Sumera B Reshi
After blanket denial, Saudi Arabia admitted journalist Jamal Khashoggi, 59, died shortly after he entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul after being caught up in a ‘fistfight’. Going through news reports, Khashoggi disappeared after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2nd October to collect a document for his upcoming marriage and the US President Donald Trump’s remarks that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman would not last in power ‘for two weeks’ without US military support surfaced in print on 10 October.
Can this be a coincidence? Not exactly. Let’s find out the connection between Trump’s remarks and Khashoggi’s mysterious death inside Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Initially, Trump threatened ‘severe punishment’ against the Saudis if it proves that they killed Khashoggi. Since Trump is a composite of ambitious, narcissist and a control freak, who doesn’t think beyond personal gains.
Trump is more transactional than traditional in his vision of values-driven US global leadership as per Frederick Kempe, best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs.
Moreover, he doesn’t have any such respect for press freedom in his own country, thus it is apparent that he will accept excuses from the Saudis. Trump can put the issue to bed with some slaps on the wrist and bury Khashoggi’s death under his own ambitions which are more treasured than human values.
The Trump administration has counterfeit closer ties with Saudi Arabia and embraced Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as a reformer who granted women the right to drive and cracked down on corruption within his country.
Trump needs to align with Saudi Arabia to succeed in his ambitions in the Middle East. Sanctions on Iranian oil are scheduled to take effect November 4, at which point Saudi Arabia’s oil becomes more important.
On the orders of Trump and Co, Saudi Arabia is willing to hike its oil production to stem price increases. The US needs Saudi Arabia more than before as the US is unlikely to cut down on its consumption of 800,000 barrels /day from the Kingdom.
Trump is unmoved with Khashoggi’s mysterious murder. He hasn’t involved himself in a tirade of tweets as he usually has the habit rather he maintained cool. Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the US Treasury Department wrote at the New York Post that at the most “Trump could send that statement with a handful of sanctions and cutting back some military cooperation with Saudi Arabia without blowing up the bilateral relationship”.
“Companies and countries transact with Saudi Arabia because it is the world’s largest oil exporter, producing just less than 10 million barrels of crude oil a day, not because it exemplifies liberal values. Khashoggi’s near-certain death probably won’t change that,” he added.
In one go, Trump threatens that King Salman won’t be able to preserve his throne without US backing and in another go, he turns soft towards Saudi Arabia’s fetched murder plan of Jamal Khashoggi.
It could be that the US facilitated Khashoggi’s planned murder inside Saudi consulate in Istanbul with the concealed support of CIA. Else how was Trump so sure of the remarks he made on 10 October.
What was a need to hint that the King Salman’s Kingdom can’t stand of its own? Subtly he hinted and coerced Saudi Arabia for concessions on oil and indicated them to stick to the $100 million payment deal.
Experts view the murder of Jamal Khashoggi as the latest example of an age-old tension in the US foreign policy: the pursuit of national interests versus the defence of American values.
The government of Mohammed bin Salman is a friendly autocracy whose dollars buy American weapons and whose oil exports supply global markets.
The United States needs Saudi help in opposing Iran, its support for a Middle East peace deal, its intelligence and operations to fight terrorism, and its commitment ensuring regional stability.
The US is not in a state to break this partnership as of now despite the pressure from the international community.
Presently, Washington and Riyadh are in a chaotic situation. One can see a balance between interests and values in statements by President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo about the strategic partnership between Washington and Riyadh.
Calling Saudi Arabia a “very strong ally,” the White House advisor Jared Kushner explained that “we have to be able to pursue our strategic objectives,” while “deal[ing] with what is obviously a terrible situation.”
Others, like foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead, have urged Washington not to “ditch Riyadh in a fit of righteousness.”
Soon after what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey called the ‘premeditated murder’ or ‘savage’ of the Saudi journalist Khashoggi, the US – Saudi relations seemed to slide a bit.
Owing to the international pressure over Jamal Khashoggi’s sudden disappearance, Saudi Arabia tried to calm down Trump by sending $100 million payment.
Nevertheless, the $100 million payment had been brokered earlier this summer and is related to the US military efforts in Syria, the timing of its delivery appeared highly suspicious.
According to The New York Times, one the US official anonymously told the publication that “The timing of this is no coincidence.” Turkish officials repeatedly claimed that Khashoggi was tortured and murdered by a squad of 15 Saudi hit men, who dismembered his body.
Video and audio recordings from inside the consulate reportedly show Khashoggi was beaten, tortured and beheaded, with his fingers cut off and his body dismembered.
Khashoggi episode has caused a diplomatic crisis between the US and Saudi Arabia, particularly for Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as per experts. And this is the reason why Kushner stayed tight-lipped.
Furthermore, analysts believe that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is a tale of geopolitical drama and intrigue with historic stakes that could shake an Arab monarchy, shape regional security and influence global Islam.
One of the least appreciated aspects of this drama is the influence of Turkish President Erdogan, who has shown the ability, through the well-timed release of crucial details, to fuel the global outrage against Saudi Arabia or tamp it down.
