On October 2, 2018, Saudi journalist and government gadfly Jamal Khashoggi entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain some paperwork to finalize a divorce and never emerged—alive. Now, the world knows, it is there he met his end, at the hand of a gang of “rogue operators” (in the Saudi view), sent by Riyadh to coax him to return home, and if that failed, expedite his return by force. It is there that things went haywire (in the Saudi view). A fight erupted that resulted in Khashoggi being strangled after a hood was placed over his head. Then there is the Turkish view: the “rogue operators” were an assassination squad sent to Istanbul, with orders from the very top, to dispatch with Khashoggi, and they brought along a bone saw to reduce his body to smaller bits that could more easily be disposed of. Whichever you believe, it does not change a simple fact—Jamal Khashoggi is no more.
In the days that followed the disappearance of Khashoggi, what was more startling than the brazenness of the crime were the bumbling, fumbling explanations that tumbled out of Riyadh. Saudi officials first claimed that Khashoggi had left the consulate after finishing his business, body intact. But they could offer no proof, they said, because CCTV cameras within the building were on the blink that day. Later, external video footage showed a tall, heavy-set man in Khashoggi’s clothes leaving the building, but the man bore little resemblance to Khashoggi. His hair was noticeably darker, the shape of his face more square. He may have passed for Khashoggi’s brother, but not Khashoggi. And there was no explanation for the arrival of a cleaning crew the next day, nor the fresh paint found on the walls by Turkish investigators a week later, nor the swift exit from Turkey by the consul general.
A few weeks later Saudi officials served up their alibi—that the 15-member team that arrived in Istanbul that morning was charged with returning Khashoggi to return to his homeland and nothing more, but it all went awry, and it had no authority to proceed with the unpleasant part that went awry. This neatly packaged statement didn’t account for the bone saw, nor the forensic expert that accompanied the rendition team. Another question still hovered in the air, like an annoying fly: If the man who emerged from the consulate was not Khashoggi, then where was Khashoggi, or what remained of Khashoggi? Saudi investigators claimed that the body, in whole or in parts, had been handed over to a Turkish collaborator. And who was this Turkish collaborator? They did not know. And they did not have a phone number or any contact information. The “rogue operators” had no idea who he was or how to track him down. He was, and remains, a ghost.
There is no point in pointing out the holes in this fantastic tale because it is all holes, with hardly a sinew to hold any of the pieces together. If the Saudis had intended to do away with Khashoggi, they hadn’t studied up on how to pull it off in order to blur the trail of clues, fuzz questions of motive, obscure the list of perpetrators. And in this hyper-digital age they never considered the high-tech tools that could have recorded and transmitted whatever had taken place in their office, nor the surveillance cameras that could maintain a watchful eye on the building from every corner. The Saudis clearly did not do their homework. They gleaned nothing from the long history of the CIA, KGB, Mossad, and other intelligence organizations long adept in rubbing out enemies. Perhaps the failure of the deadly chemical agent Novichok to eliminate former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, persuaded them to resort to cruder, age-old methods. But that is a flimsy excuse. Age-old methods of foul play can still produce their intended results when executed with due diligence and appropriate care. The Saudi operation showed none of that. In the words of Joseph Fouche, a French police chief in the Napoleonic era, the Khashoggi affair “was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.”
There is a subplot here, and in this case the subplot is the story. While barbs and recriminations flew between Istanbul and Riyadh, what was striking was the yawning silence from Tehran.
Let’s take a step back, look at the bigger picture. Saudi Arabia and Iran are archrivals, engaged in a proxy war in Yemen and a proxy tussle for the future of Syria. One is the birthplace of Sunni Islam, the other of renegade Shiism (in the Sunni-Saudi view). They face each other across the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf, depending on which shore you stand), locked in a mano-a-mano struggle for regional dominance. As the Khashoggi debacle unfolded, Iran found itself in the rare position of holding the catbird seat. Each cringe-worthy statement from Saudi officials was a softball for Tehran’s hardliners to whack however far they wished. Yet they did nothing, said nothing, they simply watched the comedy play out, as the Saudis cast themselves as buffoons in a drama they themselves had scripted, and for a global audience.
This says something not only about the two governments but the two cultures, two ways of dealing with the world. I have lived in the Middle East for the better part of 15 years, and I’d have to say that Arabs have never excelled at the deft handling of crises, nor getting ahead of crises when they do appear. The Arab Spring was a case in point. The bubbling unrest that began when an unemployed fruit vendor was humiliated by a policewoman in Tunisia was unforeseen, and leaders were toppled before enough troops and police could be sent to the streets to beat back a resistance that by then was not to be beaten back.
Take an example of the longer view: Today Egypt’s population is double what it was when I lived there in the 1990s. Every year since it has added another two million mouths to feed, clothe, educate, and provide health care for, with hardly the capacity to provide for the citizens it has. In metaphorical terms, for the last 20 years Egypt has been a broken-down runaway truck careening downhill. In a sober moment any driver would ask, “How did I get here?”
