The Khashoggi Affair: Political miscalculation, intellectual loss, human tragedy

President Donald Trump speaks with Mohammed bin Salman. 
Source: Wikimedia CommonsPresident Donald Trump speaks with Mohammed bin Salman. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As the heavy overcast obscuring the truth behind the disappearance of U.S.-based Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi slowly dissipates, details have emerged of his gruesome, premeditated murder, carried out in his own country’s consulate. 2018 has shown itself to be a deadly year for journalists, with at least seventy killed across the globe – three of them in democratic, EU-member countries. Amid calls for answers in the Khashoggi murder, questions abound, especially with regard to action from across the Atlantic – from America, a country which has long championed freedom of the press within its own borders and assured the freedom of dissidents such as Khashoggi.

In his final editorial, published posthumously in The Washington Post Wednesday evening, Khashoggi addressed precisely this – the desperate need for freedom of expression in the Arab world. “The Arab world was ripe with hope during the spring of 2011. Journalists, academics and the general population were brimming with expectations of a bright and free Arab society within their respective countries … These expectations were quickly shattered; these societies either fell back to the old status quo or faced even harsher conditions than before,” he wrote.

Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2 in hopeful anticipation; he would procure a document verifying his divorce and be free to marry his friend and financée Hatice Cengiz, who had escorted him to the diplomatic mission that fateful day and alerted the Turkish authorities when he never came out. Soon after, amidst Saudi claims that Khashoggi had left the consulate though its back door, Turkish state officials anonymously began to allege that the journalist had instead been killed and dismembered. Since then, the Saudis have retracted their initial claims and admitted that Khashoggi had, in fact, been murdered, attributing the heinous crime to a rogue operation.

So far, the United States’ response has been ambivalent. Not only has President Donald Trump failed to publicly condemn the murder, his immediate reaction was to criticise the rush to blame Saudi Arabia and call it “guilty until proven innocent.” On Tuesday, a seemingly placated U.S. President Donald Trump himself rushed to Twitter to declare: “Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate.” The Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) had renounced all personal responsibility and Trump, it seemed, was ready to oblige. In an unexpected turn of events on Wednesday, the Department of State officially confirmed that the U.S. had received a payment of $100 million from Saudi Arabia for “stabilisation efforts” in Syria on the very day that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to travel to the Gulf state to talk to MBS’s father King Salman of Saudi Arabia about the Khashoggi murder, raising concerns of a possible payoff for U.S. inaction, a claim that the White House has denied.

But as Turkish officials slowly reveal details of their investigation, it seems more and more unlikely that MBS could have been in the dark about the operation. The Turkish side maintains that “15 Saudi agents flew into Istanbul on Oct. 2, assassinated Mr. Khashoggi, dismembered his body with a bone saw they had brought for the purpose, and flew out the same day,” reported The New York Times on Tuesday. The newspaper claims to have independently linked at least nine out of the 15 suspects with Saudi Arabia’s security services, military, or government ministries and identified one of them as a “frequent companion” of the Crown Prince. The Turkish side also claims to be in possession of graphic audio evidence documenting Khashoggi’s interrogation and torture, evidence that is expected to be shared with U.S. and European officials. U.S. intelligence agencies, reported The New York Times on Wednesday, are also “increasingly convinced” that “the crown prince was culpable” in the journalist’s death. Even leading Republicans have condemned Saudi Arabia and demanded retaliatory action.

The White House, by contrast, for nearly two weeks into the news of Khashoggis disappearance, seemed to have caved to a serious case of je-m’en-foutisme, suggesting that human rights abuses are excusable as long as there is a profit to be made and anti-Iranian manoeuvres to be enacted. On Thursday, however, The New York Times reported encouraging news that the president was beginning to acknowledge that the dissident journalist had been killed, “[expressing] confidence in intelligence reports from multiple sources that strongly suggest a high-level Saudi role in Mr. Khashoggi’s assassination.”

Still, it is unclear whether Trump thinks it possible for the U.S. to exert any leverage over the Saudis without jeopardising the promise of a lucrative future. What is more, it is uncertain that he even wants to. Beyond the White House, America’s intellectual elite may not be unanimous in its condemnation of the Khashoggi murder. Several important political voices, including Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, have spoken of Saudi Arabia’s (and that of its Emirati allies) generous funding of think tanks and diplomats in Washington D.C. In all likelihood, these D.C. forces will aim to counteract Khashoggi’s many influential friends and contacts in the U.S and lessen the impact of their arguments.

Khashoggi wrote in his last editorial that the persecution and mistreatment of journalists in the Arab world “no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.” If, and most likely when, it is proven that Khashoggi’s murder came from the very top, i.e. from MBS himself, will this be yet another case of the above? Will U.S. condemnation slowly fade and be forgotten? Has MBS, taking a page straight out of Vladimir Putin’s handbook, been emboldened to act with impunity in response to U.S. complaisance? After all, in a stunt echoing what Russia did after the Skripal affair, Saudi Arabia declared that the 15 assassins it had sent were merely tourists.

