The Khashoggi disappearance tests US-Saudi relationship

The Khashoggi disappearance tests US-Saudi relationship
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In the words of the eminent political philosopher, Rahm Emmanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

The recent disappearance of Saudi activist/journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey roiled relations between Riyadh and Ankara, caused a boycott of an upcoming Saudi investment summit, and spurred a demand by the U.S. Senate for an investigation under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

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President Donald Trump praised Saudi Arabia during his campaign, and the U.S. has supported Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Saudi Vision 2030” project to modernize the Saudi economy and diversify it beyond being an energy monoculture. President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE’s first overseas visit was to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, and Mohammed bin Salman visited the White House as part of a three-week tour of the U.S. in early 2018 that included stops in New York City, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley.

Under the crown prince, Saudi Arabia has loosened some internal social restrictions, moved towards improved relations with Israel, worked to isolate Iran, and opposed the Assad regime’s war on its own people, though the latter was probably prompted more by the longtime antipathy between the House of Saud and the Assad family than concern for Syrian citizens.

After Khashoggi’s disappearance, there was an avalanche of media coverage, led by the Washington Post, where Khashoggi is a columnist. Khashoggi was described as a man with a passion for journalism and a “lonely patriot.” And Capitol Hill’s anger over the disappearance may slow or stop arms sales to the kingdom until the Senate gets a satisfactory explanation about what happened to Mr. Khashoggi.  

Adding to the drama, Turkey offered gripping details, but no proof, about bone saws and surveillance videos, making it sound like the consulate was visited by Dexter Morgan instead of a team of fifteen Saudi officials.

On the other hand, John R. Bradley at The Spectator says Khashoggi “never had much time for western-style pluralistic democracy,” and enjoys “undeserved status in the West” simply because he was fired in 2003, when he was editor of  the Saudi daily Al Watan, for allowing a columnist to criticize an Islamist thinker. Bradley adds further context by highlighting Khashoggi’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, his relationship with Saudi intelligence, and Saudi concern he may have been a U.S. asset. In short, Khashoggi looks like a political operator who adopts a journalist’s coloration when needed; he’s the Arab George Stephanopoulos.

Saudi concern about Khashoggi was likely amplified when Khashoggi spurned the offer of  reconciliation by Mohammed bin Salman, and founded an advocacy group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, that may also have prompted U.S. concerns by announcing “Free and fair elections may result in some governments that are less favorable to U.S. interests,” reminding officialdom what happened when we tried that in Gaza in 2006.

President Trump’s initial reaction to the disappearance was “a thing like that shouldn’t happen” but the U.S. would be punishing itself if it halted a slated $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump later vowed “severe punishment” if it is proven the Saudis killed Khashoggi, and the administration now has 120 days to determine if a human rights violation occurred in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi.

But first the Turks have to produce evidence, not allegations. And based on their statements, the Saudis are ready to fight the accusation; we all thought that Ukrainian journalist was dead until he wasn’t.

So, what may have happened?

After Khashoggi spurned Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to reconcile the Saudis probably decided to snatch Khashoggi, return him to the kingdom, and pressure him to publicly recant, similar to what they did in 2017 by forcing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign on television.  

If Khashoggi is dead, over the next 120 days a narrative may evolve about a rendition gone wrong: “someone overreacted;” “mistakes were made.” Riyadh may prefer to frame it as a rash, low-level initiative – one that was able to rustle up 15 diplomatic passports and two Gulfstream jets.  

Inspired by the thoughts of Chairman Rahm, the U.S. should remind the kingdom that Riyadh is the junior partner in the relationship and Mohammed bin Salman’s bromance with Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump officials mull plan to divert billions more to border wall: report California trip shows Trump doesn't always hate the media Trump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy MORE doesn’t change that.

If the result of the investigation is best-case – Mr. Khashoggi is alive in the kingdom or died during a botched rendition or was the victim of “rogue killers” as Trump ventured on Monday - Mohammed bin Salman should surrender his Ministry of Defense portfolio – things in Yemen are going badly, anyway – and focus on economic projects. But if he ordered Khashoggi killed, the kingdom needs a new crown prince and the White House may have some ideas…

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).