Friday, October 26, 2018

Khashoggi, Saudi Crown Prince, Thomas Friedman And Lamb Kebabs

Khashoggi, Saudi Crown Prince, Thomas Friedman And Lamb Kebabs
                                                                                           Saeed Naqvi

I interviewed Jamal Khashoggi in Jeddah in December, 2001, months after 9/11. What struck me were his strong opinions on the Palestinian issue. Since US military action in Afghanistan, following the destruction of the twin towers in New York, was the big story, that naturally was the focus of my interview (it can be seen on www.saeednaqvi.com) but Palestine is what riled Khashoggi.

The manner in which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has upturned his country’s policy on Palestine may have been one of the issues on which Jamal Khashoggi differed with the Prince so sharply in his public talks that he had to pay for with his life. He was unhappy with MBS’s opposition to the Arab Spring, his growing authoritarianism, but Palestine was an angst he carried. If he changed his views in his last years I would not know.

Khashoggi was valued by visiting journalists for a simple reason: he was well informed. He was plugged into the kingdom’s caverns of power. His role as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, South Sudan, various news spots in West Asia and elsewhere, enhanced his own level of interaction within the Kingdom. His field reports made him interesting to practitioners of power. This had a multiplier effect when he met journalists outside – Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, for instance.

Friedman has, more or less, admitted that Khashoggi was his “Deep Throat” on the Kingdom, except that Friedman was unable to protect his “Deep Throat” the way Woodward and Bernstein protected theirs. How na├»ve could Friedman have been. He writes:
“Jamal had come to my office a few days ago for a long talk about Saudi Arabia and MBS.” Are we to understand that a high profile Saudi informer, visits a higher profile New York Times columnist in the iconic NYT building and intelligence agents from the Kingdom, Israel, the US missed the story? MBS had personally invested in Friedman; his revisionism rankled.

Pressure was applied on Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia. He had left the country in September 2017 just before MBS arrested Princes, business tycoons and other influential Saudis and parked them in one of the world’s most luxurious hotels, Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh. He obviously had an inkling of what was to happen.

Immediately, MBS’s propaganda machine went into top gear. Early kudos for the reform minded Crown Prince came from none other than Lyse Doucet of the BBC. She walked on tip-toes, through the hotel’s chandeliered corridor, speaking in whispers lest the incarcerated Princes were disturbed. Peering through the grill were CNN’s John Defterios and Richard Quest. The most powerful in the Western media had turned up to blow trumpets. It was command performance on an epic scale. There you had the world’s “free press”, captive to petro dollars.

Khashoggi’s macabre end is great tragedy and yet the convulsions in which the world media and nodal points of global power are remains a puzzle. Hundreds of journalists are killed each year even in functioning democracies. Saudis are not even known for free speech.

In MBS framework the pride of place was reserved for Friedman, who was invited to the Royal Family’s (in his words) “ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja” where “MBS spoke in English, while his brother Khalid and several senior ministers shared different lamb dishes and spiced the conversation” which lasted four hours. The succulence of the Kebabs inspired Friedman to purple prose on MBS.

Just when the 33 year old Crown Prince was beginning to wallow in all the manufactured publicity, Friedman began to worry about his credibility. The information base for revised versions was presumably provided by the likes of Khashoggi.

It turns out that MBS is not the only Saudi Crown Prince Friedman has savoured lamb dishes with. Remember the late Saudi king Abdullah? Well, he was Crown Prince in February 2002 when Friedman turned up:
“I am currently in Saudi Arabia on a visit – part of the Saudi opening to the world in light of the fact that 15 Saudis were involved in the September 11 attacks. So I took the opportunity of a dinner with the Crown Prince” – lamb kebabs again.

Friedman drew Abdullah’s attention to a column he had written on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse: in return for a total withdrawal by Israel to the June 4, 1967 lines, and the establishment of a Palestinian state, the 22 members of the Arab League should offer Israel full diplomatic relations, normalized trade and security.

“Have you broken into my desk?” asked Abdullah on hearing the proposal. He was ready with his own speech spelling out exactly the ideas in Friedman’s column. This became famous as Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace proposal. As we now know they went nowhere.

The ideas in the Abdullah package had been in the works when I met Khashoggi. The reason they lay in Abdullah’s desk was because there were no takers for the ideas in Israel. Indeed, Ariel Sharon’s actions against the Palestinians were generating anger even among the Saudi ruling class. Prince Turki bin Faisal was the most consistent critic. Khashoggi had been the closest to Turki bin Faisal, having been his spokesman when the Prince was the Intelligence Chief.

There remains a divide in Arab ruling circles, including in Saudi Arabia: one section of the elite is unwilling to accept the primacy of the Shia-Sunni divide as the principal faultline defining the Arab world. The contrived faultline, this group believes, is an effort to devalue the Palestinian cause.

Khashoggi’s mentor, Prince Turki, told a gathering in New York recently: there is a large Shia minority in the oil bearing eastern part of Saudi Arabia. Likewise there are Shia minorities in all the Gulf States. “How then can we endorse Shia-Sunni as the basic conflict?” This was Khashoggi’s line too.

