17 October 2018

Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s Disappearance Trembles the Relation Between the United States and Saudi Arabia

Niculae Iancu

Image source: Mediafax

Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s recent disappearance, a fervent critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, reemphasizes Saudi Arabia and United States’ complex and discontinuous relations, in the hottest region of the world, Middle East.

Running the information off regarding Riyadh’s regime involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance and even murder in Saudi consulate from Istanbul, puts a huge pressure on Trump’s Administration in taking firm sanctions against the culprit ones, considering that Saudi Arabia is world’s biggest American military arms sales customer and Washington’s most important partner in the region in managing the current critical security problems.

We will see if the fundamental values of democracy and human rights will furthermore cross over the economic and military interests in a very intricate security context of violent conflicts, humanitarian disasters and power competition, at a regional and global level.

Scenarios regarding Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance

Jamal Khashoggi, a The Washington Post columnist, disappeared in the afternoon of October 2, after he was seen for the last time entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Since then, the entire international press got bothered by the event bringing serious allegations to Riyadh’s regime, de facto led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, about its involvement in Saudi journalist disappearance and even suppression, for political reasons. Considering the information that apparently came from the inside of the investigation, it seems Khashoggi would have been murdered inside the consulate and, furthermore, his body would have been sliced so that his relics could be taken away in cases. On the other side, the Saudis are firmly claiming that the journalist left consulate building safe and sound, but without having any proof to sustain this assertion.

As one would expect, the prestigious American newspaper, The Washington Post, is seriously debating the subject. The numerous daily articles since the disappearance are offering massive amount of information regarding the context, the reasons and the methods of a possible political murder, ordered from the Kingdom highest level. It comes out that Prince Mohammad bin Salman would have ordered the development of an operation to lure Khashoggi, auto-exiled in Virginia, the US, back to Saudi Arabia, in order to send him in detention.

Jamal Khashoggi was not a radical opponent of Salman’s regime. His articles are dealing in proportion with Riyadh’s power actions, along with numerous critics, bringing the crown prince praises for what, in his opinion, can be seen as “positive changes”, like women right to drive or easing the cultural restrictions, in a profoundly conservative society, strongly influenced by the Islam principles.

Additionally, The Post states that “someone from crown prince’s entourage” would have anonymously mentioned that Khashoggi would have asked him, during last year, to send Mohammad bin Salman the message that he “would need someone like Khashoggi to be his adviser”. The source affirmed that when receiving the message, the “crown prince would have said that Khashoggi cannot become his adviser, due to his connections with Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, both Saudi adversaries”. On the other hand, friends of the journalist said that he would have received some “cordial” phone calls from crown prince’s aids to send him his appreciations for the positive articles regarding Saudi regime’s policies.

Also, Khashoggi would have been called during last month by high officials from Riyadh to trick him with different benefits, including important positions, if he would have come back to Saudi Arabia. It seems that Jamal Khashoggi was skeptical about all these offers, saying to a close friend that he does not believe any of the promises coming from the Saudi government, the only real purpose of Salman’s regime being to “hurt” him.

The hypothesis of an operation to capture Jamal Khashoggi offered intelligence analysts around the world the necessary argument to say that what happened in Riyadh was a plan B kind scenario, which went wrong and ended tragically, with journalist dead. At the operation would have participated 15 people, who came thereafter and left Turkey with two private planes, at different times. From some footage that the Turkish investigators have it comes out that Saudi journalist would have been tortured, this being the exact reason of his violent death.

The numerous evidences regarding American intelligence agencies knowing about such an operation which targets Khashoggi, with at least a couple of months before his departure to Istanbul, raises some questions for The Post about Administration manner to accomplish their “duty to warn” the Saudi journalist about the major danger he was in, as a 2015 Directive foresees and which is applied to all US citizens and residents.

Any uncertainty regarding Jamal Khashoggi’s information spreading inside the American governmental structure, before his disappearance, is seen by the American news agencies as a very sensitive subject for the Administration, considering the togetherness Mohamed bin Salman has with Jared Kushner, president Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

Major tensions in Washington

The apparently utter support which president Trump showed, during time, for Mohammed bin Salman’s policies and his Administration reserves in taking a firm decision for Jamal Khashoggi’s case placed him in an uncomfortable position, internally speaking, especially upon his relation with the Congress. This is the reason why it is highlighted that the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations transmitted president Trump a callout for Khashoggi’s case investigation, under the aegis of a human rights Directive, as The Hill notes.

