Jamal Khashoggi: How will/can the US, Europe react and what to ask from Saudi Arabia?

President Donald Trump has promised Saudi Arabia a severe punishment (but not cancelling of weapons contracts) if Riyadh murdered Jamal Khashoggi. Should the US, Europe push Saudi Arabia to reveal the fate of Mr. Khashoggi and how they should react if regime killed or kidnapped Mr. Khashoggi? Read few comments.

Jamal Khashoggi speaking at Middle East Monitor’s ‘Oslo at 25’ conference held in London on September 29, 2018. Credit: Jehan Alfarra/https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/

Neil Quilliam, Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

It is clear that there needs to be a thorough investigation into the fate of Mr Kashoggi. As partners of both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the US and EU should strongly encourage the Saudi authorities to co-operate fully with the Turkish investigation. Even the UN Secretary General has called for such an investigation.

The US and EU have a number of levers pull, should they wish to punish Saudi Arabia and these include: downgrading diplomatic relations, withdrawing ambassadors (though there is currently no US ambassador to Saudi Arabia), cancelling visits to Riyadh and inwards visits and postponing meetings between ministers. These would be the first steps initiated by governments, though other government institutions, such as Congress and parliaments, may push for harder measures at a later date. The US and EU would likely be willing to lift these measures after a period, if Saudi Arabia complied with a list of demands, which might include releasing women reformers, social media activists, clerics and a pledge to work towards resolving the crisis with Qatar and the war in Yemen.

Chelsi Mueller, Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University Research Fellow

If it comes out that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was behind the disappearance of Khashoggi , it will be deeply embarrassing for the Trump administration. It will be deeply embarrassing not only because of the cozy relationship between bin Salman and Trump’s son-in-law and top advisor, Jared Kushner, but also because from the outset of his presidency, Trump predicated his Middle East policy on the foundation of Saudi Arabia. It is important to remember that Trump’s first foreign trip as President of the United States was not to Canada or Mexico, as custom prescribed, but to Riyadh.  Mohammad bin Salman, who wields power on behalf of his elderly father King Salman, was perceived as both a rising star in Middle East politics and as an adventurous risk-taker. Though criticized for mass human rights violations in the war he has waged in Yemen, he earned the admiration of Donald Trump, because he broke with the Saudis’ age-old preference for diplomatic solutions and boldly sent the Kingdom’s armed forces into a foreign war against Iran and its proxies.

Trump saw in bin Salman a courageous trailblazer who wanted to push the limits of the unthinkable—bin Salman wanted to further incorporate Israel into a coalition of regional Arab and Islamic states, who would work together under Saudi leadership to confront Iran and drive it back into its corner. His vision for the region dovetailed handily with Trump’s objectives. Trump wanted to send Iran back into isolation, gain regional backing for the “ultimate” Arab-Israeli “deal,” and he wanted to boost the American economy by securing some lucrative arms deals. With Trump’s prominent visit to Riyadh in May 2017, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Mohammad bin Salman was seemingly restored to its coveted role as that of America’s most trusted regional coordinator and wealthiest weapons customer.

But the prospect that Mohammad bin Salman could be the cold-blooded mastermind behind Khashoggi’s murder is a severe crisis for the American Administration which has chosen to make Saudi Arabia the linchpin of its Middle East policy. This crisis calls attention to the severe tension in US foreign policy between the pursuit of democratic values and human rights and the pursuit of American interests. While both Republicans and Democrats value the pursuit of American interest abroad as well as the expansion of human rights, the Republican party tends to prioritize national interests above other considerations. This helps to explain Trump’s announcement that the investigation into the disappearance of Kashoggi won’t halt the arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump has indicated that there will be another type of “punishment” if Saudi Arabia is found to be behind Kashoggi’s disappearance. He has also distanced himself from the Crown Prince by reminding the public that the point-person for US-Saudi relations is still the aging father, King Salman, whom Trump promised to speak to in a telephone call.

The real question is, to what extent is Trump willing to “punish” a regime that is one of the main pillars of his Middle East strategy and a major source of profit for the American defense industry?  Pressure will grow as European leaders will insist on having answers to the question of what happened to Khashoggi. As the answers begin to come out, they will be less restrained in their policy options toward the Saudi Kingdom. The Democrats, hoping to gain seats in Congress in the upcoming mid-term elections, will use this crisis to make the case that the Republication Administration is immoral, incompetent and unfit to lead. Trump’s close association with the Saudis has already come under intense scrutiny, as media outlets churn out details of their despicable human rights record. But it Khashoggi’s disappearance is found to have been orchestrated by the Saudis, Trump’s close association with them will be subjected to widespread disapproval. Thus far, Trump seems resolved to maintain his strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia. But the coming revelations about the Saudis’ role in the disappearance of Khashoggi could have serious implications for the future of the US-Saudi relationship.

Ahron BregmanDepartment of War Studies, King’s College London

Trump warned of a “severe punishment” if the Saudis were found to have killed Khashoggi. But I don’t believe him as he would do nothing at all which could harm the arms contracts that Washington has with the Saudis. The expectation, of course, is that civilised nations like the US, Britain, France and others will take harsh measures against those who probably harmed Khashoggi. But while all these nations will utter some general things about how wrong it’s to hurt journalists and so on, their statements will be no more than lip service, as their utmost concern will remain to protect their economical ties with the rich Saudis. Sad – but that’s the reality.

Fanar HaddadSenior Research Fellow, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore

Even if other administrations wouldn’t be clumsy enough to spell it out so bluntly, I think that Trump’s prioritisation of arms sales over other considerations is ultimately the position that any US administration would adopt when it comes to policy towards Saudi Arabia. Lofty statements about human rights and democratic values notwithstanding, the reality is that energy, trade and the stability of a western-friendly regional order are the vital interests that will dictate US policy towards the region. As such, when it comes to the Middle East and to Saudi Arabia, this administration’s talk of ‘severe punishment’ is as empty as its talk of democracy and human rights.

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