Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Donald Trump in March 2018.
Photo by Shealah Craighead, courtesy the White House.
Someone in Saudi Arabia – and most of the available information points to the crown prince, who is the country’s real power center – dispatched a hit squad to murder a dissident commentator inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
This much is clear. The question now is: What to do about it? The answer depends on whether we want to satisfy our emotions or our self-interest.
The death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has occupied headlines for weeks, and there is no indication that this will change soon. This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a speech calling for the 18 men arrested in connection with Khashoggi’s death to be tried in Istanbul and harshly criticizing the credibility of the Saudi version of events. While many observers noted that the speech fell short of the “naked truth” Erdogan had previously promised to deliver – especially in light of reports that Turkey has audio and video evidence of the killing – it still cast a harsh shadow on Saudi Arabia, especially Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi’s death was terrible. Saudi Arabia’s response was to falsely claim he had left the consulate under his own power the day of his disappearance. It took more than two weeks for officials to acknowledge that Khashoggi was dead at all. When they finally did, the Saudi line became that he had died accidentally as the result of a spontaneous fistfight, during which someone placed the journalist in a fatal chokehold. In the face of the evidence, the story stretches credulity well past the breaking point.
Now, international leaders must decide how to respond to this event, not only in isolation, but within the wider context of the region as a whole.
The crown prince’s behavior has been aggressive and autocratic for some time, even apart from his possible involvement in Khashoggi’s death. Last year, he detained more than 300 businessmen and princes in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton until they agreed to hand over money that they supposedly had stolen from the government. He also declared Qatar an enemy, effectively ending the Gulf Cooperation Council. Other than Iran, Iran’s supporters (such as Russia) and Iran’s clients (such as Hafez Assad, Hezbollah and Hamas), no one would benefit if Crown Prince Mohammed actually destabilized the Saudi regime through his overreaching power plays. But, as Karen Elliott House argued in a column for The Wall Street Journal, Crown Prince Mohammed’s behavior has raised the question of whether he can continue to hold unchecked power without risking that outcome.
American interests, along with those of much of the West, lie in preserving the Saudi ability to counter Iran in the Persian Gulf region – with or without Crown Prince Mohammed. As House observed in her column, if the crown prince is removed, it is preferable that such a transfer happen through politics rather than through violence. But ultimately, what happens to the crown prince personally is a matter for the Saudis to settle, not us.
In the meantime, political and business leaders have weighed their responses to the Khashoggi affair carefully. Many decided to withdraw from the Future Investment Initiative, a major investment conference in Riyadh that has been called “Davos in the desert.” Their withdrawal is a logical, appropriate response to the crown prince’s recklessness. Nobody can prudently proceed with ordinary commerce under the circumstances, and nobody needs to pretend that this sort of behavior is acceptable in a commercial partner.
That said, many of the companies and entities whose leaders are avoiding Saudi Arabia now continue to fully engage with Russia and China, which both have a longer and bloodier history of professionally and bodily persecuting journalists and dissidents. Depending on your point of view, you could call some of the responses to the Saudi event inconsistent, or you could call them hypocritical. Against this backdrop, French energy company Total S.A. displayed at least consistently amoral behavior when its president decided to speak at the conference in Riyadh. Total has been eager to invest in Iran as long as it would not violate U.S. sanctions in doing so, so boycotting Saudi Arabia under the circumstances would have looked silly.
Beyond the immediate decision to attend or shun the Riyadh conference, foreign policymakers face a situation with no truly satisfactory options. It is useless to try to boil down Western policy in the Middle East to supporting good guys against bad guys. There are no good guys in the region, at least by Western standards. Even Israel, the country which arguably comes closest, has generated significant external backlash against its half-century occupation of Palestinian territory and populations, and its ensuing crackdowns against Palestinian violence.
But just because we don’t award a Good Housekeeping seal of approval to regional governments does not make them all equally bad, either. This is particularly true when we contrast Iran and Saudi Arabia. Only one of those countries actively pursues a long-range missile program, nuclear weapons (a pursuit temporarily paused under the 2015 nontreaty negotiated by the Obama administration and other powers), and proxy armies in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. It isn’t Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also lack Iran’s history of repeatedly seizing Western hostages.
In this light, the Trump administration’s response to Khashoggi’s murder makes much more sense, practically speaking, than that of critics who have called for an embargo on arms sales and other military support to the Saudis. These critics notably include Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is one thing to withdraw business from the Saudis; it is another to undermine their ability to deter or counter Iranian aggression. Whatever the Saudis can’t handle in the region, someone else will eventually have to address. Who will that someone be? Hint: Not Germany.
A criticism of Trump, during both his campaign and his presidency, has been the assumption that he would respond ignorantly and impulsively to world events without being able to see the bigger picture. In the Khashoggi case, at least, it is Trump who has thus far been restrained, forward-thinking and proportionate.