Khashoggi case could be death of US-Saudi friendship

Khashoggi case could be death of US-Saudi friendship
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This could be a chaotic week for U.S. policy in the Middle East and for oil. Responding in advance to expected comments by President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Support for impeachment inches up in poll Fox News's Bret Baier calls Trump's attacks on media 'a problem' MORE on “60 Minutes” last night, Saudi Arabia issued a statement of “total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it.” Al Arabiya News Channel wrote an editorial warning of 30 potential retaliatory measures against any U.S. sanctions, including “$100 oil, $200 oil, double that.”

What President Trump actually said, half-buried in his responses to aggressive questioning about Russia, North Korea, China and other issues, was that the kingdom could face “severe punishment” if the U.S. confirms that exiled Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

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The Saudi response suggests that it is not considering the option of blaming what Turkish officials claim was the torture, killing, dismembering and videoing of the whole ghastly affair on rogue elements in the Saudi security services. Nevertheless, President Trump spoke this morning with King Salman and later said “rogue killers” could be responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance. In the absence of a body (or any body parts), there remains an element of uncertainty of what happened to Khashoggi, but many may consider the Saudi response an admission of guilt.

The second-order conclusion by many critics of the kingdom is that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as MbS, is a brutal authoritarian — one who, though only 33 years old, soon will replace his father as monarch of the world’s largest oil exporter and, by virtue of the location of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the kingdom, the leader of the Islamic world.

President Trump has dispatched Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump hotel cancels Christian aid group's event to support the Kurds: report Pence on Syria: 'Our troops are coming home' House calls on Russia to release Paul Whelan or else provide evidence of wrongdoing MORE to Riyadh, presumably with a list of policy recommendations. The odds of the Saudi side accepting any of them are debatable.

It seems that we may be saying goodbye to at least the gloss, if not the substance, of the prince’s Vision 2030 plans for economic transformation of the kingdom. The attendance list for an investment conference, scheduled to be held Oct. 23 to 25 in Riyadh, is in tatters. JPMorgan CEO James Dimon pulled out over the weekend; U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s withdrawal is likely at any time.

Social reforms such as cinemas and live entertainment may survive, as will women driving cars. But don’t forget that many of the women activists who campaigned for the latter are in jail. It is embarrassingly ironic that, notionally, Saudi Arabia is a leader of the global coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), the extremists whose signature horror has been the videoed torture and execution of its prisoners.

How could we all have been so wrong in our hopes for MbS? (Perhaps not all of us. I wrote last year, when he pushed his predecessor to one side by denying him sleep and diabetes medicine, that, “His greatest strength, or weakness, may be his ruthlessness.” I cited the example of the “bullet story,” in which he put a bullet on the desk of a government official who didn’t want to sign off on one of the young prince’s business deals.)

Until two weeks ago, Western officials could, and did, excuse MbS’s domestic authoritarianism by citing his apparent reordering of a Saudi Islam as being moderate rather than the extremist version which produced, via irresponsible religious education and charitable giving, 9/11 and the Islamic State.

But Khashoggi’s disappearance suggests that we have been seduced by the smooth words of his retinue and cohorts of echoing public relations firms. Even Muslim World League Secretary-General Muhammad al-Issa, who this month hosted a conference on “Cultural Rapprochement between the U.S. and the Muslim World” in New York City, yesterday issued a statement in support of MbS: “The animus campaign it now witnesses threatens all dimensions of international stability.” We will have to see whether the conference’s idea for a “peace caravan” of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders going to Jerusalem gains any traction.

Old hands will tell you that diplomacy is usually best done quietly, but we live in a world of Twitter, television-interview sound bites and public statements. Some statements are being shot from the hip, as happened yesterday when the kingdom declared an uncompromising defiance and hinted of measures that would hit the U.S. economy much harder than Saudi Arabia’s.

Today there is a report that the Saudis will at last allow Turkish investigators into the Istanbul consulate. If Khashoggi died there, it will have been well-cleaned by now. It is probably too late for a declaration that the fate of Khashoggi is a mystery.

This coming Thursday, the Saudi embassy in Washington planned to host its National Day celebrations. Would the host ambassador, Prince Khalid bin Salman, MbS’s brother, be there or would he still be in Riyadh, where the White House sent him to find answers to U.S. concerns? Curiously, I was invited but  was not going, and I wondered how many of Washington’s great and good also would not show up — until the embassy canceled the event.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.