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New Saudi envoy to UAE was privy to Khashoggi ‘bullet’ quip

Facebook grab of new Saudi Ambassador to the UAE Turki Aldakhil

Saudi Arabia on Sunday appointed former media chief Turki Aldakhil as its ambassador to the UAE just days after it was revealed that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told him he would “use a bullet” on slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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It was billed as “the most detailed evidence to date” that the Saudi crown prince “considered killing” Khashoggi long before the veteran journalist was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. Now the man who was privy to the incriminating conversation has been appointed the oil-rich Gulf kingdom’s top envoy to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In an explosive report published last week, the New York Times revealed that US intelligence intercepts had picked up a conversation between Crown Prince Mohammed and his aide, Aldakhil, during which Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler said he would use “a bullet” on Khashoggi if he didn’t return to the kingdom.

Aldakhil was discussing ways to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia in September 2017 when the crown prince said he would go after the dissident journalist “with a bullet” if none of the other options worked, the US daily reported.

Riyadh has denied Prince Mohammed was involved in the murder although the CIA has concluded the slaying could not have happened without the crown prince’s awareness or involvement.

The revelation that Aldakhil was privy to the infamous “bullet” conversation, however, did not stop the former Saudi media chief’s appointment as Riyadh’s top envoy to the UAE, a key coalition partner in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

In a tweet posted in Arabic Sunday, Aldakhil said he was “honoured” to present his credentials to Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed. The Twitter post included photographs of a beaming Aldakhil in a pristine white dishdasha, or flowing ankle-length robe, with the Emirati foreign minister. 

A former journalist and general manager of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV network, Aldakhil has denied the US intelligence intercept report, calling it “categorically false”. In a statement to the New York Times, he said the allegations “appear to be a continuation of various efforts by different parties to connect His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to this horrific crime. These efforts will prove futile.”

Sticking to the official line

The pugnacious defence of the Gulf kingdom and its rulers has come to characterise Aldakhil’s style.

In the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder, with pressure mounting for the imposition of US sanctions against Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s well-funded PR machinery was slow off the blocks as Riyadh appeared unprepared to handle the international response to the killing.

Aldakhil, though, wasted little time by slamming calls on the Trump administration for US sanctions against Riyadh. In a column on Al Arabiya’s English language website published weeks after Khashoggi disappeared, Aldakhil warned of “catastrophic” consequences of such a move. Sanctions “would hit the US economy much harder than Saudi Arabia’s economic climate”, wrote Aldakhil. He also envisaged dire global security implications, including a “reconciliation” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

His arguments failed to convince experts, who told FRANCE 24 that an oil-dependent Saudi Arabia lacked the leverage today to wreck the US economy. The chances of Riyadh embracing its arch foe, Tehran, were deemed even less likely, but consistent with Saudi threats in order to get its way in Western capitals.

Saudi journalists have always been wary of crossing red lines. After the crown prince’s ruthless crackdown on dissent, they have been sticking even closer to the official line. “There’s no other way. If you want to stay in a good position it must entail espousing the official line hundred percent -- and also going the extra mile in defending the position, credibility and image of the kingdom,” explained Cinzia Bianco, a London-based senior analyst at Gulf State Analytics.

‘Charlie Rose and Larry King of the Middle East’

A dynamic, photogenic TV journalist, Aldakhil, 45, made his mark on the Arabic language airwaves as the host of Al Arabiya’s leading weekly show, "Edaat", or "Spotlight" in English.

A prolific columnist whose work has appeared in Saudi-owned publications and news websites, Aldakhil rose to general manager at Al Arabiya in Dubai before he resigned last week to take up his first diplomatic posting.

In 2014, Aldakhil was one of the recipients of the annual America Abroad Media (AAM) awards, an occasion marked with an AAM video hailing him as “the Charlie Rose and the Larry King of the Middle East".

The AAM video, which includes shots of Aldakhil as a panelist, print journalist and TV host, calls him “one of the foremost champions of women’s rights, civil society, and religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states".

It also includes a clip of Aldakhil calling on women in the region to be “the masters of your own affairs. If you don’t defend your rights for yourselves, men won’t do it for you,” he says.

The call, however, rings hollow for dozens of Saudi female right-to-drive activists languishing in jails despite the lifting of the ban on women driving last year. Human rights experts say the women have been detained, tortured and sexually harassed for demanding their rights instead of crediting the crown prince’s much-touted modernising mission.

The difference between death and a promotion

In many ways, the paths that Khashoggi and Aldakhil chose -- and where that led them -- reflects the compromises that Saudi citizens with access or proximity to power are forced to make.

For journalists, it can be a delicate balancing act, one that can make the difference between death and a promotion.

Aldakhil and Khashoggi were both journalists straddling a line that, in mature democracies, would spark accusations of conflict of interest.

Khashoggi served in Saudi consulates during a 2003-2007 spate as media advisor to the Saudi ambassador in the UK and then the US. The two men were also considered close to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudi billionaire-prince who was one of the most high-profile figures detained in 2017 at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton in an anti-corruption crackdown.

Journalistically, though, that’s where the similarities end. Nearly 15 years older than Aldakhil, Khashoggi was a seasoned reporter who covered some of the biggest stories in the region, including the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan -- which landed him an interview with Osama bin Laden – and the 1990s Algerian civil war. He was also sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and was interested in a space for Islam in a participatory democracy. "Jamal was much more of a political journalist for much longer,” said Bianco. “Turki Aldakhil is focused on a project of social liberalisation, promoting a modernised country opposed to political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Critically, the two men reacted to the Saudi crown prince’s crackdowns very differently. In a September 2017 Washington Post column, “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable,” Khashoggi wrote: “I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison.”

A month later, in an Al Arabiya column, Aldakhil was lionising Crown Prince Mohammed for “restoring” Saudi Arabia by “granting the kingdom vitality and stability".

Pliant envoy in a friendly country

Given Aldakhil’s focus on social, but not necessarily political, liberalisation, Bianco believes the former Al Arabiya general manager is a perfect fit for Saudi Arabia’s top envoy to the UAE. “He has very strong connections to the UAE and he also fits the profile of what Saudi Arabia is trying to become,” she said.

As the owner of the Dubai-based Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center, Aldakhil has been promoting the more socially tolerant economic models adopted by Emirati city states such as Dubai. Political reform, however, is not part of the discourse.

With no prior diplomatic experience, Aldakhil could be an asset for the Saudi crown prince in his new posting. “Relations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE are very strong bilaterally at the level of the leadership and rely on ties between key players on both sides to ensure messages get across,” said Bianco, noting that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed – known by his initials “MBS” – is close to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi who is commonly dubbed “MBZ”.

In 2017, when MBS appointed his younger brother, Khalid bin Salman, as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, the choice of a 29-year-old as top Saudi envoy in Washington DC took Middle East circles by surprise. But Bianco noted that a lack of experience can be an asset for rulers trying to hold all the reins of power. “If you’re managing a dossier yourself then having a strong, experienced person who is a hardcore diplomat can make life more difficult.”

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