Is Saudi-US relationship 'too important and too strong' to be impacted by Khashoggi's murder?

Is Saudi-US relationship 'too important and too strong' to be impacted by Khashoggi's murder?
While some European governments have distanced themselves from the 'bloody prince', this cannot be said for the US administration which remains the main backer of Saudi Arabia under MbS.
7 min read
02 October, 2019
Trump and MbS are known to have very close, personal ties [Getty]
Since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi a year ago today, Saudi Arabia and its rulers are yet to face any serious consequences over the case despite massive pressure by international media and human rights organisations. Efforts to strictly sanction Saudi Arabia failed, as some Western governments, led by the US administration, remained reluctant to pressure Saudi Arabia or publicly criticise its leader.

Saudi Arabia still has not explained officially how and why Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – known for his criticism of the kingdom’s policies and the royal family – was killed in Istanbul last year.

The brutal killing however exposed the responsibility of Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) over the broad range of other "sins" including the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, the imprisonment of women rights activists and his aggressive foreign policy adventures, such as the blockade of Qatar, all of which all have seriously destabilised the already turbulent MENA region.

While some European governments led by Germany and Scandinavian states have distanced themselves from the "bloody prince", this cannot be said for the US administration which remains the main backer of Saudi Arabia under MbS.

Have relations been rocked?

Despite the fact that the White House has avoided pointing the finger of blame towards MbS, it is unclear to what extent, if any, US-Saudi relations have been rocked. On the other hand, it is certain that the image of the ruling dynasty and Saudi Arabia has reached a historic low.

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The murder of Khashoggi sparked a global uproar and ever since then US officials have been in an awkward position trying to balance between preserving the alliance with their oldest Arab ally on one side, and ever louder voices calling for the US to re-examine and even break ties with the MbS led Saudi kingdom.

Daniel Wagner, founder and CEO of Country Risk Solutions and a prominent commentator of current Middle East affairs is convinced that the Khashoggi murder has not affected Saudi-US relations at all.

"The Khashoggi murder was atrocious and outrageous, but in my mind, it was never likely to have an impact on bilateral relations," he told The New Arab

"The media has a feeding frenzy over it, in part because it involved one of their own colleagues, but if such a murder were of a Saudi citizen without US connections or who was not a journalist, I really do not think many people outside of Turkey or Saudi Arabia would have even necessarily noticed." In his opinion, the Saudi-US relationship is too important and too strong to be seriously impacted by the murder.

The very same argument has been brought up on several occasions by top US officials.

For Mike Pompeo US secretary of state "it’s a mean, nasty world out there, the Middle East in particular," and "there are important American interests…. Saudi Arabia is an important partner."

Indeed, the Saudis have been one of the most valued customers of the US arm industry, and along with Israel make a backbone of the anti-Iranian coalition. Thus, it is not surprising that the US administration has defended its dealings with Riyadh, saying the country remains a vital ally in the Middle East against Iran.

In short, Washington's support of MbS' Saudi Arabia is in strong correlation with lucrative contracts, which, according to Trump could reach $110 billion.

"I don’t want to lose an order like that," Trump said last year. Besides, it has been reported that the Saudi crown prince is going to spend $400 billion on "different things" in the US, according to Trump.

Morality and politics

In order to sell billions of dollars’ worth of ammunition and equipment, it is necessary to back Saudi Arabia's war efforts in Yemen, especially if they are aimed at curbing the Iranian influence in the region by fighting the Teheran-backed Houthi rebels. From the US view, the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen is a misfortunate collateral damage of this geo-strategic game.

The Khashoggi saga reveals the Machiavellian inspired approach of key international actors towards the harsh realities of political life in its purest form. The absence of any meaningful action against those accountable for the crime reflects the divorce of politics from conventional morality and justifies the use of all means, even those most unscrupulous in the quest for political power and profit.

But it would be unfair to attribute this approach only to Donald Trump and his "America first" motto, as his predecessors acted the same on many occasions as well as his counterparts in London, Paris or Madrid, as well as in Moscow and in Beijing.

The Trump-Salman love affair

The personal and business ties between members of the Trump administration and the Saudi ruling party also explains the lack of meaningful action against MbS in the case of Khashoggi's murder, despite pieces of evidence presented by the CIA and in Special UN investigator Agnes Callamard’s report published in June, where she said there was "credible evidence" that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other high-level officials were "individually liable for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi."

However, Wagner explained that in this world or realpolitik, no US leader is going to potentially jeopardise such an important bilateral relationship over a single murder of someone who was not a US citizen – or even if he was a US citizen.

"At the end of the day, this was a Saudi issue," he added. In his view, "the American president may object on moral grounds, but in the absence of a substantive impact of America, which this clearly did not have, I think it is unreasonable and unrealistic to presume that an American president would have acted entirely different to what Trump did or did not do."

After all, the Trump response perfectly reflects his personal convictions and should be understood in the light of his remark when he confessed that he "gets along" better with the world’s autocrats and dictators than with (US) reporters, during the press conference at the end of the G-20 summit in Japan, this summer.

Expect no change in the future

There have been ever louder voices within US politics and American society expressing their deepest concerns over MbS’ reckless and destabilising behaviour while calling for the re-examination of US-Saudi relations. Many believe that halting US assistance to the kingdom in the case of Yemen would be a step forward in this direction. The public image of the Saudi kingdom has already crumbled. A Gallup poll from February 2019, for example, found that more than two-thirds of Americans had an unfavourable view of Saudi Arabia.

So, should Saudis worry more about the anger expressed by US lawmakers?

Bipartisan majorities in the US Congress have strongly criticised the Saudis' actions in the Yemen conflict, and the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, but President Trump has vetoed a series of measures approved by bipartisan lawmakers that were aimed at blocking the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Despite these failed attempts, some believe that these issues will only intensify as 2020 US presidential elections are approaching. Many suggest that Democratic candidates will be keen to exploit these hot topics and attack Trump and his associates for nurturing close, personal and often intransparent links with the Saudi leadership.

However, it is somewhat questionable, to what extent the US policy towards Saudis will change in the case of the new face in the White House. Wagner for example does not believe that any US president would have acted much differently than Trump has towards MbS and the country since Khashoggi's murder, so he believes that no radical change is to be expected in the case of a new president.

As a matter of fact, the recent Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil fields may come as a blessing for MbS to help him change the image of Saudi Arabia from a regional villain to a victim. But Saudi Arabia's colossal military defeats will sooner or later trigger sharp criticism about the complete incompetence of MbS as a military and political leader who is pushing the Saudi kingdom to disaster.

The question is, will his future critics face the same fate as Jamal Khashoggi?

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.