The recent intrigues following the sudden disappearance of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, on October 2, 2018 in the country’s consulate in Istanbul have attracted a myriad of conflicting narratives and actions from major players in the international political scene. The Saudi journalist, an insider-turned-critic of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Ibn Salman, is one of the most prominent Saudi journalists. The journalist has recently called out the crown prince after series of human rights violations, arrests and promises of reform in the kingdom. According to a news report by Aljazeera, Khashoggi advocated for freedom of speech in his country, and in September 2017, he criticised the classification of the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists by Saudi Arabia. In a post on twitter, he wrote:
For a while now, I have found that anyone who believes in reform, change, the Arab spring and freedom, and those who are proud of their religion and their country is labelled as being part of the Muslim Brotherhood. It seems that the Brotherhood’s school of thought is noble.
Following the disappearance of Jamal in Istanbul, Turkish sources told media outlets that they believed the writer had been killed inside the consulate in what they described as a ‘premeditated murder’. The United Kingdom, France and Germany vigorously demanded a credible investigation into the disappearance and said they were treating the case with utmost seriousness. However, the initial reaction of the US president, Donald Trump to the news does not seem to tally with that of his European allies. For a country that prides itself as the protector of human rights at home and abroad, the president’s instinctive reaction was that the US would be punishing itself if it halts military sales to Saudi Arabia, even if it is proven that Khashoggi was killed inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul. The assertion of the US president,some analysts have suggested, could have been influenced by the country’s strategic interest in the Middle East which Saudi protects.
Meanwhile, prominent US media outlets and business leaders have boycotted a major Saudi investment conference over the disappearance of Khashoggi. As investigation gets underway, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, CNN, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, among others, said they were no longer participating in the high-profile Future Investment Initiative conference in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, scheduled to begin on October 23.
Notwithstanding the signficance of these boycotts, the ultimate question is whether the US can afford to alienate Riyadh at the detriment of its own economy and strategic interest. To be sure, this is a clear case of human rights versus National interest. According to W.J Hennigan in reference to the nature of the US and Saudi relations, ‘the 75-year-old alliance between the two states has been built on a simple arrangement: American demand for Saudi oil and Saudi demand for American firepower’. Nonetheless, it is also apposite to stress the strategic importance Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of them US allies, play in checking Iran and its ambition to subvert the Jewish state, Israel, in the Middle East.
The United States has threatened to sanction Saudi if probes establish any link between Riyadh and Khasoggi’s murder. Whereas Washington and Riyadh have exchanged words in the past weeks on who benefits more from their long standing friendship, the credibility of the threats of sanctions against Saudi is foggy at the moment.
US policymakers will naturally weigh the consequences of angering Saudi Arabia which, apart from its multibillion dollars investment in the US economy, is also key to US policies in the Middle East. Some foreign policy analysts have linked Saudi’s newfound dilly-dally on Palestine to a secret pact the kingdom allegedly struck with the United States and Israel. Thus, it would be very difficult for the US to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia after the latter ‘conveniently’ admitted that Jamal Khashoggi was indeed killed in the country’s consulate in Istanbul following a ‘brawl’. The kingdom has also sacked and arrested 18 of its nationals, including the Royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al- Asiri. One cannot also help but wonder if these people are just victims of circumstances or major actors in the death of the journalist or fall-guys!
Apparently banking on its strategic importance to the US in the Middle East geopolitics and its vast oil deposit, Saudi Arabia has promised severe retaliations on any attempt to undermine it whether through threats of sanctions or the use of political pressure, threatening to respond to any action with a bigger one. On the other hand, the US congress has called for a halt in the future arms sales to Saudi Arabia following the disappearance of the Saudi journalist, with senator Rubio asserting that ‘if we do not take action, including potential arms sales, as a result of this, then we are not going to be able to, with a straight face or any credibility, confront Putin or Assad or Maduro in Venezuela or frankly the Chinese and their human rights violation’. Will the action of the US president, in this instance, align with the image of a toothless bulldog in dealing with Saudi Arabia or give precedence to national interest over human rights and damn the moral consequences feared by Rubio?
BY ALLISON OKIKIOLA