Saudi Farce Epitomizes Canada’s Need For Energy Security

Warning: Some of the following subject matter is not for the faint of heart.

In response to the Saudi government’s diplomatic spat with Canada in early August over some mild criticism about the country’s horrific human rights record under de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), I argued the federal government should maintain the moral high ground and continue to import crude from the kingdom (see Canadian Pawn Takes King In Saudi Game Of Thrones). The Khashoggi affair has caused me to reassess this position and I now believe Canada should stop importing Saudi oil.

There are four reasons for the reversal of my position: the abject brutality of the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the disrespect it showed international law; the need for the Canadian government to stand up for human rights, especially given the Trump administration’s apparent abdication of this responsibility; the Saudi government’s veiled threat to use the oil weapon if economic sanctions are imposed on the kingdom over the murder; and the Khashoggi affair being yet another sign that MBS is deluded about the extent of Saudi power but correct concerning his own, contributing to my concerns about the stability of the regime and the potential for war in the Persian Gulf region.

Brutal murder

Based on reports from various sources, including The New York Times, a 15-man hit squad lay in wait for Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for a scheduled meeting on Oct. 2. The journalist’s fingers were severed during a brief “interrogation” and he was killed within minutes.

The kingdom’s most senior forensic expert, among the assassination team, is said to have been recorded instructing the others to put on headphones and listen to music to ease the tension while they surgically beheaded and dismembered Khashoggi with a bone saw, suggesting this was not the first time he had been involved in such a murder. “It is like Pulp Fiction,” a senior Turkish official was quoted as saying, in reference to the graphically violent 1994 Hollywood movie by director Quentin Tarantino.

After claiming for over two weeks that Khoshoggi had left its Istanbul consulate shortly after entering it, on Oct. 19 the Saudi government announced he died during a “fistfight” in the consulate. A follow-up statement by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed a discussion between Khashoggi and Saudi officials “did not go as required and escalated negatively which led to a fight between them … and led to his death.” The Saudi regime has since announced a purge of senior officials and the arrest of 18 Saudi nationals, suggesting a rogue intelligence operation gone awry — the possibility of which President Donald Trump first telegraphed on Oct. 15.

But U.S. intelligence officials investigating the murder of Khashoggi believe it “inconceivable” that MBS did not order the murder, but as of yet have no “smoking gun,” according to NBC News. Since first becoming deputy crown prince in April 2015, MBS has gained either direct or indirect control over all security and intelligence services in Saudi Arabia. In addition, two of the purged officials had extremely close ties to MBS, with Saud al-Qahtani regarded his right-hand man, and several of the 15-man hit squad have been identified as members of MBS’s personal security staff.

Human rights

Many Western governments have expressed skepticism over Saudi Arabia’s new story, including the Canadian government. The notable exception is the Trump administration, which has been attempting to give MBS a “get out of jail free card” since the start of the Khashoggi affair. Trump has supported MBS’s rapid rise and made Saudi Arabia the lynchpin of his administration’s Middle East strategy, based primarily on a mutual desire for regime change in Iran and massive arms sales.

In regards to Khashoggi supposedly channeling Jason Bourne in the Istanbul consulate, but with a much worse fate than in the movies, Trump originally indicated he viewed the explanation as credible, a “good first step,” but the death of Khashoggi as being “unacceptable.” He has since at least admitted that “their stories are all over the place.”

In contrast, normally supine Republicans in the U.S. Congress are much more fed up with MBS and the Saudis. For example, on October 16, Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, a longtime supporter of Saudi Arabia, said MBS has “got to go.” And as an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said he favours suspending U.S. arms sales to the country. “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr Khashoggi is an understatement,” he said a tweet.

A bipartisan group of Senators are calling for sanctions on Saudi officials in accordance with the 2012 Magnitsky Act — named after Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after exposing government fraud — to punish abusers of human rights.

Oil weapon

On Oct. 14, hours after Trump uncharacteristically suggested the possibility of the U.S. imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi affair during the taping of a segment for 60 Minutes, the Saudi regime went ballistic — implicitly threatening to use oil as a political weapon for the first time since the 1973-74 Arab Oil Embargo.

