Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 22, 2018
Khashoggi murder: Will it really alter US-Saudi ties?

A month ago, The Washington Post columnist and a dissident Saudi national, Jamal Khashoggi, was chopped-up into pieces with a bone saw and his remains dissolved in acid. This gory murder took place within the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to collect some papers.  The details of this crime outraged the whole world for it was committed not in a back lane or a ditch of a small town but in the consulate.

The influential US newspaper took up the killing of their columnist with fury, and rightly so demanded that the political and commercial powers that be, distant themselves from the Saudi kingdom for dispatching a kill team which, according to audio recordings with the Turkish authorities, executed the crime.

A New York Times report proved that Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, one of the 15 men of the hit squad, has often been spotted traveling with the Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman or MBS as he is widely known. Mutreb is a former Saudi diplomat in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s  London mission, someone considered close to the king to be. A recent report by the paper also claims that Mutreb phoned a superior -- a recording of which is with the Turks -- and informed ‘the deed is done’, ‘Tell your Boss.’ No one is pointing fingers at King Salman or considers him the boss ever since his son; Mohamad Bin Salman, was anointed crown prince and turned the de facto in charge of the country.

The editorials called for and the experts opined that the US must, in some severe form, punish MBS. Others asked if Khashoggi’s killing would upend President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy? Yet some others tried to exploit the case for the larger good in Yemen and gave some attention to the innocent Yemenis starving in the war-torn country, another playground of Saudi-Iran rivalry. There was a moment of relief when the US halted refuelling of aircraft engaged in the war in Yemen. Soon enough, several officials corrected that this would have limited impact because only a fifth of Saudi-led coalition requires in-air fuelling from the US.

After much procrastination, the President of the United States spoke and in a manner unique to him, he neither cast the blame on MBS nor withdrew it. He said, “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” A befuddling remark but for the observers of the region and Trump’s regional policies, this was a clear stance indicating the US will not do anything to jeopardise its money making relationship with the Saudis. As a tiny concession, America sanctioned 17 Saudis, the henchmen, giving a clear exit to the man widely believed to have called the shots to have khashoggi executed.

American and Saudi ties are deeply entrenched strategically and economically. When deals worth millions are at stake, one dissident journalist -- however barbaric was his killing -- matters little.

The Saudi lobby has also been busy peddling fears that any move against the crown prince will tumult the oil market and disrupt global stability. In addition to the money that changes hands, the relationship is also seen as imperative to take on Iran, considered a pariah state mainly for opposing America internationally, opting for an absolutist stance on the Palestinian cause and supporting all hues of groups including Hamas, and for dreaming of becoming a regional Islamic power challenging the Saudi hegemony. Tehran’s foreign policy, to a large extent,  is anti Israel and Trump’s Washington is staunchly supportive of a pro-Israeli deal to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. MBS’s support is crucial to such a deal. The Kingdom has shown innumerable sings that in order to limit Iran, it would go against the listed demands of the Palestinian leadership.

A pointed analysis to the latest imbroglio in West Asia came from a senior Indian diplomat. In a conversation with this writer, he expounded that  to think the murder of a journalist will alter American and Saudi ties was simply naive. He said, “If it survived 9/11, why would it not live through this?”

The Trump administration has pinned too many hopes of MBS’s continuation as the Saudi leader and is nowhere close to taking any action that could threaten his succession.

Over the last year, despite being ridiculed for intensifying the war in Yemen, holding the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri hostage and imposing a futile blockade on Qatar, MBS has been hailed as the young face of Saudi monarchy crowded with gerontocrats, portrayed as a reformer ushering Saudi Arabia into the 21st century. He has been applauded for opening cinema theatres and letting Saudi women drive. Of course, never mind the arrests of women rights activists and the authoritarianism with which he apprehended Saudi billionaires at the Ritz until they acquiesced to his wishes.

A month and a half after Khashoggi was butchered and his remains vapourised, Saudi Arabia has failed to answer: Why did the Saudi team comprise a forensics expert if the aim was to pick up the dissident journalist? Who did Mutreb call when he informed of the team’s success and declared ‘the deed is done’? And why did the team come to Turkey with a bone saw?

Khashoggi’s murder too has failed to question MBS’s rise. Americans will continue to ply for economic deals, move forward on the strategic front to bring down Iran and get a ‘peace deal’ largely tilted in favour of the Israelis.

But something has changed: America’s reputation as a keeper of human rights has been tarnished beyond repair and it is now evident that Mohammad Bin Salman is surely no reformer.

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Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra was a Fellow at ORF. She writes on contemporary developments in West Asia and on foreign policy.

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