When Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after visiting his country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, the Trump administration barely raised a (public) eyebrow.
After being pushed on the story — which got even worse by the day, with reports out of Turkey describing a 15-member Saudi assassination squad that flew into the country, tortured, and dismembered Khashoggi, and left with his body parts — President Donald Trump’s comments have run the gamut from dismissal to soft threats against the Gulf kingdom.
Last Thursday, Trump told reporters that Khashoggi is not a U.S. citizen and it’s none of the U.S.’s business. By the weekend, the president had seemed to realize that the case was bad and demanded that Saudi answer for it (but he wouldn’t make the Gulf Arab kingdom uncomfortable enough to back out of $110 billion in U.S. weapons deals and potential Lockheed Martin F-35 jet sales). On Monday, Trump seemed to make a full reversal, tweeting that he’s spoken to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka, MBS), who allegedly said he had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened “to our Saudi Arabian citizen.” He said that they are working closely with Turkey to find answer. I am immediately sending our Secretary of State to meet with King!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 15, 2018
Mere hours later, CNN reported that Saudi Arabia is “preparing to admit” that they killed Khashoggi in an interrogation gone wrong.
Still, before being contradicted by this news on Monday, President Trump said after speaking to MBS that it’s possible “rogue killers” were responsible for Khashoggi’s death. But a 15-member kill-team (including the country’s chief medical examiner, equipped with a bone saw) entering a consulate of a country that exercises such surveillance and control over its citizens without the approval of MBS or at least senior members of the royal court seems beyond unlikely.
In trying to signal that he’s doing something, the president called for an investigation into Khashoggi’s case and will “immediately” (that is, 13 days after the journalist went missing) dispatch Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
If what President Trump is capable — let alone willing — to do in the face of this horrific incident seems vague, so is the Saudi threat of retaliation. Realistically speaking, Saudi Arabia is not accustomed to being called to the mat by the United States. The U.S. supports its efforts in the war in Yemen, where Saudi-led airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians, including a busload of children in August.
If the images of dead and wounded children didn’t garner lasting outrage in the Trump administration, it’s hard to imagine how a single — by all accounts, horrifically — slain journalist might, especially given how the president feels about the press, in general.
What can the U.S. can do?
While sanctions have been mentioned, it’s unclear how the Trump administration would levy those without somehow shooting itself in the foot.
The steady of flow of Saudi money into the United States — be it via big spending at the president’s own DC hotel, or in the $110 billion in arms sales Trump frequently touts (although the number is actually closer to $4 billion), or in investments (Saudi Arabia owns the largest oil refinery in the United States) — is enough reason not to levy those sanctions. Just mentioning them sends Saudi stocks plunging, which would be sure to affect investments in the energy sector or even in Hollywood, which was fiercely courting MBS during his visit to the U.S. in March.
Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told ThinkProgress that while the president may be reluctant to hold back on weapons (including the $15 billion in the THAAD missile defense system) Congress has power to delay or even cancel those deals.
“He [President Trump] doesn’t want to particularly do anything. It’s about Congress, and, to some extent, the media and the policy-framing community insisting, unless the narrative changes in some dramatic way, that the United States register its disapproval in a concrete manner,” he added.
Secretary Pompeo might find that diplomacy has little weight with MBS. Saudi Arabia at least appears infamously numb to diplomatic pressure — it continues to keep women’s rights activists jailed, maintains its brisk pace of executions, and feels it has nothing to answer for in killing thousands of civilians in its airstrikes in Yemen, where its involvement is also pushing millions of people toward famine.
It also carried out a strange “corruption” purge late last year, which looked more like a lucrative shakedown of its own elite, and seemed to have kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister for a few weeks.
Most of the above, though, said Ibish, is “internal stuff,” but Khashoggi’s case happened in a consulate in Turkey, and involves torture and, therefore, the Vienna Convention.
Also, Khashoggi, whom Ibish knew for more than 15 years, was a U.S. resident and wrote for The Washington Post.
“The U.S. has a real investment here,” said Ibish, adding, “This is qualitatively different.”
Potential Saudi responses
Saudi Arabia, said Ibish, is now being pulled in two different directions — trying to mitigate any potential international fallout from Khashoggi’s (almost certain) death, while internally, doubling down on the nationalistic messaging.
“They’re really waving the flag, aggressively, in a similar way that they did in the dispute with Canada,” said Ibish, referring the the tiff between the two countries when Canada expressed alarm over the jailing of rights activists. Saudi Arabia responded with a huge campaign questioning Canada’s human rights records, and pulling thousands of its students out of Canadian universities.
What follows was a “huge pushback” against internal reforms, especially for women’s rights, within Saudi Arabia, said Ibish. So, bowing to international pressure would hurt that narrative.
Saudi Arabia has some aces up its sleeve. For one thing, it controls the oil market, where, owing to sanctions against Venezuela and thanks to President Trump’s sanctions against Iran, it will be an even larger player come November.
President Trump has already asked oil producing countries — including Saudi Arabia — to increase output in order to keep gas prices down in the U.S. (where they have been creeping up, posing a threat to GOP control of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections).
“The first thing it could do is price oil in something other than dollars, which would screw us up completely. They could drive the price of oil up to $200, $300, $400 a barrel, if they wanted to,” said Ibish.
Saudi Arabia knows that if its economy hits the rocks, that shock will send ripples to the U.S., something that could be politically damaging to President Trump.
Saudi’s position in the U.S. capital debt market is important: It has been borrowing tens of billions of dollars in recent years and issuing bonds on that debt. U.S. institutional investors (which purchase securities with pooled funds) buy those bonds. Saudi Arabia, in turn, has been buying up U.S. government bonds, making it the 10th largest foreign investor in U.S. government securities.
Most likely outcome
The U.S.-Saudi relationship, said Ibish, is purely “transactional” — “there’s nothing sentimental or values-driven about it.”
And that’s the thing about purely transactional relationships, he added, “You can’t take anything away from the other side without hurting yourself, because you only gave them X,Y, and Z things in order to get something back. That’s true on both sides, here.”
Saudi Arabia is the Trump administration’s regional check against Iran. It controls the oil market and holds the kind of economic levers that, if pulled, could cause major pain for President Trump and the GOP in the immediate to medium term.
It’s not in Saudi Arabia’s best interest to rile the United States, which provides it with cover — and material help — in its fight in Yemen and in its ongoing economic campaign against Qatar (remember the Gulf Crisis? It’s still happening). The Trump administration is also Saudi’s key Western ally against their mutual bête noire, Iran.
There are, after all, two real powers in that region: Iran and Saudi Arabia. The former does not believe the U.S. is a stabilizing influence in the Middle East, whereas the latter does.
“These countries are stuck with each other,” said Ibish. And any Saudi government, and any U.S. administration, regardless of party, would do whatever possible to “put this behind them.”
In other words, all of these threats and counter-threats might be nothing more than theater of political acrimony, only serving for each country to give the other cover during this temporary storm before moving on.