Khashoggi was a reformer of sorts, but not an outsider. He was the ultimate regime insider in many ways. He had been linked to its intelligence establishment, negotiating with the bin Ladens for the regime during the jihad against Russia in Afghanistan. He was close to the billionaire Prince Alwaheed bin Talal. He knew why the 22 pages of the 9/11 inquiry dealing with Saudi Arabia are still classified. He knew that the regime had hunted and killed dissidents all over the world for decades. He knew that the regime had tried to kidnap the Lebanese Prime Minister and force his resignation. He knew that it had trolled Canada with a threat of a 9/11-style attack in response to mild government criticisms of its crackdown on dissidents.
The strongest likelihood appears to be that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered his execution. Salman, like most of the royal family, is heavily invested in American capitalism. He is close to Silicon Valley, and has enjoyed nuptials with figures as varied as Jeff Bezos and The Rock. He has been lauded in the press as a "great young reformer". Of course, this doesn't mean much. Saudi rulers are always dubbed reformers. King Abdullah was mourned in sonorous tones, from Tony Blair to Barack Obama to Christine Lagarde, as a reformer and a friend of women. The New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, The Independent, CNN, and a whole raft of liberal media joined the chorus. This makes their coverage of Trump's business connections with the Saudi ruling class just a little hypocritical. Of course Trump sold his yacht to Prince Talal. Of course he has dealings with the Saudi royal family. They're of the same class, and he's drawn to brutality and corruption like a moth to a flame.
But if Salman is any kind of reformer, he is a self-styled economic reformer. It wasn't about human rights: he made it clear in 2016 that he intended to lead a "Thatcher Revolution" in Saudi Arabia. The IMF saluted his programme of economic change, including a raft of privatisations intended to draw foreign investors and diversify an economy at risk of going bankrupt over its dependence on oil revenues. He overturned the law forbidding women from driving largely for the economic benefits of drawing more women into the labour force. Women still have to get permission from men to travel and study. Women activists are still hounded and locked up. The state still has one of the highest rates of executions in the world, a merciless squandering of life. And of course, with the blessing of Washington and Downing Street, it continues to commit war crimes in Yemen.
So, one would be foolish to expect Skripal-style outrage in this case, despite the extraordinary mobsterish nature of the hit. The tendency, when things like this happen, is for there to be ruffled feathers among decent politicians, some outcry from human rights groups making the news, and some uneasy foot-shuffling among leaders in the US and Britain. Then things go back to normal. The question is, how tenable is 'normality' in this case? Saudi Arabia, in naive realpolitik terms, doesn't have the kind of leverage it did during the Cold War. Bush saw it as an ally in the struggle to transform the Middle East, even if some his neoconservative allies fantasised about a top-down regime change. Obama relied on Saudi military strength, amid the Arab revolts, to crush the uprising in Bahrain and wage war on the opposition in Yemen. But, long-term, isn't this relationship becoming wildly dysfunctional?
The corrupt relationship between Britain, the US and Saudi Arabia -- and it is deeply corrupt, as the British government's nobbling of the Serious Fraud Office over BAe's dealings with the regime show -- is a legacy of carbon sovereignty. We usually get a budget version of this history when it is recapitulated in newspapers, linking the US relationship to Saudi Arabia to oil interests and Cold War security imperatives. But that doesn't really do it justice.
The modern Saudi state was built in 1932 under the protection of the British empire, in alliance with a band of reactionary Wahhabi leaders, as part of the process of colonial state-making. It developed as a petro-state through a series of deals struck with FDR and US oil firms, such as Standard Oil of California, and Texaco. Out of these relationships emerged, Arab-American Oil Company, Aramco. This, as international relations scholar Robert Vitalis has shown, was one of the signal events in the American globalisation of racial capitalism on the energy frontiers.
When capitalism's 'energy servants' were literally black slaves, the focus of sovereign power was in the capture, transportation, commercial sale and management of this power source. Military, naval and corporate power was evolved to that purpose. When it struck upon fossil fuels as the source of seemingly limitless 'energy servants', naturally, the emerging system of state sovereignty under US management was organised for that purpose, with access and entitlement racially structured. (Parenthetically, a comparative investigation of this would explain a lot about the trajectory of American capitalism, the right-wing industrial-political coalitions that arose in the Cold War, their relationship to US militarism, and the climate denial lobby.)
So Saudi Arabia was a state built for carbon capture. The economy that was developed in the Cold War era was a Jim Crow system, with a racially managed labour force, ruled by a retrograde theocracy, narrowly dedicated to extraction. The state that emerged was not just a petro-state in charge of managing the oil spigot. It was a counter-revolutionary armed force, deploying its weapons first against its subjects with the expansion of a modern security apparatus, and second in regional struggles against leftism, secular nationalism, and communism. The oil rents paid for considerable military clout and a hefty intelligence apparatus which, in collusion with the Pakistani state, played a central role in the US-led jihad in Afghanistan.
But of course, as an oil state, much of what it does is completely dysfunctional. It wastes billions on weapons purchased from the US and UK, most of which gather dust. Half the function of the war on Yemen is to dispose of spare destructive capacity. The Saudi economy has always been poorly developed, badly diversified, and distorted around rent-seeking royal parasites: the IMF didn't just discover this in 2015. But what has started to happen is that the institutions of US-led capitalist globalisation nominally accept the unsustainability of carbon capitalism. Oil reserves might last for another four of five decades, but it's entirely possible that demand will start to crash well before then.
So, the Saudi state is in a crisis. The old rulers cannot go on ruling in the old ways. When systems go into crisis like this, the methods of reactionaries tend to be rather bloody. Notice that embattled carbon sovereignty is at the centre of a lot of contemporary far right politics, from Trump to Bolsonaro. The murder of Khashoggi is most plausibly read as a clear signal that, whatever kind of 'reformer' Crown Prince Salman is, he will insist on engineering Saudi Arabia's transition on his own terms, and any challenger will pay in blood.