Who cares about the death of a journalist? An awkward friendship between the US and Saudi Arabia

19.11.2018 | By Andrzej Kohut

In contacts with Saudi Arabia, Americans have never been meticulous. They did not care too much about a lack of women’s rights in this country. They were not worried about the capital punishment that Saudi Arabia courts decide on up to 150 times a year for crimes such as atheism, homosexuality or adultery. Executions often take place in public, and the popular form of performing them is to cut off the head of a convicted person with a sword. Americans did not care even when among the nineteen assassins from 9/11, fifteen were Saudi Arabia’s citizens. President Trump’s weak reaction to the death of Jamal Khashoggi does not seem unusual in this context.

The whole world has been following this story for several weeks. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, entered the consulate of his country in Istanbul and no one saw him anymore. He had a bad feeling. He knew that Saud authorities did not like him because of his publication on Riyadh’s policy. However, he did not expect that he would not come out alive from the official institution being on the territory of Turkey.

It is not precisely known what happened. The hosts of the building in which Khashoggi disappeared cannot provide any credible testimony: he came, did what he had to, and left; he died during an interrogation that got out of control; he died as a result of a fist fight. The fact that it could have been planned murder must be taken into account. The Saudi part has already given several different explanations, and although the current ones sound more likely than those filed month ago, the details are still missing.

From the findings of the Turkish investigators, we already know that a group of more than a dozen people appeared in Istanbul to kill the journalist on that day. Khashoggi was probably attacked a moment after he entered the territory of the consulate. It is likely that his body was dissolved in acid, as traces of caustic substance were later found in the consulate. This is why the search for the corpse was ended.

America is hesitant

“I spoke with the King of Saudi Arabia, and he firmly denied that he knew anything about it”, said Donald Trump in a conversation with a BBC journalist shortly after Khashoggi’s disappearance became a media topic. Seemingly, the president accepted these declarations, which sparked a wave of criticism: how can the leader of the world’s largest democracy turn a blind eye to such a glaring crime in the name of the business? Is this the end of the US as a world’s policeman? Alternatively, maybe it is only Trump who does not have the proper moral fibre?

Well, in contacts with Saudi Arabia, Americans have never been meticulous. They did not care too much about lack of women’s rights – This year, the Saudi women received the privilege of driving a car, which was considered a considerable liberalisation of the rules there.  Americans were also not worried about the capital punishment that Saudi Arabia courts decide on up to 150 times a year for crimes such as atheism, homosexuality or adultery. Executions often take place in public, and the popular form of performing them is to cut off the head of a convicted person with a sword. They did not care even when among the 19 assassins from 9/11, 15 were Saudi Arabia citizens. President Trump’s weak reaction to the death of Jamal Khashoggi does not seem unusual in this context.

Where does this indulgence come from? Or maybe: how big are the US interests in Saudi Arabia so that they are inclined not to ask about the lack of respect for human rights in a despotic monarchy? The answer is obvious: higher than it is widely thought.

Pillars of cooperation

Americans have recently become the world’s leading oil producer. Only in Texas, production is so big that if it were a separate state, it would be at the fourth place in the ranking. Nevertheless, Washington can’t stop worrying about foreign resources, as Americans still consume more than they extract. In the era of drastic declines in production in Venezuela and sanctions imposed on Iran, which exclude the possibility of buying oil there, good relations with other large distributors become crucial. Although America is less dependent on Saudi oil today, it certainly cannot ignore Russia and Saudi Arabia which take second and third place on this podium. In 2017, Saudi Arabia remained the second largest oil supplier to the USA after Canada, with 1/8 of the amount of oil that Americans are forced to import.

Responding to the suggestion that he should react more strongly to the behaviour of the Saudis, President Trump said: “I do not like the concept of stopping investment for 110 billion dollars. They will say: ‘Ok, let’s stop buying from Boeing, Lockheed or Raytheon. Let’s buy from Russians or Chinese’ ”. This way, Trump referred to the contract for the sale of weapons, the agreement he had signed during his first foreign trip as a president – the trip to Saudi Arabia. Saudis have been buying American weapons for years and in record numbers. They are the largest external recipient of arms products from the USA. They can afford it since Saudi Arabia has the third largest defence budget. Only Americans and Chinese spend more. Even Russians have been left behind.

