Understanding Saudi Arabia's Geopolitical Mess In Less Than 10 Minutes

Confused about what's happening in Saudi Arabia? We've got you covered.

The disappearance and likely murder of a Saudi Arabian journalist inside an embassy in Turkey is an unfolding scandal with far-reaching geopolitical consequences.

If you're coming in to this story late, it can be confusing.

Here's how to catch up in less than 10 minutes.

Who is Jamal Khashoggi?
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Image: AAP

Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist and former government insider who had been living in "self-imposed exile" in the United States for the past year, writing columns for The Washington Post criticising the Saudi regime and its young and charismatic prince, Mohammed bin Salman (or 'MBS' for short).

He hasn't been seen since October 2, when he entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey to obtain a marriage license he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee.

It's suspected he was tortured and killed by a team of 15 Saudi agents inside the consulate.

What's Saudi Arabia's response to all this? What's Turkey's?
CCTV claims to show Jamal Khashoggi arriving at Saudi Arabia€'s consulate in Istanbul. Image: ABACAPRESS via AAP

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have a tense relationship, said the Lowy Institute's Lydia Khalil. Both countries are vying for influence in the region. Turkey -- which doesn't exactly have a good track record of dealing with journalists and dissenters -- says Khashoggi was murdered. Saudi Arabia says he wasn't.

"It seems like the Turks know more than they're willing to publicly let on," said Khalil.

"Throughout this whole saga we've seen this slow drip from Turkey about information. It seems like they're doing it as a way to leverage the Saudis over something."

Why is the United States getting involved?

The U.S. has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia. They might not share values, but because of Saudi Arabia's strategic geopolitical position and its status as a key oil producer, the U.S. has always cooperated with the country.

It's a "hold our noses and get on with it" type of relationship, Khalil said.

President Donald Trump  meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the White House in 2018. Photo: Getty

Last year, Donald Trump signed a $US 110 billion ($154 billion) arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

When questioned about the U.S. response to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi's disappearance this week, Trump indicated that he was unwilling to put those contracts in jeopardy.

READ MORE: To Trump, Khashoggi’s Murder Is More Serious Than War Crimes

"I'll tell you what I don't want to do," Trump said, "I don't want to hurt jobs. I don't want to lose an order like that. And you know what, there are other ways of punishing."

In other words, the U.S. is reticent to too strongly condemn Saudi Arabia -- for example, by imposing sanctions, or cancelling these contracts.

That's an astounding line to take, said Khalil, because it's different to past administrations in that it's placing the bottom dollar value above a human life.

What's the Trump-MBS connection?

The connection is Jared Kushner -- Ivanka Trump's husband and Donald Trump's son-in-law. Kushner and MBS have formed a close relationship since both men came into power.

Jared Kushner meeting with service members at a forward operating base near Qayyarah West in Iraq in April 2017. Photo: Handout / Getty Images.

This is unusual in the sense that previous U.S. administrations have formed connections with the Saudi Arabian government and royal family as a whole, not just the one person.

READ MORE: Trump Puts Saudi Government On Notice Over Disappearance Of Journalist

Khalil said that the impunity with which MBS has conducted himself has a lot to do with the significant confidence the U.S. has placed in him.

Wait, why does MBS need impunity?
Mohammed bin Salman arrives at Elysee Palace in April 2018 on a three-day visit to France. Photo: Getty.

MBS took power in June 2017, becoming the Crown Prince and essentially the most powerful man in the country aside from his father, King Salman.

Amid wide reports King Salman has Alzheimer's disease, MBS has been described as the power behind that throne too.

Although MBS styled himself as a brash visionary for Saudi Arabia, receiving international praise for his stance on domestic issues, he's gone about them in a way that's authoritarian, abrupt, and impulsive.

There's been a lot of "questionable incidences" both on a domestic and foreign front, said Khalil, showing a Crown Prince who is "thuggish and impulsive".

He reportedly detained the Lebanese Prime Minister until he resigned last year, and later he held 30 of Saudi Arabia's most senior figures as "five-star prisoners" in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh until they agreed to forfeit some of their assets.

And what does any of this have to do with a crumbling investor conference?
Richard Branson and Mohammed bin Salman in less politically turbulent times, i.e. in March this year. Photo: Getty.

MBS has been trying to ween Saudi Arabia off its oil dependence and modernise the country, which he's partly been doing with an upcoming investor conference hosted by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

Key companies have been pulling out since the disappearance of Khashoggi, throwing the whole thing into jeopardy.

High level executives from Google, The World Bank, Uber Technologies, JP Morgan Chase & Co, Ford and Viacom have all pulled out, as has AOL co-founder Steve Case. Richard Branson has suspended all business links with the country.

Is this why we're hearing that Saudi Arabia is preparing to admit involvement in Khashoggi's death?

Pretty much, said Khalil.

"I think they're trying to salvage [the conference], number one, and number two, Saudi Arabia's standing," she said.

"All messages before was that [MBS] probably thought he could get away with it, and now, they're starting to understand the push back that's coming from all of this."

So what are they going to say, exactly?

We don't know yet.

CNN reported two sources saying that Saudi Arabia is planning to acknowledge Khashoggi's death as a result of an interrogation that went wrong, but no other publication has confirmed this.

If true, it's huge.

"I was shocked that they would come out this far," said Khalil.

"I thought they would just deny, deny, deny. I don't know where they anticipate this play going, to be honest with you."

It's highly unlikely that anyone other than MBS or King Salman could have ordered the hit, but if true, the idea that they don't have control over certain aspects of their security service is "deeply troubling", said Khalil.

There's also the little matter that MBS might be trying to see if he can salvage his own position. Based on his actions, there's "certainly a lot of people who are unhappy with him in the Saudi Royal Court."

Alright. What's Australia's position in all of this?

Australia is a bit player in the scheme of things.

However, if the government wanted to send a clear message about protecting dissidents, journalistic freedom, the free flow of information and the very low bar of "not capturing and killing your own citizens", then Australia could reassess its expanding defence relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Before Khashoggi vanished Defence Minister Christopher Pyne indicated the defence relationship between our two countries was expanding.

Contact the authors: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au and ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au

Lead photo: Getty