If we step back to look at Egypt (and the Arab world) from a more even-handed historical distance, a touch of understanding is drawn into the picture, and a rationale emerges: colonialism may have had a hand in this. This evil witch has been blamed for everything from slavery (credible) to illiteracy rates in Madagascar (dubious), but in the case of the Arab’s inability to take a wider view, to plan, to strategize, there is a credible link.
For centuries the Middle East and North Africa were game pieces of French and British occupiers. The Arabs had no control over their destiny. Geopolitical strategy was a luxury reserved for the Great Powers or those in a position to project their will over subject people. Before the Great Powers there was the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Levant for centuries before Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, the foreign ministers of Britain and France, carved up its remains in the interests of their governments. This prolonged foreign domination lasted until a wave of independence movements rolled through the region in the 20th century. So, what is the point? That for most of its history the Arab world has never been the master of its own destiny. It has had to respond to the ebb and flow of political currents, never to direct them. That prerogative was reserved for the Great Powers.
This raises another point, but in light of recent events the most important. The temptation to react impulsively, to overreach, is an Arab habit that shows itself in ways large and small. First some context: The relationship between the UAE and the United Kingdom stretches back over a century, to 1892, when local sheikhs signed an agreement placing their sheikhdoms under British protection. Each year Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, the vice president of the UAE, races his horses on the track at Ascot. Or that thousands of British expats appear in every major industry in the UAE—ironically including the academic community—forming the backbone of the Western workforce that arguably keeps the country running. The United Kingdom is one of the UAE’s primary Western allies, trading partners, and cultural links. All that aside, weeks after the Khashoggi case unfolded officials in the UAE arrested a British academic researcher, Matthew Hedges, and sentenced him to life in prison. The charge: spying for a foreign government. It was not surprising that as soon as the verdict was announced, hoots of condemnation echoed from the British foreign ministry. Considering Arab overreach, it was also not surprising that a week later the convicted “spy,” at first deserving of a life sentence, was pardoned, packed up, and sent home.
To point to the small: I live in Dubai, a city where the term “urban planning” is something of an oxymoron. The road system has often been described as a bowl of spaghetti dumped on the floor. Ten years ago a once-in-a-lifetime construction boom meant that most main arteries and highways were tied in gridlock much of the day, as they were widened, redirected, expanded. Intersections and interchanges were constantly torn up, reconfigured to account for new, unplanned commercial and residential developments. Ten years later the same highways are being uprooted again. Orange-and-white construction barriers and plastic cones are more common than stop signs or signal lights. Sometimes the detour signs direct drivers back to their chosen route. Most of the time they don’t.
“We had no idea that development would proceed so fast,” a government official once said.
But that is just the point. Good planners don’t plan for the expected, they prepare for the unexpected.
Today, on vast stretches of desert on the outskirts of the city a forest of apartment towers is growing, and housing tracts are creeping across the sand like an encroaching tide. “Build it and they will come” is the governing motto. But coming for what? Dubai Expo 2020, is the reply, when all these hunks of concrete, glass, and steel will be rented to visitors, by the week or month, dropping in from across the globe. But then their builders will pocket their cash, fold their cranes, packing them up like circus tents, and move on to their next, lucrative projects. The investors will pay off their mortgages and “flip” their holdings to the next round of eager buyers, expecting to make another round of quick profit. But in 2021 who will fill them, and at what price? There is no answer.
To return to Iran, and its response following the death of Jamal Khashoggi. In a similar situation any other regional rival would have pounced: “Strike while the iron is hot.” But Tehran was mum. It said nothing, did nothing. The reason should be obvious. Was any response needed? No. Was anyone waiting for Persian reply? No. The spotlight was on Saudi Arabia, so the ruling regime was quite happy to sit back and let Saudis stew in their own juice. Other factors may have played a part. The bite of renewed American sanctions had sent the already ailing Iranian economy into a tailspin. With its economy in free fall and protestors back out on the streets, regime figures may have had much larger fish to fry. But they could have deflected attention to the sideshow playing out in Riyadh, and the U.S. They didn’t.
What is the lesson here? That the Arab world is largely made up of checkers players, gamesmen quick to act boldly and decisively but often without a grand strategy (see the Khashoggi case). This may explain some of Arab history, like the failure of the nationalist movement of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and ’60s—a grand goal but without much of a playbook to reach it.
In the Syrian war Bashar Al Assad’s strategy, if it could be called could one, has been to blast ISIS, and all other opposition, to smithereens. Barrel bombs have rained down on civilian targets in Aleppo, some loaded with chlorine gas and other nasty chemical agents long banned in warfare. As for the inevitable international condemnation? That was a can, or barrel, to be kicked down the road.
