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Khashoggi Affair Unlikely to Affect US-Saudi Strategic Ties

Dr Md. Muddassir Quamar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 23, 2018

    Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 has become a diplomatic embarrassment for the Kingdom. After news broke of his disappearance, Saudi authorities initially denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s whereabouts and claimed that he had left the consulate within an hour. However, Turkish police began an investigation into the matter after receiving a complaint from Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and revealed on October 6 that it has evidence of Khashoggi being tortured and killed inside the consulate. This news enraged global public opinion against Saudi Arabia including in the United States, leading to President Donald Trump demanding an explanation from Riyadh. Meanwhile, Turkish authorities demanded that they be granted access to the consulate for completing the investigation. Riyadh and Ankara eventually agreed to form a joint team which completed investigations including inside the Saudi consulate on October 18.

    After over two weeks of silence and denials, Saudi Arabia confirmed on October 19 that Khashoggi was killed. A Saudi Press Agency report stated that preliminary investigations by the Kingdom’s Public Prosecution found that Khashoggi was killed in a brawl that “took place between him and the persons who met him during his attendance in the Kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.” The report further stated that 18 “individuals who are all Saudi nationals” are under investigation for their involvement in the killing. The same day King Salman issued a royal decree relieving from their positions Saud al-Qahtani, an adviser in the Royal Court, Ahmed al-Asiri, the deputy chief of intelligence, and three other intelligence officers.

    President Trump’s initial response to these developments was to observe that the Saudi explanation seems “credible”. But he soon changed his stance under domestic pressure and said that it is “not-satisfactory.” The fact that Khashoggi was a permanent resident of the United States and a Washington Post columnist to boot has led to clamour among Trump’s political opponents and in the US media for holding Saudi Arabia responsible and taking punitive measures against the Kingdom. The administration, however, has been willing to give more time to Riyadh. While demanding a further explanation and through inquiry, President Trump has not blamed King Salman or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing. He has refused to cancel the US$110 billion weapons deal that he had concluded with King Salman during his May 2017 visit to Riyadh, stating “I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of [US]$110 billion into the United States…things that create jobs.”

    In the meanwhile, Turkey has kept up the pressure on Saudi Arabia by revealing details of the investigation to the media. Given Khashoggi’s proximity to some of the leaders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) including close associates of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish authorities have refused to participate in a cover up. Though Ankara has refrained from making any direct allegations against the Saudi leadership, President Erdogan has said that he will issue a statement on October 23 during the AKP’s weekly group meeting in parliament. He has also stated that several questions remained unanswered and need explanation. The semi-official Anadolu Agency has reported that during their October 22 telephonic conversation, Erdogan and Trump agreed on the need to “clear up” all the aspects of the case. However, given that Erdogan has been in touch with Trump on the issue and has been willing to talk to Saudi officials, he is unlikely to press for any punitive action against Riyadh.

    Nonetheless, for President Trump, in addition to the domestic pressures, concerns of European allies have also become a factor. Many European leaders have called for a review of ties with Riyadh. Germany, for example, has urged all members of the European Union to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. In a television interview, the German Economy and Energy Minister Peter Altmaier said that Germany “would not approve any new arms sales to Saudi Arabia and would urge other EU member states to follow this example.” He further said that Berlin believes that “it is important to adopt a common European stance,” and that “only if all European states are united, it would make an influence on the government in Riyadh.”

    Despite the domestic and international pressure, the Trump administration is not inclined to take any significant punitive action against Riyadh. Two important factors explain Washington’s lack of enthusiasm for sanctioning Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi affair. Firstly, sanctions will have a serious economic impact not only on the United States which has strong bilateral trade links with Saudi Arabia but also on the global oil market and might lead to a sharp rise in oil prices. Neither the United States nor other rising powers including India want oil prices to rise. Further, Saudi Arabia is one of the major contributors to trade and business in the US and Europe. Notably, Riyadh has vowed to retaliate against any international sanctions with a reminder that the world’s top oil exporter “plays an impactful and active role in the global economy.” More importantly, Riyadh is one of the top buyers of US defence equipment and weapons, which, in Trump’s view, brings much needed business and jobs to the United States and should not be hampered.

    Secondly, Riyadh (along with Tel Aviv) is central to US policy in the Middle East. It has been a historical ally of the US and has been welcoming of Trump’s policies in the region. Since assuming office, President Trump has made several policy departures including the Obama policy of forging reconciliation with Iran by unilaterally withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between the P5+1 and Iran. While this was disliked by many, Riyadh and Tel Aviv welcomed the move as a significant step in curbing Iran’s growing regional influence and “expansionism.” Riyadh has also been forthcoming in showing support on the issue of the resumption of the Middle East peace process to resolve the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington sees Riyadh as an important actor that has the ability to influence Arab and Islamic public opinion. And though King Salman was leading the Arab-Islamic opposition of the US move to shift its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, that has not affected the alliance between the two countries. The United States and Saudi Arabia are on the same page on various regional issues including Syria, Yemen and Libya.

    Finally, Saudi Arabia has shown willingness to accommodate US concerns on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi by promising to thoroughly investigate the matter and punish those found guilty. King Salman has initiated action against intelligence operatives who, Turkey had revealed, were present in the consulate when the incident took place. The King has taken a reconciliatory approach towards Turkey by sending Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca, to meet with President Erdogan and Turkish leaders to placate Turkish anger. Saudi Arabia has also denied the role of Crown Prince Bin-Salman in the entire issue. That means the three stakeholders, that is, Saudi Arabia, United States and Turkey, are willing to discuss and be accommodative of each other’s concerns.

    Even though Trump remains unconvinced about taking serious punitive action against Saudi Arabia despite strong domestic and international pressure, the Khashoggi affair is indeed a serious breach of international diplomatic norms. It has not only momentarily affected Riyadh’s relations with Ankara and Washington but has also dented Saudi Arabia’s international credibility. Nevertheless, given the strong strategic and economic partnership between Washington and Riyadh, the Khashoggi affair is unlikely to affect US-Saudi relations.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India