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Will the Khashoggi affair change the course of US-Saudi relations?

Why We Wrote This

A president who is generally laissez faire when it comes to other countries’ internal affairs now faces a Congress that is far more critical. Which approach will shape relations with a Mideast ally whose behavior is now under scrutiny?

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Members of the Turkish-Arab journalist association carry posters with photos of missing Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi as they protest near the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul Oct. 8.

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US policy toward Saudi Arabia has run into serious trouble. There is mounting evidence that a prominent Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered in Turkey by a Saudi hit squad. The Trump administration’s reaction to the case was criticized as being delayed, but the allegations have spawned a bipartisan call from Congress for sanctions to be imposed on Saudi Arabia if it turns out Mr. Khashoggi was indeed killed by Saudi operatives. President Trump “has a longstanding position that he doesn’t care very much about internal affairs – ‘How you run your country is up to you’ is how he likes to put it – so I would assume that would be his impulse in this case,” says Patrick Clawson, an expert in US-Saudi relations. Others say what is already known about Khashoggi’s disappearance is enough to trigger some action. “I can’t imagine the outcome is going to be no change,” says Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But the outcome is not going to be the US ending its close relationship with Saudi Arabia,” either, he adds. “It will be a calibrated approach that will be criticized as inadequate by some people.”   

Ever since President Trump accepted the counsel of son-in-law and Middle East adviser Jared Kushner to make Saudi Arabia the first foreign trip of his presidency, it was clear that the kingdom was to be the linchpin of his administration’s regional policy.

From countering Iran and achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace to promoting sustainable reforms of rigid Arab societies, Saudi Arabia under its young crown prince (and de facto leader) Mohammed bin Salman would be Washington’s go-to partner in the region.

Now the Saudi strategy Mr. Kushner engineered has been rattled and indeed threatens to come crashing down.

The reason? The stunning allegations – which Mr. Trump this week hinted are likely more fact than accusation – that a prominent Saudi journalist and US resident, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered in Turkey by a Saudi government hit squad dispatched by the crown prince.

Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance Oct. 2 while with Saudi officials in Turkey has prompted little in the way of clarifying information from the Saudis. But it has spawned vociferous reaction from rights groups and a bipartisan call from Congress for answers – and for sanctions to be imposed on Saudi Arabia if it turns out Khashoggi was indeed killed by Saudi operatives.

Trump, too, has expressed his disapproval of Khashoggi’s disappearance – although it took the White House more than a week to comment on the case. That delay, as well as the president’s stated reluctance to take punitive action, suggests to some regional analysts that any rough period ahead for US-Saudi relations could be short-lived.

“This president has a longstanding position that he doesn’t care very much about internal affairs – ‘How you run your country is up to you’ is how he likes to put it – so I would assume that would be his impulse in this case,” says Patrick Clawson, an expert in US-Saudi relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Reflecting that, the US position toward the Saudis is going to be that ‘This [the Khashoggi affair] is not good for your interests,’ ” Mr. Clawson adds. “It’s not going to be that this is a moral outrage that calls into question our relations or that outweighs our common interests.”

Others say the facts of the case will determine the US response, but that what is already known about Khashoggi’s disappearance is enough to trigger some action.

“I can’t imagine the outcome is going to be no change, based on the unrefuted pattern of facts” already established, says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and a former special assistant to the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

“But the outcome is not going to be the US ending its close relationship with Saudi Arabia,” either, he adds. “It will be a calibrated approach that will be criticized as inadequate by some people.”

Intelligence picked up 'chatter'

Kashoggi’s last verified whereabouts was the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where his fiancée says he made an appointment to get documents for their upcoming wedding. Saudi officials insist Khashoggi left the consulate after his appointment and that they do not know where he is.

But Turkish officials assert he was killed in the consulate by a hit squad of 15 agents dispatched from Riyadh, his body dismembered and transported to Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, Turkish officials claimed to have audio and video tapes of Kashoggi’s interrogation, torture, and murder in the consulate.

US intelligence officials confirm that over recent weeks they had picked up chatter among Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and then to detain him, as first reported by the Washington Post.

That information raised questions about whether Khashoggi was informed of the plan concerning him – US intelligence agencies operate under a “duty to warn” individuals of such intercepted plots, even if the individual is not an American citizen.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was no radical anti-regime dissident but rather a Saudi insider who gradually soured on the royal court — and in particular on the crown prince.

And senior Trump administration officials have lent credence to the darkest conjectures about Khashoggi. The White House announced this week that Kushner, national security adviser John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo each called Crown Prince Mohammed and implored the kingdom to come clean – officially “be transparent” – about Khashoggi’s fate.