In a press release published by the official Saudi Press Agency, the kingdom warned it would respond to any punitive measures with even “stronger ones,” and in an implicit reference to its dominant role in the world oil market said: “The Saudi economy has vital and influential roles for the global economy."

In an op-ed penned by Turki al-Dakhil, head of state-owned Arabiya news network and a Royal insider, and released only minutes after the press release, al-Dakhil openly discussed the possibility of the kingdom again using oil as a weapon. “If President Trump was angered by US$80 oil, nobody should rule out the price jumping to US$100 and US$200 a barrel or maybe double that figure,” he wrote.

There is no doubt Saudi Arabia could bring the global economy to its knees by cutting oil output and spiking prices higher, especially at the current time with the kingdom expected to replace barrels lost from Iran due to U.S. sanctions. Saudi production accounts for more than a tenth of global oil supply, and the kingdom currently has most of the world’s remaining spare capacity. The Saudi oil threat has been pooh-poohed by most commentators, but given MBS’s impetuous nature and track record should not be totally ignored or discounted.

Instability and war

Finally, the Khashoggi affair is yet another sign that MBS is deluded about the extent of Saudi power, increasing the potential for war in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, but correct about his own power, which, ironically, makes the House of Saud all the more brittle and prone to regime change.

King Salman continues to have his son’s back, despite MBS precipitating Saudi Arabia’s worst international crisis since the 9/11 terrorist attacks with the brutal murder of Khashoggi. The announced purge, along with arrest of 18 Saudi nationals is evidently meant to insulate and protect his position as crown prince. In addition, MBS remains overarching head of intelligence, with the added responsibility — laughable, if not so perverse — of overseeing a committee charged with restructuring the kingdom’s intelligence services to avoid rogue operations in the future.

But consolidation of power under King Salman’s line of the family, MBS’s long list of foreign policy and economic failures, and draconian actions against dissidents, including fellow princes and prominent business leaders, is making the regime increasingly brittle.

The House of Saud was able to replace a poorly performing king in 1964 (King Saud with Faisal), but it will be much more difficult under the Salman/MBS regime given the combination of modern intelligence capabilities and repressive measures against dissident princes. The fact a senior Prince such as Ahmed — the only other living son of the kingdom’s founder from the Sudairi matrilineal line, besides Salman — appears to prefer exile in London to returning home to Saudi Arabia following his criticism of MBS and the Yemen War is a very bad sign for the longevity of the House of Saud.

According to the Political Instability Task Force, supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to carry out country risk assessments for the U.S. government, the cohesion of ruling elites — including business elites — is the most important factor determining whether a country is prone to regime change.

On the other hand, most if not all of MBS’s foreign policy failures have been due to his overestimating the power of Saudi Arabia. The list includes: Yemen War, Syrian Civil War, Iraqi Civil War, Qatar blockade, kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister, the diplomatic spat with Canada, and now the murder of Khashoggi.

In terms of the Khashoggi affair, a Western advisor said the following about his client MBS: “He was in real shock at the magnitude of the [international] reaction.” This is despite Khashoggi being a respected op-ed columnist for The Washington Post and extremely well connected and liked in D.C., a longtime Saudi Royal insider — until becoming a harsh critic of MBS once he became crown prince in June 2017 — and of course, the brutality of the murder in a consulate, in contravention of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963.

As the 19th century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued, misjudgment of power differentials between countries and alliances is one of the primary causes of warfare. MBS appears to believe his kingdom is more powerful vis-à-vis Iran than reality would suggest, based on his long list of Middle East misadventures.

To conclude, Canada should stop buying Saudi — and foreign — oil for the sake of our country’s energy security, given MBS’s destabilizing impact on Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region as a whole, as well as our fundamental belief in human rights, a cornerstone of our great country. As a result, the sooner we construct a west-east pipeline to transport Western Canadian crude to our eastern refineries — such as TransCanada’s now-cancelled 1.1 million bbl/d Energy East project from Alberta to New Brunswick — the better.