How Saudi Arabia disastrously miscalculated the Khashoggi affair

Saudi Arabia now risks losing support in the United States, its closest ally for more than half a century.

Human rights activists and friends of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold his pictures during a protest outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 8, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER/FILE PHOTO)
Human rights activists and friends of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold his pictures during a protest outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 8, 2018
Over the weekend US President Donald Trump promised “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia was shown to have killed Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and former insider of the kingdom. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has demanded the “truth” and a chorus of US Senators and Congressmen have lined up to condemn Riyadh. Lindsey Graham said there would be “hell to pay.” Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Saudi Arabia now risks losing support in the United States, its closest ally for more than half a century. Mass media, from The Washington Post where Khashoggi was a columnist, to CNN and the New York Times have excoriated Saudi Arabia, with CNN and others pulling out of a the Future Investment Initiative, a massive business conference. At the UN, where Saudi Arabia has sat on the Human Rights Council for most of the past 11 years, there is unprecedented criticism. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has even said that the UK can only be allies with countries that share values.
Turkey says it has recordings of Khashoggi"s murder, October 14, 2018 (Reuters)
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The huge outpouring of fury at Saudi Arabia is unique historically. The country has often enjoyed almost total support in the West, despite a long record of human rights abuses. According to The Guardian, in February 2016 Prince Sultan bin Turki was allegedly kidnapped to Saudi Arabia when his private flight was diverted from flying to Cairo. According to the report there have been several high profile kidnappings over the years by Saudi Arabia, usually targeting wayward members of the royal family. In one case a man was injected with a sedative in Geneva and taken on board a plane.
Riyadh must be wondering why the Khashoggi affair has unfolded so differently. Is it because he was a journalist? In July, three Russian journalists were murdered in the Central African Republic and were largely forgotten. In 2016, Italian researcher and student Giulio Regeni was abducted, tortured and murdered in Egypt. Khashoggi’s disappearance on October 2 was greeted with a very different response. From the UN to US Congress to international businesses, such as Uber, there has been an outcry.
The reason for this is because Saudi Arabia appears to have disastrously underestimated the fallout. Since Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ascended to power in 2017 he has faced criticism abroad. Much of this has painted him as young and “reckless” and bringing “instability” to the kingdom. MBS, as he is often called, ostensibly wanted to reform Saudi Arabia. Supposedly Western governments wanted these reforms, such as women being allowed to drive. But the reality is that the more Islamic conservative and “stable” Saudi Arabia has been the one constant countries like the United States prefer over a more nationalist Riyadh.
Khashoggi’s biography symbolized this Janus-faced approach to Saudi Arabia. He was passionate about the Muslim Brotherhood when he was younger and appeared to have supported Osama Bin Laden in the 1980s. Later he cultivated connections to Saudi power structures as a journalist-insider. He even advised the kingdom on its media image. He was also a key source for US officials in Riyadh. Leaked diplomatic cables reveal that a succession of US ambassadors from 1988 to 2012 relied on him for information on the Kingdom. Some relied on him personally and others were consistent readers of his work.
In 2017, as MBS increasingly began to crack down on dissidents, even as he pushed “reform,” Khashoggi found that his mild criticism was too much for Riyadh. He went abroad and began appearing on Al-Jazeera and other media that the Saudi kingdom saw as bitter enemies. Most problematic, he wrote in US media. This provided the cover for US media that had wanted to criticize the kingdom but had been hesitant in the past. Now they had a Saudi insider and they could be seen to be supporting Saudi Arabia while merely critiquing its current Crown Prince.
In addition, the Trump administration’s outreach to MBS, including the Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May 2017 and the MBS trip to Washington in March 2018, made Saudi Arabia suddenly a political issue in Washington. Now those who despised the Trump administration could use criticism of Saudi Arabia against Trump. Riyadh became a partisan issue in one of the rare instances since its relations with the US began in the 20th century.
Whatever happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul now poses a real risk to Saudi Arabia. It has not handled public relations well since October 2. Its foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir has not been giving speeches. Usually, he is tenacious in defense of the kingdom, as he was when Riyadh sanctioned Canada in August. It appears the kingdom didn’t think through the consequences of what happens when a well-connected and well-known Saudi disappears in its consulate in Istanbul. This wasn’t like the case of the Russian journalists in central Africa or the Italian in Egypt, because it didn’t happen in some quiet location. If Khashoggi had disappeared while out for a jog it might be another matter.
Some have suggested the brazen disappearance is related to a feeling the kingdom had a blank check from the Trump administration to do what it wishes. But why do it in Turkey, one of the most important countries in the Middle East and one that is hostile to Riyadh? Turkey was under economic strain and perhaps the kingdom thought it could hold that as leverage. But Turkey has turned the tables, slowly leaking information, such as photos of suspicious Saudis at the airport and alluding to a recording of the murder. Turkey also released a detained US pastor on Friday.
In the US, Saudi Arabia has now become a major issue, like the Brett Kavanaugh controversy. Code Pink and other groups are protesting. Momentum is building. There is a snowball affect of pressure for businesses and others to pull out of Saudi connections. Riyadh would never have calculated that this could happen. But that appears to be because it didn’t calculate this affair at all. Just like in 2016 when princes went missing in Europe and were quietly flown back to Riyadh, it appears that whoever planned this thought it might go the same way. But those princes didn’t work for The Washington Post. They didn’t have years of connections with former US diplomats and other influential people. And they were not journalists disappeared while visiting a consulate. They went missing on the street or while flying. The westerners with them were told to keep quiet. It was internal palace business. Not an international assassination, as this is being portrayed.
As the scandal continues to unfold, it is a message for other countries, including US allies. There are limits and red lines. Western countries will generally ignore most human rights abuses. The UK claiming their relationships are about values today cannot explain why they had close relations before. No Western country that claims to care about values could explain why it has close relations with Pakistan where people are sentenced to death for blasphemy. The lesson is that most countries can commit human rights crimes at home, they can even disappear people abroad, but they have to be careful. This affair won’t change how the world works, but it may set the kingdom back in its foreign relations and cause it to shift its focus to Russia, China and other countries, as Western businesses, media and politicians give it the cold shoulder.