And then there was Trump’s assertion Wednesday to Fox News that, while he did not like where the evidence appeared to be pointing concerning Khashoggi, he also did not foresee taking actions – such as cutting off arm sales to Saudi Arabia – that would hurt US industry and jobs.

Following Iran's playbook?

At the same time, some regional analysts say the Khashoggi affair can’t help but cast doubt on US relations with Saudi Arabia – in particular concerning the kingdom’s role in the Trump White House’s plan for countering Iranian adventurism and malign activities – including ruthless repression of political dissidents at home and abroad.

If Saudi Arabia is increasingly seen to be following the Iranian playbook, they say – mounting elaborate missions to silence journalists and dissidents by jailing or even killing them, and wreaking havoc across the region, as exemplified by the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen – it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the White House to follow its Saudi strategy.

Congressional pressure to hold Saudi Arabia accountable in meaningful ways intensified all week. “Any message from Congress that support is being threatened has a deep effect on the kingdom – and that message is being sent every day,” says Mr. Alterman at CSIS.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent Trump a letter formally requesting the White House conduct an investigation under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The act was first passed in response to Russia’s jailing and death while in custody of anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. It calls on the president to conduct an investigation into a case of state-sponsored human rights violations and to report back to the Senate committee with findings and a determination of whether sanctions should be imposed.

Recourse to the Magnitsky Act is a “pretty strong step,” Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee said Thursday that any determination of a Saudi role in Khashoggi’s disappearance would put the administration under “immense pressure” to follow through with action, such as sanctions.

From 'reformer' to 'rogue'

Other senators are going further, suggesting that arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted if it is determined the Saudi state killed Khashoggi.

Calling for a “fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia” if an investigation reveals that a “US resident” was “murdered” by Saudi officials, Sen. Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut said cutting off arms sales would be an obvious step. “The United States cannot be in a military partnership with a country that has this little concern for human life,” he said.

Other senators acknowledge that Saudi Arabia is likely to remain a strategic partner of the US under almost any scenario, but they insist that after Khashoggi it can’t be business as usual.

Regional analysts who have been supportive of close US-Saudi relations, and in particular of the two powers’ efforts to counter Iran, lament that the Khashoggi case will likely act as something of a last straw that tips relations, perhaps back to the days of tensions experienced during the Obama administration.

Crown Prince Mohammed, familiarly known as MBS, is on the brink of shifting in US perceptions from “reformer” to “rogue,” says Elliott Abrams, a former US diplomat and National Security Council Middle East director who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Indeed over the past year MBS, hailed in some circles for allowing Saudi women to drive and for anticorruption initiatives against some Saudi high and mighty, has also ordered a string of blatant extraterritorial exercises of power that went largely unchallenged and that experts say may have led the prince to conclude that his crackdowns on regime critics had Washington’s tacit approval.

MBS has detained thousands of rights and reform activists. Last March, in a move that some say presaged the Saudi state’s Khashoggi mission, a Saudi women’s rights activist was nabbed in Abu Dhabi and whisked back to Saudi Arabia where she was jailed. And in a bizarre caper last November, Saudi officials detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri while on a visit to the kingdom – even ordering him to go on TV and announce his resignation. (He is still in office.)

'Act first and think later'

More recently, Saudi Arabia in August cut trade ties with Canada, ordered all Saudi students in Canada to return home, and expelled the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh after the Canadian Embassy issued a tweet calling for the release of jailed women’s rights activists.

Saying the Canadian episode showcased MBS as an “impetuous leader who tends to act first and think later,” the Washington Institute’s Clawson says he expects the White House to have harsh words for the Saudi leadership over Khashoggi – but, as Trump has already indicated, not to fundamentally disrupt relations if the White House can avoid it.

Alterman of CSIS says the one thing that might prompt a rethinking by the crown prince is a sense growing in the kingdom that his actions have gone on to the point of undermining US-Saudi relations.

“There’s no question that the most significant accomplishment Mohammed bin Salman has is revitalizing the US-Saudi relationship,” says Alterman, who notes that there was a sense that the strategic partnership was “slipping away” under President Barack Obama, presenting a “profound challenge to the security of the kingdom.”

What that means, in his view, is that US actions in response to the Khashoggi affair “intended to somehow change the Saudis’ behavior” will have an impact, “more profoundly on the crown prince than on anything else.”

The question will be “how much anything the US does will change Saudi behavior,” he says, “and that remains very unclear.”

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