The journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to finalize a divorce before he was due to be married to a new wife the following day. His fiancée waited outside the consulate while he went inside. Once he walked through the consulate’s doors, he was never seen alive again. Since then, the U.S./Saudi relationship has come under serious strain as a diplomatic storm has erupted and many doubt if Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (M.B.S.) is fit to be the next Saudi King.
Khashoggi, 59, was seen as a mild critic of M.B.S. who he called “the boy.” He described M.B.S. as impetuous, using selective justice, and behaving like Vladimir Putin. Rather than tolerate having his career suppressed by the Saudi regime, Khashoggi moved to America, applied for U.S. citizenship, and began working for The Washington Post where he continued his criticism of the Saudi regime and M.B.S.
When Jamal Khashoggi failed to reappear from the Saudi consulate on October 2, his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, went inside to inquire about him. She was told he had left out the back door. Suspicious, Cengiz contacted the Istanbul authorities. The Turkish government was quick to state that Khashoggi had never left the consulate. Soon, reports were being made in Turkey that Khashoggi had been murdered by a hit squad while he was in the consult. Saudi Arabia denied the allegations by saying they were “malicious leaks and grim rumours.”
By October 11, reports were becoming public that Turkey was in possession of a secret audio recording from the Saudi consulate of Khashoggi being interrogated, tortured, and brutally killed by a group of men. Then video footage was released by the Turkish government showing a man impersonating Khashoggi by dressing in his clothes while leaving the Saudi consulate in what appeared to be a poor effort to throw investigators off.
On October 20, Saudi Arabia finally admitted, despite its past denials, that Khashoggi had indeed been killed, by accident, inside the consulate as a result of a fist fight that broke out. The Kingdom would once again change their story five days later and acknowledge that Khashoggi was instead the victim of a premediated murder. Some reports state that Khashoggi’s body was destroyed by being dumped in acid. The Saudi government has made multiple arrests in their investigation and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for at least five people, including one of M.B.S.’s close personal associates. The country now maintains that those responsible for the murder acted on their own initiative without the knowledge of M.B.S. or the government.
However, that last point was immediately cast aside as unlikely by those who are familiar with how the Saudi government works. Senator Lindsay Graham said, “I find it impossible to believe the Crown Prince wasn’t involved.” Graham went on to say that M.B.S. needs to be removed as Crown Prince and therefor as a future Saudi King. “You will never convince me he didn’t do this…”
A C.I.A. investigation into the Khashoggi murder found, with a high degree of confidence, that M.B.S. had indeed ordered the killing. The Washington Post, which first reported on the C.I.A. findings on its felled colleague said the report used evidence that M.B.S.’s own brother was used to lure Khashoggi to the consulate to be murdered. “In reaching its conclusions,” The Washington Post article says, “the C.I.A. examined multiple sources of intelligence, including a phone call that the prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had with Khashoggi, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence. Khalid told Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, that he should go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to retrieve the documents and gave him assurances that it would be safe to do so.”
The Khashoggi murder and its links to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia put the Trump Administration in a bind. It has been caught in a situation where it has to navigate between punishing Saudi Arabia for murdering a U.S. resident and journalist to send a message that that behavior is unacceptable and also keeping such punishment from affecting the role Saudi Arabia plays as an important geopolitical ally in the Middle East and the world. Saudi Arabia still accounts for 10 percent of global oil output and its Sunni dominated society along with its role with keeping Islam’s holiest sites, makes it a critical bulwark in confronting Iran. This would be a tight rope to walk for any U.S. president. A similar comparison can be made with how President George H. W. Bush had to walk a fine line with China after their military brutally cracked down on the Tienanmen Square protesters in 1989. Many historians credit Bush with successfully sanctioning China without causing serious or long-lasting damage to the relationship.
However, President Trump is no President H. W. Bush, and he characteristically lacks any sense of diplomatic nuance or dexterity. On November 15, the Trump Administration announced sanctions on 17 individuals tied to the Khashoggi murder which was widely seen as a very light response that does nothing to punish the Saudi government. On November 20, Trump put together a statement about the Khashoggi murder clearly letting Saudi Arabia off the hook, and once again cast doubt on the findings from his own intelligence community by saying about the fact M.B.S. knew ahead of time about the murder, “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
His remarks were criticized by both sides of the political aisle with members of Congress pushing to pass legislation to further hold the government of Saudi Arabia responsible for the murder. Also, countries like Denmark, Finland, and Germany have stepped up and suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the murder. This is something Trump refuses to do, even in part, citing the money gained and U.S. jobs created by arms sales to the Kingdom. In his bid to keep the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia from being hurt, Trump has dropped some important balls while juggling this crisis. The most alarming of which is the signaling that the U.S. might look the other way if a country with a strategic alliance kills members of the U.S. press or U.S. residents. Ultimately, though, Trump has come down on the right side of the problem, and that is to keep the relationship with Saudi Arabia from seriously fracturing because of its strategic importance to U.S. security.
The Khashoggi killing is just the latest headache caused by M.B.S. He has recklessly entered Saudi Arabia into a war that has become a strategic and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. He had the prime minister of Lebanon kidnapped, worked to undermine Qatar, and arrested members of his own family who refused to back his consolidation of power. Most recently he froze relations with Canada over a critical tweet and arrested political activists, including women, seeking greater rights. It would be wise for Saudi Arabia to consider someone else to be its next ruler before they are forced to really pay a price for M.B.S.’s transgressions. That price could come to be demanded after a simple miscalculation or some unforeseen series of events like those that led to the Arab Spring and to the downfall of repressive governments across the region.