- President Donald Trump is under immense pressure from his own party, the Senate, and the media to take action against Saudi Arabia over the fate of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
- But the US and Saudi Arabia have a longstanding alliance that has survived worse crises than this one and is likely to do so again.
- Numerous half measures could appease Congress while keeping the body of the US-Saudi alliance intact.
- Unless Saudi Arabia’s impulsive new leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chooses to blow up the alliance against all conventional wisdom, both sides will most likely brush off Khashoggi’s disappearance.
- This is more or less business as usual for US-Saudi relations.
On the same day when President Donald Trump said a missing Saudi journalist was most likely dead, he drew jeers from media figures after praising Rep. Greg Gianforte of Montana, a Republican who pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter.
Despite any outrage over Trump’s disregard for press safety in his own country, and his apparent willingness to accept excuses from the Saudis as they draw out an investigation into the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, Trump can probably put the issue to bed with some slaps on the wrist.
Trump has already stressed the importance of the US-Saudi alliance and repeatedly explained that he doesn’t want to cut arms sales to the country.
On this issue he is opposed to many in Congress – Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally who is a key figure on the Senate Armed Services Committee, already forcefully came out in favor of curtailing arms sales.
A bipartisan group of 22 senators also sought to impose sanctions on key Saudi officials in response to what’s increasingly being viewed as a murder of a US-based journalist at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.
Trump initially threatened “severe punishment” against the Saudis if they had killed Khashoggi. But Saudi Arabia’s official response called that an attempt to “undermine” the kingdom and said it could lead to further escalation.
(Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s new de facto leader, the kingdom has proved extremely sensitive to even light criticism.)
But don’t be surprised if the punishments offered by the Trump administration, or even Congress, aren’t that severe.
When it comes time for the US to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human-rights record, the punishments are never that severe.
War and oil
- REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed
The Trump administration has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and embraced Crown Prince Mohammed as a reformer who granted women the right to drive and cracked down on corruption within his country.
Furthermore, Trump needs Saudi support for his other 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.
The Trump administration already asked Saudi Arabia to hike its oil production to stem price increases. The US is unlikely to cut down on its consumption of 800,000 barrels a day from the kingdom.
The US could suspend parts of its military assistance to the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia stands accused of using US weapons for war crimes against civilians.
But Trump has repeatedly touted Saudi Arabia’s intention to spend billions of dollars on US arms as a boon to domestic job creation, and he came out early to say he didn’t want to cut cooperation there.
A new set of sanctions, the option favored by the 22 senators, could hit numerous top Saudi officials and cut their access to US banking and investment. But as an absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia can reshuffle its cabinet as needed.
A strong statement
“I think we’ll be making a statement, a very strong statement,” Trump said Thursday after saying that “intelligence coming from every side” indicated Khashoggi had been killed.
But 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, Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism-finance analyst at the US Treasury Department, wrote at the New York Post.
Since Khashoggi disappeared, Saudi Arabia has taken a considerable beating on the world stage, rolling back the gains of a 2017 public-relations tour by Crown Prince Mohammed. But the US and Saudi Arabia’s close ties aren’t based on shared values or the kingdom’s progress on social reform.
No major world economy or organization, except perhaps the UN Human Rights Council, of which Saudi Arabia is a member and has held key leadership roles, considers Saudi Arabia a humanitarian powerhouse.
Companies and countries transact with Saudi Arabia because it is the world’s largest oil exporter, producing just under 10 million barrels of crude oil a day, not because it exemplifies liberal values. Khashoggi’s near-certain death probably won’t change that.
It’s up to Crown Prince Mohammed to respond to any US rebukes harshly, as the kingdom did to Trump’s previous talk of punishment. But Saudi dependence on US dollars and weapons limits his options for meaningfully cutting ties without severe blowback.
For Trump, a measured public statement, some light sanctions, and cutting off logistical support, like midair refueling from US tankers for Saudi war planes on their way to Yemen, may allow him to turn the page on the Khashoggi case.
Brushing off what news reports indicate was a brutal murder of a journalist would actually be in keeping with decades of US policy toward Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has consistently turned a blind eye to the oppression of women and the LGBT community, and more recently a Saudi jet bombed a school bus in Yemen, killing 40 children.