The ‘Khashoggi Affair’ endangers U.S.-Saudi ties

The problem, he explained, is that if the US calls for a new leader, the crown prince has left no one to take up that role.

October 22, 2018 02:00
3 minute read.
The ‘Khashoggi Affair’ endangers U.S.-Saudi ties

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in the Oval Office on Tuesday. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)


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As international pressure mounts for an independent investigation into the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul earlier this month, Saudi Arabia has issued a new version of the journalist’s death that contradicts its previous explanations.

After adamantly denying any involvement in the reporter’s disappearance, Riyadh is now claiming Khashoggi was killed on October 2 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi authorities, speaking on the condition of anonymity, claimed on Saturday that the journalist died during a “brawl” after a botched interrogation in which they tried to persuade Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia. His body has not been found.

Khashoggi, who contributed to The Washington Post, wrote critically of the Saudi regime’s war in Yemen and arrest of rights activists.

After Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ascended to power last year, the journalist went into self-imposed exile in the United States. He was in Turkey at the time of his death to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage to Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish national.

After the kingdom reportedly opened a probe, arresting 18 people and sacking senior intelligence officials.

Yet many observers, including European leaders and U.S. officials, remain skeptical, with some calling the latest Saudi account “incomplete.” Some critics suspect it is a feeble attempt to shield Bin Salman from any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, Ankara has been steadily leaking information about the case, recently releasing an audio recording that supposedly proves Khashoggi was tortured and dismembered inside the consulate.

The episode could very well put the US’ close relationship with Saudi Arabia at risk.

US President Donald Trump initially called the incident “unacceptable,” but later appeared to back away from extended criticism of Saudi Arabia, saying that the US would not want to jeopardize an arms sale with the kingdom estimated at $100 billion.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line that Trump is right to be hesitant on this issue, for a lot is at stake.

Yet, he added, “the US 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 Bin Salman’s head.”

The problem, he explained, is that if the US 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,” Guzansky said.

He added that the US might encourage the Saudis to better distribute authority and decision-making by, for example, giving more political weight to Khalid bin Salman, Bin Salman’s brother, although the former is younger and less experienced than the crown prince.

Guzansky concluded that a compromise might be found in which the US could curtail the arms deal to the Saudis. The US Congress heavily scrutinized the deal and nearly succeeded in freezing some arms shipments.

Brandon Friedman, the Director of Research at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at the Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that the Trump administration is signaling that it wants to help the Saudis put this incident behind them, so the two allies can move forward.

“Obviously, there is still a strong sense of converging strategic interests that haven’t really changed despite what many in the US feel is unacceptable behavior,” Friedman said.

“One of the key questions that remains to be seen is: How far will the US Congress push this? On one hand, you have the White House signaling that it wants to move on, and the other, Congress has a much more diverse range of opinions as to how this incident should affect the US-Saudi relationship.”

Friedman concluded that what journalists and other observers “need to be careful about is that there are a lot of actors—both on the US domestic scene, but also in the Middle East—who will try to use this particular incident to advance whatever their own narrow political agenda might be.”

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