In reading all of the reports in the Western press concerning the killing of Jamal Khashoggi I have noticed one gaping hole in the analysis; and that has to do with why the Saudis really killed him. All of the press reports have focussed on the way in which he was killed but have not reported on the social or cultural framework under which the Saudis’ actions were informed. In other words, the entire analysis has been filtered through Western eyes, Western thinking and Western cultural attitudes and assumptions and has ignored the local norms and thinking that led to his killing.
Jamal Khashoggi was not killed because he was some brave journalist that the Saudis were attempting to muzzle because he was critical of the current regime. He was not killed because he had built contacts with Islamic elements who are in sworn opposition to the Saudi regime such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, that angle is a smokescreen put out by the Saudi regime to bamboozle gullible Westerners, particularly those that have developed a monomaniacal agenda to crush the Islamists. It has been happily picked up by defenders of the Saudi regime who would like to diminish the fallout from the killing. That the Saudis would play on this susceptibility in Western press and governmental circles to believe this particular narrative should come as no surprise.
Jamal Khashoggi was killed for a fairly straightforward reason and one that was acceptable to the people who did it. He was a family retainer of the Al Saud family who betrayed the personal trust of the family. Now I am not condoning the killing, merely explaining why it happened and the cultural context in which it happened.
Jamal Khashoggi’s grandfather, Mohammed Khashoggi was the personal physician of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the father of the current King Salman and grandfather to the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). As a result of this position the Khashoggis were able to enrich themselves to a considerable extent. Jamal’s uncle Adnan used his position of proximity to the Royal Court and the Royal Family to amass a very large fortune. He effectively acted as a door keeper (hajib) and took commissions from a number of companies seeking lucrative contracts in the Kingdom that were obtained as a result of his brokering them. In the eyes of the Al Saud, everything that the Khashoggis have in the world comes from their hand and from their hand alone.
In this situation every member of the Khashoggi family is beholden to the Al Saud and owes them their personal loyalty. It is a form of bond obedience. In Arabic it is called bay’a. In this world the Al Saud are more than just your benefactors and your masters, they own your life. There is an expression in Arabic that sums up the position that Jamal was in vis a vis the Al Saud. Ana bayna yadaikum. It literally means that I am between your hands and it means that the holder of the bay’a can dispose of that person as they so choose including killing them at will and with no legal consequence.
Thus, the egregious sin that Jamal committed, and make no mistake about it, it is egregious, is that he betrayed a personal trust that he owed to the family. This has nothing to do with the family as rulers of Saudi Arabia or the government of Saudi Arabia or any of its instrumentalities. It is a personal betrayal and under such circumstances his life was forfeit and in their minds they had every right to kill him. As a Westerner you may not like this and it flies in the norms of those things that we in the West accept as being lawful killings, but things are still different in the Arab world and their norms are different whether we like it or not.
I am sure, based on my experience in the region and particularly my experience in Saudi Arabia that the vast majority of members of the Royal Family not only would have supported the decision to kill Jamal but continue to approve of it. That is not the issue for the Al Saud. What is the issue is the public relations disaster that they are trying to contain. As we all know, the current narrative is that Al Qahtani and the underlings who carried out the act exceeded their brief, which was merely to bring Jamal back to Saudi Arabia. Why they assumed that their consulate in Istanbul wasn’t bugged is fairly typical of the generally amateurish approach to most things that I witnessed in the region. So now they are left with this mess.
My prediction as to how it is going to turn out is as follows: a few of the people involved in the killing will be tried and convicted of murder. During their trial they will all publicly confess that they acted on their own and had not been ordered by MBS or anyone else in the Royal Family to kill Jamal. They will be sentenced to death. Before the sentence of death is carried out the sons of Jamal will forgive them in exchange for a payment of blood money which is known as diyah. This is an acceptable exchange for life under Shariah law. The amount that they will be paid will be considerably in excess of the customary amount paid in such circumstances.
That the sons of Jamal will accept diyah is already clear to anyone reading between the lines in this case when they publicly shook hands with MBS. After the murderers are forgiven, the Saudis will let things lay low for a while and then the perpetrators will be given further positions as servants of the family. Ma’a Sh’Allah.