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Europe In Convulsions Even As Corbyn Rises In Britain


Europe In Convulsions Even As Corbyn Rises In Britain
                                                                              Saeed Naqvi

From Rome to London the contrast was sharp – from political despair to hope.

A comprehensive conference on Afghanistan, superbly organized the NATO Foundation was the only redeeming feature in Rome. Meetings with journalists and think-tanks on the margins were depressing.

The Far Right leader of the ruling coalition, Matteo Salvini of the League, whose early act as Deputy Prime Minister was to order a boat full of North African migrants to be allowed to drift towards Spain, is rising on the popularity charts. He is much the most popular leader in Italy with his anti-immigrant rantings. To firm up ideological bonds, Marine Le Pen, of France’s National Front, visited Salvini recently. If this was not a sufficient shot in the arm for Italian fascists, White supremacist, once President Trump’s soulmate, Steve Bannon, arrived to give a fillip to his plot – Brothers of Italy, they are called, under a title a canopy which Bannon calls “The Movement”. “Bannon is here frequently to confer with Salvini and meet some of us” says Francesco Galieti, journalist who also advises investors.

Bannon is the spider in the web wherever ultra-nationalism, illiberal economics, leavened with dollops of racism rears its head. On Brexit too he is putting in his mite to accelerate the break with EU. Just as committed on the other side of the debate is the even more powerful, anti-Brexit Billionaire, George Soros. They are both in convulsions to save the world from the curse of anti-capitalist headwinds.

There is a common anxiety but with distinct right wing prescriptions.

Bannon must not be overdrawn but he does represent an impulse to navigate the leaky boat of capitalism away from any real or imaginary leftward lurch.

The desperation of this lot is manifest even as far as Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro, who romanticizes the likes of Pinochet, has support from the same interests who are stitching together fascism in Europe. Steve Bannon has been advising Bolsonaro’s media team. His appearance on a Nigel Farage radio show created a minor storm. Farage, of the former Independence Party, leads the anti-Brexit movement with a self-explanatory title – Leave Means Leave.

Removed from anti Brexit extremism are countries like Austria, Poland, Hungary and the Nordic North, which are anti migrant, on occasion anti-Semitic. Bannon has no interests here; Soros does.

Against this broad canvas of despairing gloom, I would like to state, on the pain of being repetitious, that Britain provides relief. For many in Britain this relief is mingled with fear because the right wing media has painted Jeremy Corbyn in lurid colours. The Conservative Party, not to be confused with the rightist aberrations stretches from European continent to Latin America and elsewhere is in convulsions over both Brexit and Corbyn. Prime Minister Theresa May is looking at the “Exit” door in a sort of daze. She does not quite know how to handle the several balls up in the air. A break with EU will prompt Scotland sewing up its own deal with Brussels. Also, since this will entail the border between Belfast and Dublin demanding visa clearances, the Democratic Unionist leader, Arlene Foster will break with Theresa May, bringing down her government. The whole point about Unionism in Ulster is to be “exactly” like the rest of Britain, says Foster. Any arrangement exclusive to Northern Ireland will not be acceptable to the Unionists.

Meanwhile, the right wing of the conservatives, say, former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson and his cohorts are threatening to throw a ginger fit if Brexit is “softened” a means of placating the urge to “remain”, which is noticeable on both sides of the aisle.

Ambiguity afflicts the Labour Party too but it has the advantage of being in the opposition. It is under no compulsion to show its hand. It is simply waiting for an embattled Prime Minister to trip up. That would mean fresh elections which Labour is expected to win easily.

His opponents would not accept it but Labour Party has a charismatic leader in Jeremy Corbyn who has emerged even more firmly in control after the annual Party conference in Liverpool last month.

During his speech Corbyn made an offer to Theresa May. “Labour MPs would vote for a soft Brexit deal which keeps Britain in the Customs Union with the EU”.

What would be the Labour Party’s position on a growing demand for a fresh referendum on Brexit? I had put this question to Corbyn two months ago. His response was very political. “The people have voted for Brexit in a referendum. Let the government negotiate a deal with Brussels which is acceptable to the British public.”

Corbyn was very conscious of the many inconsistencies among Labour voters, constituency to constituency, during the referendum. But as an opposition leader and Prime Minister in-waiting, his job was to wait for May to make mistakes.

With Corbyn as Prime Minister looming large on the horizon the media, which has placed him consistently in a negative searchlight, has a huge challenge on its hands: how to begin to adjust to the reality of Corbyn.

He continues to say things which make those elements of the Conservative Party who are wrapped in a very Anglaise-Britishness, very uncomfortable. For instance he would like schools to have in the text books those aspects of British history which illuminate negative aspects of colonialism. This when the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in April 2019 may well be a high profile event during the Indian election season.

Little wonder a magazine like the Economist still makes Corbyn look like Che Guvera, a beret and the revolutionary leader’s trademark beard et al.

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