If proven true, the allegation that Saudi Arabia killed Jamal Khashoggi – the kingdom’s most internationally renowned public intellectual – in one of its own diplomatic posts in Turkey will create a difficult predicament for the United States regarding its 73-year old strategic alliance with the oil-rich kingdom. Washington cannot ignore this brazen killing, which could implicate the soon-to-be king Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known by the nickname MbS). At the same time, the Trump administration cannot react in a manner that undermines the stability of the monarchy and aggravates the regional imbalance of power. There is no easy way to balance both imperatives, but Washington will have to tread carefully as it nudges the kingdom towards serious political reforms as a way out of this crisis.
Implications of Khashoggi’s Death
The precise circumstances in which Khashoggi, a prominent columnist, died after entering his country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 remain unclear. After 15 days of reports – largely based on leaks by Turkish authorities – what is clear is that Saudi intelligence operatives likely were behind Khashoggi’s death. The New York Times reported Oct. 16 that several of the Saudi agents thought to be involved are part of the crown prince’s inner security circle. In a world where perceptions matter more than reality, this revelation makes it extremely difficult for the world to believe that MbS had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s death, which the Saudis are trying to portray as the work of rogue officials.
Turkey, meanwhile, is trying to use Khashoggi’s death as a means to weaken Saudi Arabia’s regional influence. The kingdom is the one Arab state financially capable of resisting Istanbul’s efforts to establish itself as the leader of the Sunni Middle East. This complicates the Trump administration’s efforts to handle the crisis created by the Saudi regime, which has rapidly changed from a risk-averse polity to a regime in hyper-assertive mode under MbS’s leadership. The Saudis know best what transpired on the afternoon of Oct. 2 when Khashoggi walked into the consulate. But the Turks have the best intelligence because they are leading the investigation. They will leverage whatever they find and their status as the host country of the diplomatic facility where the crime was committed, to try to extract concessions from the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Washington eventually will have to step in and bring this matter to some sense of closure. Therefore, the Americans need the Turks to cooperate to keep President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government from undermining U.S. efforts to resolve this issue. For now, it remains unclear what the Turks will accept as a price for cooperating. At the very least, the United States needs to make sure that Turkey and Iran do not take advantage of the situation and enhance their regional influence at the expense of the Saudis.
Complicating this task is the fact that all the evidence points to the Saudis being responsible for the disappearance and likely murder of a journalist who was a permanent U.S. resident and wrote for The Washington Post. If the Saudis’ involvement is proven, Riyadh will need to be held responsible – and this makes things even more complex because of the growing perception that MbS himself was involved. Even if it is true that the crown prince did not give the order to murder Khashoggi, he did order the journalist’s abduction, it doesn’t bode well for a young leader – one who is expected to inherit the throne from his ailing father and who could remain monarch for as much as a half a century. The Saudis have thus created a long-term geopolitical problem for the United States.
Future U.S.-Saudi Dealings
It will be extremely difficult to rehabilitate the crown prince’s image. Even before the Khashoggi incident, MbS had a bad reputation internationally for jailing opponents, intimidating fellow royals and other members of the elite, starting a war in Yemen that has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe, and a host of other misadventures. But as often happens in these situations, MbS will extricate himself from this crisis by having a subordinate take the blame for Khashoggi’s murder. While the crown prince has lost credibility internationally, he will likely remain at the helm because any efforts to replace him are bound to create instability in the kingdom.
As hard as it will be for the United States to do business as usual with MbS, especially with so much opposition at home and abroad, Washington cannot afford to take a stance against Riyadh that is so tough it weakens the kingdom. That would only enhance the growing vacuum in the Arab world that the Turks and the Iranians are eager to fill. But well before Turkey or Iran began to take advantage of the situation, it is likely that a weakened Saudi regime would attract radical elements like Daesh and al Qaeda. Fears of just that situation prevent the United States from massive tough sanctions against the Saudis – even though Saudi policies have enabled the rise of jihadist actors elsewhere in the region.
That said, Khashoggi’s death has created a situation where simply ignoring the ills of the Saudi regime is no longer in the best interest of Washington or the rest of the world. His killing lays bare the reality that the once cautious Saudi regime is now led by an inexperienced leader who is trying to consolidate power at home at all costs and fast-tracking a hyper-assertive foreign policy. Both of these policy tracks are bound to make matters worse. Washington must use this tragic opportunity to seriously press the Saudis to engage in genuine political reform, which is the only effective check against reckless behavior that threatens the stability of the kingdom as well as international security.