The Cambridge Globalist spoke with Chatham House’s US & Americas Programme Deputy Head Jacob Parakilas, the European Council of Foreign Relation’s Middle East and North African Programme Coordinator Camille Lons, and France 24 journalist and political commentator Leela Jacinto to better understand what the United State should and precisely what it can do to keep Saudi Arabia in check and what United States’ inaction, in the face of the murder of a dissident journalist, risks showing the world.

“It is true that both Saudi Arabia and the US need each other and benefit from their close relationship,” said Camille Lons from ECFR. “Trump made his first visit to a foreign country to Saudi Arabia and considers the Kingdom a key U.S. partner in the region, especially in his effort to roll-back Iran’s influence. He is [also] counting on the Saudis to increase their oil production following the return of sanctions on Iran, in order to keep prices low. But this relationship remains deeply unbalanced, and the Saudis definitely need the U.S. more than the U.S. needs them.”

According to Lons, the United States, tired of being the major security provider in the Middle East, has shown signs of withdrawing from the region. Though the Americans require allies to have a real armed power in the Middle East, the Saudis, whose military might is still very limited, are not amongst them. Nor is the U.S. dependent exclusively on Saudi oil.

“U.S. links with Saudi Arabia are long-standing and deep, and it would be tricky for Washington to cut ties,” said Jacob Parakilas from Chatham House. “[But], the U.S. does have leverage – it provides critical support for the Saudi military in terms of equipment, logistics, and intelligence, which could be curtailed.”

Since the news emerged of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump has renewed his commitment to a $100 billion arms deal with the Saudis that falls in line with his broader strategy of doubling down on alliances with the Gulf Sunni states. Whilst Parakilas said that the particular arms deal in question is not “quite what it says on the tin,” being, instead, a combination of previously-agreed upon sales and vague agreements that have yet to be fully confirmed, Lons and Leela Jacinto see the deal and weapons sales generally as America’s greatest leverage over Saudi Arabia.

“[Washington] knows that even if there are threats of being replaced by other providers (like the Russians or the Chinese), they could never totally replace American weapons,” said Lons.

Jacinto agrees. “The argument that if the U.S. were to give up on its arms deal, Russia and China would somehow step in and take over the market just does not hold. Saudi defence systems are based on U.S. weapons, and Russian and Chinese weapons are just not up to scratch,” said the journalist. “The U.S. should at least put a temporary moratorium on selling weapons [to Saudi Arabia], which it has done in the past with other countries, [such as] Pakistan – another important ally for the U.S. – when [Pakistan] conducted a nuclear test in the 1990s. But to not respond to the build-up of Saudi behaviour is to send an extremely poor message, namely one of utter impunity.”

This message, she said, has already been communicated with inaction in the ongoing civil war in Yemen, which, fought between the Iran-backed Shia Muslim minority Houthi rebels and Saudi-Arabia and UAE-backed Sunni Muslim coalition of Yemeni government forces, has now reached cataclysmic levels of human suffering, Jacinto reminds us. Often referred to as the world’s “forgotten war,” the conflict has indeed been disastrous, with at least 10,000 dead, millions displaced, and up to 13 million – 5 million of them children – facing what is possibly the “worst famine in 100 years,” warned the United Nations on Monday. The extent of the persistent humanitarian crisis and devastation in Yemen is perhaps best exemplified by this heart-breaking photograph of acutely malnourished five-month-old infant Udai Faisal taken days before he died at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen.

Going beyond halting sales of arms, it might be wise for the U.S. to consider extending the Global Magnitsky Act to Saudi officials believed to be implicated in Khashoggi affair, and in light of the particularities of Saudi weapons demands, as elucidated above, it is unlikely that such sanctions would send the Saudis into Russian or Chinese arms.

“Saudi Arabia has always been an absolute monarchy, but it has been a consensual sharing of power with different branches of the family, all of which MBS has completely destroyed. U.S. sanctions [against MBS and his clique] would send a message to the kingdom itself that things cannot go on like this and offer some necessary support [to other members] of the royal family,” said Jacinto. “So many Saudis come to [study] at U.S. universities, own property there. Targeting individuals with sanctions could be effective.”

Though links between the Saudi elite and the U.S. might offer an excellent basis for efficient sanctions, it may also pose a significant obstacle to such recourse, considering the extent of Saudi influence amongst Washington’s intelligentsia.

“There is a peculiar confluence of interest in Washington D.C. right now, which can best be summed as ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’” said Jacinto. “Saudi Arabia and the UAE has a lot of money to put into PR firms and think tanks … the mood in D.C. is so febrile that they will continue to pursue a very aggressive stand against analysts who write anything anti-Saudi or who say that the Iran deal should not be [abandoned] … you get branded in one stroke as being pro-Iranian, anti-Israel, anti-Semite.”