For Arabs who don’t play checkers, there is backgammon. Hardly a traditional coffeehouse from Baghdad to Casablanca doesn’t resonate with the roll of the dice and clatter of the round, plastic tiles across the split-hinged board. With all respect to backgammon players (myself included— I have played it many times), the game doesn’t require much strategic thinking, nor an eye to the broader landscape. The focus is on forward movement—getting one’s tiles to the end of the series of acute, aquiline triangles. Nor is one’s opponent much of a concern. His progress must be blocked, true, but once one’s own tiles have passed the opponent’s nothing can be done. Backward movement is never an option, and success or failure largely depend on the roll of the dice—in other words, fate.
Back to Iran. There are ways in which the Iranian government is not so different than those in the Arab world. It is not squeamish about imprisoning foreign visitors, but almost exclusively these have been Iranians with dual nationality in a Western country, which Tehran does not recognize, and they are usually employed professions it considers suspect—journalism and any human rights activity usually set off the radar. But they are not delivered life sentences in a five-minute trial, like Matthew Hedges. No, they are usually held in judicial limbo until their value as bargaining chips expires or Tehran is able to extract maximum payoff for their release.
This is because Iranians don’t play checkers. They are chess players, and as any good chess player knows, the game requires one to think three, five, or, for anyone with a pretense of expertise, 15 moves ahead. And chess pieces don’t move like checkers or backgammon tiles. They may roam backwards or forwards, diagonally or laterally. They can be moved boldly and aggressively or with tentative care. Strategically placed, a lowly pawn can be more effective than a higher value bishop, rook, or queen. And chess is a game where nothing is left to chance. There is no roll of the dice, so when success or failure is parceled out there are only the players to take credit or suffer blame.
As in the Arab world, history may have had a role in shaping the Persian mind. For over two thousand years, Iran has borne the brunt of numerous invasions, stretching back to Alexander the Great’s romp across the empire in the fourth century B.C. After Alexander came the Seljuk Turks in the seventh century, followed by the Arabs from across the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf (the current spat was not born yesterday). In 1220 came the Mongols, and the Uzbek warlord Tamerlane a century later. The Ottomans chopped off sections of northern Iran in the early 16th century, and Russia invaded shortly before World War I, in the waning days of its own empire.
How has this shaped the Persian mind? One of the unmistakable rules of history is that survivors must be consummate strategizers, calculators, and maneuverers par excellence. Think of a chess player on the defensive, having lost a key piece or two and facing an adversary making bold, aggressive moves. It is here where the ability to assess, to act carefully and deliberately makes the difference between winning or losing, death or survival. That sums up the situation of Iran today and over the centuries. The dynamic during the marathon nuclear negotiations between Iran and the 5+1—the United States, Russia, and the European powers—which played out across the table in Vienna for 16 tireless months involved parsing the wording of each phrase, dissecting every detail. It was grandmaster chess meets high-stakes geopolitics.
It is also significant that while Iran faced invaders and incursions on its territory it never lost total control. From time to time, it has had to preserve its existence from a defensive position, but never with its back to the wall. It is a circumstance that many of us find ourselves in sometime in life—hamstrung but never so desperate as to act rashly, recklessly, with nothing to lose, nor in a position of such superior power that arrogance leads to overreach. It is part of the human condition.
But compulsive strategizers can overstrategize, and do. In the first term of his presidency, Barack Obama earned the label “ditherer in chief” for his failure to act decisively while the Syrian army pummeled Aleppo.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is also a chess player, but in my opinion a bad one. Had he read up on the victories of any of the grandmasters his country has produced he never would have sent his “little green men” into Ukraine to chomp off the eastern provinces, calculating that the world would sit on its hands in response. The same is true for his fast-grab of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a crude pickpocket in which careful gamesmanship was blinded by crass opportunism.
The most exacting chess players can also blunder. Soon after he took power in 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini, the figurehead of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, decapitated the country’s military, almost literally. Scores of generals and senior officers who had served under the shah were rounded up, imprisoned, and many executed. The reason? To prevent a coup that would roll back the revolution. The result? Iraqi president Saddam Hussein eyed a weakened Iran, invaded, and Iran lacked the battlefield expertise and authorities in command to beat him back. Over the next eight years, half a million Iranians would lose their lives. More recently, the postelection riots in 2009 spun out of control largely because the regime was caught unaware. That kind of take-to-the-streets mobilization was something it had no playbook for.
In 2018 the hardliners in Tehran detained Nazinin Zaghari-Radcliffe, an Iranian-born British citizen and media professor on tissue-thin charges of espionage, as they have other Iranian expatriates who work in professions they consider deserving of suspicion. The apparently aim is to hold them as bargaining chips until they can be cashed in for greatest return or their value sinks, but a time frame for the diplomatic standoff that inevitably results never seems to be worked into the equation.
Sometimes the twists and contortions of geopolitics are nowhere near as twisted nor contorted as we make them. It’s chess versus checkers. If Middle Eastern “experts,” think-tank gurus, and other Beltway wonks would view the tug-of-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in that light, they might develop a sensible foreign policy for the region. Nothing else has worked.
I.M. Fletcher is a world traveler and sometimes teacher in the UAE. He has released this article under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license.