Its not just Jamal Khashoggi.
The disappearance and reported killing of the refom-minded Saudi journalist at a consulate in Istanbul is only the latest in a succession of developments that have cast serious doubt upon the trajectory of Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Since the 33-year-old son of King Salman leapfrogged dozens of older and more experienced cousins to become Saudi Arabias next-generation leader in 2015, he has lurched from one mistake to another.
He launched a seemingly unwinnable war in Yemen. He demanded a blockade of neighboring Qatar that appears more pointless with every passing month. He ordered the detention of hundreds of journalists, clerics, activists, officials and businesspeople, including, briefly, Lebanons prime minister, Saad al-Hariri. He oversaw a diplomatic rupture with Canada in a furious overreaction to fairly routine criticism.
This pattern of behavior has earned “MBS,” as he is commonly known, a reputation as an impulsive, even reckless decision-maker, but until recently he has faced little domestic or international pushback or crossed a bridge too far. Indeed, it seems like only yesterday that the young Saudi leader was being feted in Americas op-ed pages and foreign-policy salons as a visionary reformer who just wanted to drag his hidebound country into the 21st century.
For decades, Saudi Arabia has been an awkward partner for the U.S., but the relationship was robust enough to endure periods of acute crisis such as September 11.
All that now may change if it is proven beyond reasonable doubt that Khashoggi was killed while visiting the Saudi Consulate on October 3 or that senior policymakers in Riyadh either ordered or were aware of the plan to target him. Circumstantial evidence, and the fact that Khashoggi remains missing a week after he was last seen alive entering the consulate, has accumulated to the point where the burden of proof falls on the Saudis to show that Khashoggi left the consulate unscathed and of his own accord. This the Saudis have been unable to do, on the flimsy pretext that the surveillance system at the consulate was livestream only and did not record actual footage. A drip-drip of other tidbits of detail, such as the suggestion that Khashoggi was asked to return to the consulate three days after his initial appointment to complete paperwork needed for his forthcoming marriage to a Turkish woman, or that local Turkish staff reportedly were told not to go into work the day of his disappearance, and the discovery that a team of 15 Saudi security personnel flew into Istanbul and were at the consulate during Khashoggis visit, have added to the crescendo of accusations that the Saudis have been unable to explain away or offer even a plausible alternative course of events.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Yemeni Tawakkol Karman (C) holds a picture of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi as she speaks to medias during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate on October 8, 2018 in Istanbul | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images
If the Saudis indeed killed Khashoggi, and thought they could get away with it, they have made a grave miscalculation. Not only was he a contributing writer for the influential Washington Post op-ed page — which has been thundering in its demands for accountability — but Khashoggi was well-known on Capitol Hill as a leading Saudi reformer. Members of Congress, including prominent Republicans such as foreign affairs committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee and Trump-whisperer Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have expressed outrage at Saudi Arabias behavior and threatened to invoke sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, a bill that allows the executive branch to impose targeted sanctions and visa bans on individuals worldwide responsible for human rights violations.
MBSs crackdown goes well beyond Khashoggi, however. Over the past year, the authorities in Saudi Arabia have arrested dozens, if not hundreds, of writers, journalists, clerics and, most recently, womens rights advocates, whose arrest in May and June sparked international criticism but little else. The furious Saudi response to comments by the Canadian foreign minister served notice that Saudi Arabia under MBS is not prepared to tolerate external criticism of its domestic affairs, and the descriptions of many of the political detainees as “agents of embassies” and “traitors” in Saudi state-linked media left foreign diplomats shaken by the vehemence of the authorities reaction. And yet, the only real international pressure that forced MBS into a climbdown came after Hariris detention in November 2017, when then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made it clear the action was unacceptable to the U.S. and French President Emmanuel Macron intervened to secure the Lebanese prime ministers release.
