with war crime after war crime in Yemen with hardly a whimper from other governments. (Who cares about a bunch of starving Yemeni’s, after all?) He’d been able to centralize power within Saudi Arabia. He had a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who himself has gotten away with lies, crimes and scandals. And he’d seen journalists around the world imprisoned and murdered with impunity, including within Saudi Arabia. Given all this, why shouldn’t bin Salman think he could get away with the murder of Khashoggi?
If it were strictly up to Trump, bin Salman would be right. But this murder is similar to the crime committed by the scam artist Bernie Madoff, who was the only financier put in prison after the financial scandals of the first decade of this century. The reason was that he scammed his fellow capitalists. He violated their own rules of the game! It is similar with the Khashoggi murder. It violates all the rules of capitalist diplomacy.
This murder also threatens to unleash all the tensions within the Saudi ruling family – the tensions bin Salman created by repressing his rivals/compatriots. If there is a struggle to rein in or remove bin Salman, the regime might start to fracture.
Therefore, the more thoughtful strategists of US capitalism, as represented by the Council on Foreign Affairs, have bemoaned bin Salman’s “brutal recklessness that is deeply at odds with U.S. interests.” (This is the same criticism they make of their own president, Donald Trump!)
Another major imperialist leader, Putin, is playing a slightly more subtle role. (Anybody is more subtle than Trump, even a six year old!) On the one hand, their right-wing mouth piece in the US, theduran.com, simply regurgitates the official Saudi explanation that Khashoggi died in a fistfight. The more widely known and more official representative of Putin, RT.com, on one hand, implicitly accepts the official explanation. Knowing that it’s more widely read and having to maintain its popular base outside of Russia, it also implicitly criticizes bin Salman, but at the same time reports without criticism that he has been put in charge of “overhauling the country’s General Intelligence Directorate”. In other words, the man in power is put in charge of changing things! The Chinese regime has been restrained. Chinadaily.com has reported the newest Saudi version (that Khashoggi died in a “fistfight”) without questioning it.
Since it’s unclear who will come out on top – bin Salman or some of his rivals – all three major imperialist rivals are hedging their bets, while none of them can simply accept this violation of the rules of the (capitalist) game. Also, except for Trump, who is largely out of control, they cannot accept this violation of capitalist norms.
Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar
The crisis is also exacerbating the tensions between the Saudi regime and its Qatari rivals. Among other things, Qatar’s al Jazeera has been broadcasting news of this crisis 24/7 in the region. Meanwhile, the Saudi regime is pushing for the complete shut down of al Jazeera.
Another outcome: Renewed Arab Spring?
They all also live in constant fear of another outcome that is much, much more dangerous to all of them:
Movements from below often start with divisions at the top. Saudi Arabia was one of the most important Arab countries that did not see such a movement during the Arab Spring of 2011. If such a movement starts to develop now, it would have global implications. It is estimated that there are 9 million foreign workers in the country. Any movement of these workers would tend to increase a working class fight back in their home countries, which include the Philippines, Pakistan, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Syria and Bangladesh.
In 2011, the Arab Spring was a mainspring of a process of world fightback against global capitalism. A movement in Saudi Arabia would tend to rejuvenate the Arab Spring and that process in general. That would tend to drive forward the working class world revolution.
Without that, the tendency towards one-person rule and global counter revolution will receive another boost.