There are more dependencies between the two countries. Saudis are eager to buy securities issued by the US Treasury Department, and the total value of their portfolio is almost 170 billion dollars. Also, although it is relatively little, if you put it together with the trillions held by China or Japan, then if Riyadh decided to sell his papers immediately, it would hurt Americans. However, it seems unlikely that such a situation would occur, because there is another foundation of mutual relations between the two countries – the common enemy.

Middle-Eastern game

This enemy is Iran. For Saudis, it is the most prominent opponent in the region, with whom they have been leading a kind of cold war for years – both parts engage in local conflicts from Syria to Yemen, but they take different sides. Thanks to this, Saudi Arabia is the ideal partner for Trump’s administration, which additionally decided to increase the pressure on Iran, most likely seeking to change its government. Conflict with the Saudis would probably mean spoiling president’s plans. Moreover, the most important US partner in the region – Israel – is pushing for maintaining the alliance. “Iran is a greater threat”, said the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, after the death of Khashoggi.

Lobbyists in Washington certainly work on calming down Americans. Here, Israel has a lot to say, but Saudi Arabia also does not neglect to work at the base of Congressional politics. Only this year they spent at least 6 million dollars on actions promoting their point of view in Washington. According to the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, in 2017 Saudi Arabian lobbyists reached ca. 200 members of the event, including all senators.

The Prince

We should not forget about the friendship Trump established through his son-in-law and adviser to the heir of Saudi throne, Mohammad bin Salman. Mohammad bin Salman, called MBS, is an extraordinary figure in the recent history of Saudi Arabia. He is a symbol of the new generation in the circles of power, as, since the 1950s, Saudi Arabia was ruled by successive sons of the founding father, Abdulaziz. MBS interrupted this sequence, persuading his father – King Salman – to change the way the power is inherited. MBS already exercises power to a great extent and official inheritance is only a formality.

He is very ambitious: he wants to attract investors to Saudi Arabia, and for this purpose, he initiated a project to build a super-city bigger than Dubai. He fights corruption in truly a drastic way; for example, he imprisoned the richest Saudi people in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh and announced that he would not let them free until they shared unfairly gained money with the authorities. It did not bring him the best opinion, but he achieved the goal. He would also like to open an extremely conservative Saudi Arabia to new trends, and that is where women’s new rights to drive come from. He needs cooperation with the Americans to fulfil his business and political plans, and perhaps here lies the explanation of the generous arms orders that were made at the very beginning of Trump’s presidency. It might have been an investment in good relations for the future. However, a problem appeared.

“Tell your boss that the task is done”, said one of the fifteen assailants who came to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi. Record of this conversation has been recently revealed by Turkish. There is no evidence, but there is a serious suspicion that the “boss” was Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Public opinion pressure and the new evidence emerging, in this case, has led President Trump to react stronger and to demand explanations from the Saudi side. Trump’s administration has also decided to impose sanctions on 17 people: the Saudi consul in Istanbul, one of the advisers to Prince Mohammad, and 15 members of earlier mentioned group which goal was to kill the journalist. All these people have already been identified as guilty by Saudis and detained. Riyadh reported that there is a possibility that five of them will be executed.

It seems that both sanctions on one side and severe judgments on the other have a similar goal: to satisfy the hunger for justice of world public opinion, while at the same time making the least possible detriment to mutual relations. The point is to blame the direct perpetrators and reverse the questions about who decided to kill Khashoggi.

Mutual US and Saudi Arabia relations are experiencing a PR crisis, but the foundations of this alliance are solid. Most likely, therefore, it will end with some sanctions, a few dangerous and firm declarations, and Saudis’ statements have nothing to do with this matter. Moreover, later, unless there is evidence for the prince’s personal decision about the murder, everything will be completely fine.

Translation from Polish: Bartłomiej Piątkiewicz


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.