Despite the presumed murder of a critical journalist, the relations between America and Saudi Arabia will remain intimate, Paul Aarts thinks.
No body, no crime. That is the most cherished adage in Saudi Arabia these past weeks. Not only in government circles, but also among large parts of the population. In Okaz, one of the leading newspapers, columnist Hani Aldahri wrote on Thursday, full of confidence, “Truly this is nothing but a comedy act … orchestrated by haters and ill-wishers in Qatar. Yes, Saudis will have the last laugh at the end of this comedy act and Saudi Arabia will get out from this stronger … We need in-house cleaning from these parasites who were exposed by the Khashoggi incident.”
Saudi colleagues at universities make similar sounds, albeit with less extreme words. The state of denial has not ended yet. Whether the recent remarks of President Donald Trump (“It’s bad, bad stuff”) will change this quickly, remains to be seen.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is the dramatic low point in a long series of repressive measures, set in motion after the palace coup of Mohammad bin Salman in June 2017. It started with the spectacular hostage-taking of a large number of Saudis, among whom there were princes and prominent businessmen, at the Ritz-Carlton, in November 2017. Massive protests followed; anyone who even dared to make a dissenting sound was arrested. Some, like the popular cleric Salman al-Ouda, fear the death penalty. In terms of foreign policy, the crown prince stacked blunder upon blunder. For starters, of course, the war in Yemen, with close to 7,000 civilian deaths since March 2015. Retaining Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was a debacle, as was the fight with Canada that spun out of control. The boycott of Qatar, with an absurd list of demands for the neighboring state, is a drama all of its own. And now, Khashoggi.
How does Riyadh try to spin this? The most likely scenario is a deal in agreement with Washington and Ankara, in the hopes of protecting the Saud family, and especially the crown prince. For Turkey, there is much at stake. The ties with Saudi Arabia may be bad – with differences in opinion over Iran, Qatar and Israel – but Ankara is working hard not to let it further deteriorate. The economy is lame and the country yearns for foreign capital. Saudi Arabia could be persuaded to help, in exchange for which the Turkish authorities would not release damaging material about the Khashoggi case.
American-Saudi relations are of course even more important, having been close since the 1940s. The oil crisis of 1973 and 9/11 (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis) have caused a ripple, and under President Barack Obama, a chill in relations arose, but at heart, they are Siamese twins. They cannot live without each other. What is so very important?
Five interests coincide here: (1) the Saud family depends on the American military umbrella for its survival. Trump made that clear several months ago when he told King Salman: “You would not last two weeks without us.” Naturally, Saudi weapons contracts are also very lucrative; (2) Trump does everything he can to push Iran further into the corner; Saudi help is thereby essential. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chimes in on that matter; (3) The Trump administration, with son-in-law Jared Kushner at the helm of the Israeli-Palestinian file, is keen to stuff a micro-state down the Palestinians’ throat, without Jerusalem as a capital. The close personal relationships of Kushner and MBS are thereby of inestimable value; (4) In terms of intelligence, and not only in the fight against the Islamic State, the cooperation of the security forces is of crucial importance. That goes for Europe as well, including the Netherlands; and finally, (5) Saudi Arabia remains a partner one ought to be friends with in the area of energy. While the U.S. imports hardly any Saudi oil, a good relationship continues to be important as part of the stabilization of the oil market.
What can we then expect from the near future? It is certainly possible that the Saudis, sooner or later, will repent. There are plenty of scapegoats. According to The New York Times, the Saudi royal house is considering blaming a high security adviser, Gen. Ahmet al-Assiri, for the disappearance. The members of the murder squad are logical candidates as well, and such an operation has possibly already started; lieutenant Meshal Saad Albostani, one of the 15 who was at the consulate in Istanbul, died on Thursday in a car accident that is considered suspicious.
King Salman will move closer to the foreground, while favorite son and crown prince Mohammad will disappear into the background for a while. The chances of him being sidelined are slim. That could only happen if Washington insists on it. That chance is virtually nil. Western sanctions are certainly possible. Strikingly, American senators are making a great deal of effort in favor of this. Whether that will have more than symbolic meaning remains to be seen. It is more than likely that after a while, it will be business as usual.