The Directive, known as Magnitsky Act, forces the president to present in front of the Committee, in 120 days, his decision on imposing or not some sanctions against the states, wherefore human rights were violated. Under these circumstances, the Trump Administration’s options in managing Khashoggi’s case are extremely limited, being forced to ask the crown prince for concrete evidence of non-involvement of Riyadh in an assassinate, a scenario which was already refuted by the Saudi ambassador to Washington. If these proofs will not be out soon, then the Saudi ambassador should “be sent home” as The New York Times notes, and imposing sanction would result an inevitable political option. Actually, many American congressman, democrats and republicans, already asked imposing sanctions to all those who will be found culprit for Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, “including the highest level leaders” from Riyadh. According to some political statements inside the Republican Party, things are going to create a “bipartisan tsunami which will profoundly damage the relations between the two states”.

But why the US Administration should be worried more about US relations with Saudi Arabia, than it was in other international tense situations? The United States already started an extremely aggressive denouncing campaign of some substantial economic agreements with China, world’s second biggest economy and the biggest investor in defence, after the US. The unpredictable consequences of this “economic war” and the premise of starting a new type of “cold war” between these two states, as an important number of western news outlets already name it, did not stop Trump from following consequently his unilaterist policy. Furthermore, the United States started a real aggressive communication offensive against its traditional allies from Europe, painfully asking their defence budget increase and following the American sanctioning policies on some international agreements, which Washington consider it dysfunctional, like the Iranian nuclear treaty or various free trade treaties.

Likewise, the US imposed a new free trade agreement in North-American continent, placing its relation with Canada in uncertainty and tensions, especially after the charges brought by president Trump to Canadian prime-minister, Justin Trudeau, at the G7 summit in Charlevoix.

Nevertheless, in this uncertain and turbulent international context, Washington-Riyadh relations remains essential for the United States both, economically and military. A bunch of analysts from across the ocean say that considering all the states mentioned above, this time we are talking about a relation whereat the United States needs more its partner, than vice versa.

(Un)certainties about United States relation with Saudi Arabia

Bringing back in the international spotlight United States relation with Saudi Arabia shows the historical lack of “common political values” and, consequently, the lack of legitimacy offered by the natural closeness and cooperation in a partnership whereat the states are structurally sharing the values of liberal democracy. The common denominator of both countries’ interests, since the interwar period, was the huge Saudi oil resources and the already chronical necessity in ensuring Middle East stability, in the entire post-imperialist era.

During all these decades, relations’ evolution between these two states was marked by Washington’s increased compromising policy, by the need to counteract the permanent attempts of the big actors with global or regional interest to ease the American presence in the region, no matter if it was about Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation, Iran and, recently, China or even Turkey.

Recently, starting the implementation of some domestic measures, hardly to anticipate not long ago, pushed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to a privileged relation with Washington. Decreasing the Saudi economy dependency on the incomes which come from oil industry, arresting some prominent members of the political and economic elite and detracting some religious excesses or the public institutions reform, are shaping Riyadh’s openness to a new regime, ready to extend its influence and, anterior, its domination, inside the Arabian world, eventually helped by Washington. For this, we must not pass over the fact that president Trump’s first foreign visit, after taking the mandate, was in Saudi Arabia.

Though, regarding foreign policy, Riyadh’s decisions consequences led to the opposite direction. In the majority of cases, these proved to be at least unfortunate, if not damaging. Boycotting Qatar for its support offered to Muslim Brotherhood and for its too tied connections with Turkey and Iran, ended on the contrary of Saudis expectations. The “trust crisis” with Qatar led, actually, to consolidating the relation between Doha and Teheran, respectively Ankara. These consequences can profoundly afflict the American strategy on consolidating the Arabian block, by which Washington wants the active counteraction of Iran’s interests in the region.

Moreover, the military intervention led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen to eliminate the Houthi Shiite insurgence, supported by Iran, created the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, as UN’s General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, named it, in April this year. Also, the evolutions on the ground are creating serious concerns for the American Administration regarding the possibility of a significant resurgence of ISIS and Al Qaida groups’ presence, due to the lack of authority specific to devastated conflict areas. Additionally, Yemenite’s conflict evolution is afflicting the United States interests in Bab el Mandeb strait, which seems to have become “the most dangerous strait in the world”, a truly “deadly geopolitically cocktail” which is “threatening the international shipping”, including “4,7 million barrels of oil per day”, according to The National Interest’s evaluations, made publicly at the end of June.

