How The ‘Khashoggi Affair’ Could Alter U.S.-Saudi Ties
‘The U.S. needs to do something. This snowball of international criticism is not stopping,’ says one expert
Reactions to Riyadh’s admission that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month ranged from outright skepticism and calls for sanctions against the kingdom to measured remarks about the importance of preserving U.S.-Saudi relations.
The reactions came against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s remarks during an interview on Sunday that the killing of the journalist was a “huge and grave mistake” and the workings of “a rogue operation.”
U.S. President Donald Trump initially called the incident “unacceptable,” but later appeared to back away from extended criticism of Saudi Arabia, saying that the U.S. would not want to jeopardize an arms sale with the kingdom estimated at $100 billion.
Yoel Guzansky, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, told The Media Line that Trump is right to be hesitant on this issue, for a lot is at stake.
Yet, he added, “the U.S. needs to do something. This snowball of international criticism is not stopping. That is why Trump is so hesitant; he knows that this could even lead to instability inside Saudi Arabia. Serious people are asking for [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed] Bin Salman’s head.”
For two weeks after the incident, Saudi Arabia denied any involvement in the reporter’s disappearance, but changed its tune with the foreign minister’s explanation, the latest in a series of contradicting narratives coming out of the Saudi government.
Saudi authorities, speaking on condition of anonymity, also claimed on Saturday that the journalist died in a “brawl” during a botched interrogation. On Sunday, al-Jubeir added that the Saudis “don’t know where the body is.”
Many observers, including European leaders and U.S. officials, voiced skepticism about the foreign minister’s response. Critics charged that it is a feeble attempt to shield Bin Salman from any wrongdoing.
The leaders of Britain, France, and Germany issued a joint statement on Sunday condemning the killing, adding that there is an “urgent need for clarification of exactly what happened.”
German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier declared that his country “won’t at this point approve any further arms exports because we want to know what happened.”
Meanwhile, Ankara has been steadily leaking information about the case, claiming it possesses an audio recording that supposedly proves Khashoggi was tortured and dismembered inside the consulate.
The whole affair could very well put the U.S.’ close relationship with Saudi Arabia at risk.
The problem, Guzansky explained, is that if the U.S. calls for a new leader, the crown prince has left no one to take up that role. “This is a very serious process because Bin Salman appointed his own people and took out—arrested or sidelined—those he recognized as possible enemies.”
He concluded that a compromise might be found in which the U.S. curtails the arms deal with the Saudis. The U.S. Congress has heavily scrutinized the deal and nearly succeeded in freezing arms shipments to the kingdom.
Varsha Koduvayur, a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told The Media Line that “the Saudi explanation isn’t likely to patch up the fractures within the U.S. Congress.
“We saw messages from several senators over the weekend that showed suspicion regarding the Saudi narrative that Khashoggi died in a choke hold,” Koduvayur said.
“I think the U.S. administration will be pressed to take action against the kingdom, one way being via the Global Magnitsky Act. Congressional opinion and U.S. public opinion of Saudi Arabia have been severely damaged by this incident,” she concluded.
Bill Law, a Gulf analyst with TheGulfMatters.com, told The Media Line that the Trump administration’s assumption that “it had a reliable, useful and exploitable ally in Bin Salman has been shaken to the core.
“Trump thought that the relationship between Bin Salman and his son-in-law Jared Kushner was the key to driving forward a Middle East peace plan and to building an alliance against Iran. Now the rash and brutal actions of the crown prince have shown just how misplaced his judgement was,” Law said.
“America will have to re-evaluate its position vis-à-vis Bin Salman. If Trump decides the crown prince is a liability to his ambitions, he will seek to cut him loose. And without support from the White House, Bin Salman is likely doomed,” Law concluded.
Khashoggi, who contributed to The Washington Post, wrote critically of the Saudi regime’s war in Yemen and arrest of women’s rights activists. After Bin Salman ascended to power last year, the journalist went into self-imposed exile in the United States, fearing for his safety. He was in Turkey at the time of his death to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage to Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish national.