None of that had any lasting consequences, it seems. This time, though, MBS and his entourage appear to have gravely underestimated the scale of the U.S. political reaction to Khashoggis disappearance and presumed death, in part because for much of the foreign policy community in Washington, Khashoggi was a colleague, a friend, and, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recklessly revealed, a source. Khashoggis fate is personal in a way that the plight of many of the other political detainees is not, and the horrifying nature of his apparent death — some reports say he was dismembered with a bone saw and his body parts carried out of the consulate — has added to the sense of shock and disbelief that any state would engage in such activity — still less a state that has invested so heavily in crafting a narrative that many in the Beltway appeared to want to at least give the benefit of the doubt and a chance to succeed. Three years of patient, well-funded Gulf advocacy on behalf of MBS and his “reforms” have suffered probably irreparable damage. Moreover, in a deeply polarized Washington, the outrage at Khashoggis fate is not only raw and real but is also the increasingly rare issue that crosses political lines and reaches deeply into the foreign policy establishments in both parties. Rarer still in Washington, it includes previous regime boosters engaging in very public expressions of mea culpa.
Jamal Khashoggi | AFP via Getty Images
If the worst that happens to Saudi Arabia is a rap on the knuckles from the State Department and reputational damage in the Beltway, that would likely be a price MBS deems worth paying for silencing the kingdoms highest-profile and best-connected critic. The outpouring of political fury from Congress, though not from the president himself, has taken the Saudis by surprise, and the more the circumstantial evidence accumulates the more the firestorm may intensify. Should Saudi government officials or elements of the Royal Court be implicated in the disappearance, it risks creating even greater reputational blowback than the September 11 attacks, as by and large the political and intelligence communities in Washington accepted that the Saudi government had no official role in those atrocities. No such plausible deniability may exist this time to buffer Saudi ruling circles from the political fallout of an action that once again has reportedly involved 15 Saudi nationals, only this time with suggestions that they may have been acting on some sort of official order.
Having bragged in 2017 about how he got the Saudis to stump up $110 billion in deals as the price of making Riyadh his first overseas visit as President, Donald Trump has signaled his reluctance to see those agreements jeopardized as a result of an anti-Saudi backlash in the U.S. Trump has touted the agreements made in Riyadh as evidence of his ability as a dealmaker to secure U.S. jobs and expressed concern that the Saudis would turn to competitors, such as Russia or China, if the U.S. became hostile to Saudi investment. Should this happen, Trump told Fox News, it “would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.” Trump and parts of his White House might therefore share the Saudi view that the outrage will dissipate over time, especially as attention in the U.S. returns to the midterm elections as November 6 nears.
But if congressional anger persists, it may translate into renewed actions to rein in U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and support for Saudi initiatives such as the war in Yemen, building on the momentum from a Senate attempt last spring to invoke a provision in the 1973 War Powers Act that would force a vote to end U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. That March 20 vote was defeated 55-44 but political concern at the war has escalated since then as Yemens humanitarian crisis has spiraled and atrocities such as the bombing of a busload of schoolchildren in August have galvanized public opinion against the three-year conflict. MBS already had an image problem among members of Congress from both parties who did not take favorably to him during his meetings on the Hill in his March 2018 Washington visit.
Khashoggis disappearance could just be the spark that jolts the Beltway into action as it looks to have claimed one of its own in a real-world consequence of the cavalier approach shown by the Trump administration in its first 18 months in office to the rules-based international system.
Protestors hold pictures of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate on October 8, 2018 in Istanbul | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images
For decades, Saudi Arabia has been an awkward partner for the U.S., but the relationship was robust enough to endure periods of acute crisis such as September 11. This time, however, the goodwill might finally have run out as politicians and businesspeople have turned on MBS with a speed last seen in the case of Libyas Saif Gaddafi, another youthful leader-in-waiting championed by his Western supporters as a reforming influence.
Jamal Khashoggi spent his career flitting in and out of the Saudi establishment and the last year of his life chronicling the trajectory of the kingdom MBS was attempting to make his own. How tragically ironic that in his disappearance and probable death, Khashoggi may have done more to get Washington to see the troubling reality of MBSs Saudi Arabia than he ever could have done alive and in his writing.
Kristian Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at Rice Universitys Baker Institute for Public Policy and the author of four books on the political economy and international relations of Gulf states.
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