Furthermore, the Washington-Riyadh relation context must be related with the close economic and military commercial relations between the two states. According to dates published by the US Department of State, Washington reasons that Saudi Arabia plays a “unique role in the Islamic world”, thanks to the ownership of world’s biggest reserve of oil and its strategic position for Middle East. Saudi Arabia is “world’s biggest buyer of the US military products”, across some programs wherefore allocated more than a $100 billion budget.

Additionally, we must not forget that Saudi Arabia moved up to the third position of the World military expenditures in 2017, after the US and China, overpassing for the first time in history, Russia. The three biggest spenders in 2017 together accounted for more than 50 per cent of global military spending, worth $1.740 billion, according to an analysis of International Peace Research Institute, from Stockholm.

As for the economic relations, the United States is Saudi Arabia’s biggest commercial partner, meanwhile Saudi Arabia is one of the US’s biggest commercial partners in Middle East. Also, Riyadh is the second biggest major oil provider to the US market, with more than one million oil barrel volume delivered per day. The United States aim to occupy a central position to offer support and to cooperate in future Saudi-US projects under the aegis of the Saudi 2030 Vision.

Will human rights win even this time?

The picture of economic and military interconnections between United States and Saudi Arabia, but also of the major instabilities and complex security uncertainties from Middle East, are creating a quite frangible framework of world’s expected positions coming from president Trump, for journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance. Generally, it seems that everyone expects a firmer position of the US Administration in the relation with Riyadh.

On the one hand, are expected sanctions imposing, to show, once more, Washington’s consistency in globally demanding the abidance of human rights and protecting its citizens and residents wherever they would be in danger. On the other hand, it is expected to make some pressures on Riyadh to determine them to act responsibly in managing its foreign policies, especially in Yemen’s war, Qatar and Turkey’s conflicts, respectively in all the actions that should led to restricting Iran’s action capacities in Syria and Iraq.

But, strapped for some undoubtful proofs regarding Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at Saudi’s regime order, it is hard to believe that Trump’s Administration will take any of the reminded measures. Actually, president Trump mentioned in an interview for CBS that he ”doesn't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States”, especially that we can presume, without having second thoughts, that Russia and China are ready to immediately takeover the privileged position as strategic weapon systems provider to Saudi Arabia.

Therefore, after almost two weeks from Saudi journalist’s disappearance, Jamal Khashoggi, we can draw the following conclusions:

  1. The premise of an unexpected death determined by cutting lose Jamal Khashoggi’s arrest, in order to illegally transport him in Saudi Arabia seems extremely likely. The Saudis would have never risked developing such operation on the United States territory and, this is the reason why, they have recourse to all methods so not to miss the opportunity of Jamal Khashoggi’s presence in Istanbul. Anyway, if the operation reached the point when the journalist met the operative team, the Saudis would not have accepted, under no circumstances, journalist liberation, not matter the consequences. Additionally, confirming Riyadh’s involvement in Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance would be a strong warning on the evolution of some Saudi regime’s authoritarian practices oriented against regime’s opponents, which would lead to Saudi Arabia coming away from western world’s expectations about a reform and, implicitly, from consolidating Saudi regime’s aspirations to extend is influence over the Arabian world.
  2. Holding off from taking some firm measures by Trump’s Administration to sanction the Saudi regime will only worsen the cleavage between the President and the Congress, especially with the democrat group, already worried by insufficiency’s anticipation of some future penalties with the president calling for national security’s interests. Yet, the huge amount of military commercial ties between Washington and Riyadh will play a decisive role in restraining any sanctions that could harm high level Saudi officials. Also, president Trump constantly mentioning, in front of American reporters, the risk of losing beneficial armament contracts with Saudi Arabia all for Russia or China, suggests that Washington’s Administration does not have the enough influence over Riyadh, a vulnerability that could be further speculated by its competitors on hot security matters from Middle East.
  3. Insufficiency proofs’ premise of Turkish authorities’ investigation, no matter its reason, does not only harm the United States, but also the Saudi regime, which is more and more worn-drown by its foreign policy lack of positive results, considering the intensification of power competition within Middle East. Additionally, in the hypothesis of Saudis interference in Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance it is hard to assume that Riyadh will admit any kind of connection with it and, eventually, will try to influence by any methods, the process of Turkish authorities’ investigation, including from the inside, once with creating the “common action team”, agreed with Ankara.

We will have to see the long- and medium-term economic costs of Washington-Riyadh increasing tensions, which will be the impact on the oil price and, furthermore, how Russia and China would profit by the United States privileged relation estrangement with Saudi Arabia.