Meanwhile, Erdogan earned applause from all over the world for handling the situation skillfully. Erdogan’s fiery speech and his efforts in revealing the facts about Khashoggi’s sudden disappearance bore fruits when the Saudia said that it fired five senior officials and arrested 18 other Saudis as a result of the investigation that Turkish leader forced to happen.
Earlier, the Saudi authorities were in complete denial mood, tried its best to protect Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman through a concocted story of fist fighting.
Not to sever ties with the Kingdom, President Trump called the Saudi moves ‘a good start’, however, on October 23rd, Trump condemned Saudi Arabia’s account of the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi as ‘the worst cover-up ever,’ and his administration warned for the first time that it would impose human rights sanctions on some of those who took part in the plot.
Nonetheless, Trump tried to play the Khashoggi’s murder down by restricting his acerbic tongue and maintaining his calm until internal as well as external pressures pushed him to a level when he criticized Saudi Arabia for this ploy but prior to that the Khashoggi episode was ‘the biggest foreign policy challenge the US faced’. What a senior Trump administration official termed as ‘a freaking mess’.
However, Khashoggi’s murder in Turkey was a blessing in disguise for Erdogan and he used the opportunity to weaken Saudi Arabia’s rising Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He, at the same time, further sparkled his image with US President Donald Trump, as the US – Turkish relations emerge from a low point.
None is immaculate in this world. The timing of the Khashoggi death on 2nd October and the Turkish release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson 10 days later from house arrest likely was coincidental as per experts.
However, Turkey is hopeful that their intelligence sharing around the murder, and US distancing from Riyadh, will contribute to their own efforts to further improve relations.
In the past as well, Turkey was a playground of conspiracies and ploys. Once Ottoman and now-Turkish capital, Istanbul where history’s richest plots took place, from Eric Ambler’s Constantinople to Agatha Christie’s Istanbul.
But recent Khashoggi’s episode is what analysts call it ‘Murder on the Bosporus,’ and is far more gruesome in its details and endlessly richer in its geopolitical complexity than any novelist’s best-spun scheme.
New reports in the Washington Post, the New York Times and Sabah, a newspaper close to the Erdogan regime, reported that the two private planes’ arrival and departure from Istanbul, and now as well have included the names and ages of their 15 passengers, a dozen of whom have links to Saudi security services.
One is now said to be Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a frequent travel companion on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s diplomatic missions.
As of now, it is too early to predict where this story ends for Saudi leadership, the US – Saudi – Turkish relations and the regional role played by President Erdogan.
It is likely that Erdogan can provide a few more plot twists before Khashoggi’s murder ploy dies down. Till now Erdogan has maintained the crisis very well and has played his game skillfully.
To every sane individual, organization and more so for a state, it is imprudent to carry out a manoeuvre of a journalist inside a consulate and kill him. It seems the animosity was too bitter to reconcile.
The venom was nasty to a level that it led to a murder without heeding the consequences. Khashoggi was often critical of the Saudi government, especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
At one time Khashoggi was an adviser to senior officials in the Saudi government, however, since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took control, friction aroused between him and Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi concluded that Bin Salman was more rogue than a reformer. In the pretence of reforms, Bin Salman’s rule has been brutal, with mass arrests of businessmen and other princes.
As stated by Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, “Above and beyond the persecution of activists, writers, clerics, scholars, and businessmen inside Saudi, where the Saudis could claim some kind of ‘process,’ the apparent kidnapping of Khashoggi is now a pattern of attacks where the Saudis don’t even make a pretence of legality”.
But now Jamal Khashoggi is dead and the matter will settle down soon because it is not just arms sales and business contacts, Trump needs Saudi Arabia to boost oil production when Iran sanctions kick in November and to fund the US plans for Syria.
“If they are going to squeeze Iran with new sanctions next month they need the Saudis to fill the gap on world markets,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA official who is now director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“If the Saudis are slow or hesitant about filling the gap, oil prices will go up and the president will be in trouble economically. Nothing makes the US more vexed than going to the pump with prices going up especially as we approach the holiday season.”
Analysts opine that it is hard to determine where Trump’s national ends and where his own interests begin. Following Jamal Khashoggi’s death, Trump claimed that he had ‘no financial interests’ in Saudi Arabia. However, his business with the wealthy Saudi’s dates back to the 1980’s when he was a TV star.
In the backdrop of his business history and his unending greed for wealth, it seems Jamal Khashoggi’s won’t make any ripple effects. However, Khashoggi’s killing will make it far harder for the Trump administration to cooperate with Saudi Arabia on security and other matters, owing to the political backlash.
Currently as the world opinion is in favor of Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia is a less valuable strategic partner to the US today than it was before Jamal Khashoggi’s horrendous murder.
As President Trump know where to beat the iron, he can use this latest tragic event as leverage for his personal as well as national interests and this is what he wanted so long and that what he indicated when he said King Salman won’t survive without the American support.
Undoubtedly, Khashoggi’s murder has catalyzed the world opinion; nevertheless, it can hardly change ground realities in Saudi Arabia.