Lons, however, believes that it is difficult to assess the extent to which Saudi influence amongst U.S. think tanks impacts the balance of opinions in U.S. policy circles. “I have seen a lot of indignant reactions from U.S. researchers and think tankers following the Khashoggi case, even those funded by the Saudis and usually defensive of the regime … There are also a lot of Qatar-funded think tanks who will seize this opportunity to criticise Saudi Arabia.” she said.

Parakilas similarly said that, though “Saudi Arabia has put a lot of money into its public relations presence in D.C., … it is not a popular country with the American public, which means that Congress is generally pretty open with criticism … The widely-held view of Saudi Arabia as a necessary strategic partner in Washington’s foreign policy establishment probably shields them from the most negative possible consequences, but American companies are also responsive to public opinion and are likely to limit their investments there, at least for a time.”

On Thursday, alongside many American corporations, Republican U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pulled out of Saudi high-profile investor conference Future Investment Initiative, dubbed “Davos on the Desert,” in light of the killing. The withdrawal of investment from Saudi Arabia could turn out to be an extremely effective tactic that might temporarily sabotage MBS’s plans to diversify the kingdom’s economy from oil and towards other sectors, with a particular focus on the tech and entertainment industries.

Public opinion, Jacinto concurred, is extremely important. “Pressure to act will come from Trump’s and Erdogan’s public … I do not think that U.S. journalists or public will keep quiet on this issue … the Turkish people are angry and view this as a matter of incredible shame.” It is uncertain that public opinion alone, however, could be strong enough to secure strong measures against MSB.

“I personally do not think the U.S. would take [the sanctions] route, as it has nothing to gain from this. The most probable [response] will be to blame ‘rogue elements’ … this would be an easy way to put the blame on someone without touching MBS,” said Lons.

The last time the Saudis and MBS specifically were involved in a similar incident was with the abduction of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last autumn. Then, it was French President Emmanuel Macron who successfully dealt with the issue in the absence of U.S. resolve. If Washington does not act on Khashoggi, could a European power play a similar role as last time? Our experts think not.

“It is true that Macron played a role in the Hariri case, because of France’s specific relationship with Lebanon, but, to be very honest, Europe does not, by a long way, have the leverage in the Gulf that the U.S. does,” said Lons. “If the U.S. were to adopt a strong position, this would help Europeans also [assume] a united front on this question. But if the U.S. does not act, it will be difficult for any country to step in … nothing much will happen, business will continue as usual. But the main problem with this is that [inaction] would keep emboldening MBS and his authoritarian policies. Some people argue that what happened to Khashoggi was only possible because MBS felt that the environment of impunity could let him do whatever he wanted.”

Jacinto agreed. “MBS does not have the temperament to weigh the reactions of those around him. He is an individual who has never had anybody say ‘no’ to him,” said the journalist. “I think that the international community realises that, barring some massive internal shake up inside Saudi Arabia, we are going to have this ruler for a long time. He is very young and we will see decades of him in power,” said Jacinto. “All we can really hope for is that he understands the implications of what he does. If he does not, then we are in for a very troubled time in the Middle East.”

How probable, however, is it that MBS will realise the consequences of his actions, if the actual consequences themselves are absent? And is the White House, as Jacinto exclaimed in the beginning of our interview, truly willing to set a threshold of tolerable human rights abuses?

Seventy-three years ago, when then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was returning home from the Yalta Conference, he met with the first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal on Valentine’s Day of 1945. “The two men went on to talk about a variety of political issues, in particular the plan to find European Jews a new home in Palestine (Abdul Aziz was vehemently opposed). They eventually came to an agreement that [centred] around U.S. support and military training for Saudi Arabia, then a fledgling country surrounded by stronger nations, in return for oil and political support in the region,” wrote The Washington Post in an article 70 years later. Then, the Saudi-American relationship was one of pragmatism and mutualism with regard to foreign policy; today, the circumstances are no longer as they were in the post-war world of 1945, nor are the leaders in question prepared to invest the same calculation and prudency in their interactions with each other or the surrounding world as did their predecessors. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to reconsider its commitments to Saudi Arabia, which is no longer a fledgling country and itself has come to wreak chaos in neighbouring lands. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the current U.S. administration will be the one to cut the umbilical cord. Trump and MBS are both short-sighted men of bravado; driven by ego and emotion in pursuit of their personal programmes to go down in history as great leaders, neither has taken the time to learn the playground’s rules of safety and both are likely to end up with far more than a scraped knee.

With regard to Khashoggi, Jacinto, who knew the Saudi journalist professionally, believes that he was the unfortunate victim of political crossfire in a complex regional game. She considers his death an “intellectual loss.”

“We were never in the same city at the same time, so we had never met,” said Jacinto, “but, he was always extremely generous with his time. You just had to be interested in Saudi Arabia and he was willing to explain things to you … he was a journalist’s perfect source and a perfect expert … For me, it is really a loss of a window into Saudi Arabia, because we really do not have too much of that. He could interpret what was happening in the kingdom. This is ultimately an intellectual loss. That is what I am going to miss.”