Saudi sentences in Khashoggi murder will again test US relations

Saudi sentences in Khashoggi murder will again test US relations
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The legal part of the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi is coming to an end. The public relations phase, which already has started, will now go into high gear — and today’s announcement by the Saudi prosecutor is not likely to be the final word. 

Five members of the hit team accused of killing Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last October have been sentenced to death, and three others will go to prison for a total of 24 years. But the court’s decision is not yet final. And, of course, King Salman can always show mercy and commute the sentences.

The challenge for the United States and other Western allies of Saudi Arabia is whether public and political opinion will allow for the current judgment by the CIA and a United Nations special investigator, which separately concluded, with bureaucratic caveats, that the murder was sanctioned by Riyadh and, in particular, by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the 34-year-old effective leader of the country. Two months ago, MbS, as he is known, accepted “full responsibility” for Khashoggi’s death, which is far from admitting that he ordered it or knew it was going to happen.   

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Today’s statement from Riyadh does not name those who have been sentenced to death (which, in Saudi terms, probably means beheading) but they are likely to include the head of the hit team and the forensic surgeon who was tasked with cutting up the body. The other three probably facing capital punishment were those also in the room. MbS’s chief assistant, Saud al-Qahtani, was not prosecuted, nor was a deputy intelligence chief who supposedly oversaw the operation.

We know this level of detail because the Turkish authorities had the consulate wired and have played the tapes to the CIA and other Western intelligence. (Eavesdropping on diplomatic premises is quite common across the world, I am told.) One tape is of a conversation in which the Saudi forensic specialist worried about having to cut up a warm body so that it would fit into a black plastic bag. Today’s Saudi statement claimed that the murder was not premeditated but it did not explain why, if that is true, the hit team took along a bone-saw to Turkey.

The argument of continuing a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia has several aspects:

  • the importance of the Saudi kingdom in terms of the world’s oil supply;
  • the need to maintain a blocking alliance between the U.S. and Saudis against the destabilizing policies of Iran;

  • the links between the U.S. military and the American defense industry with the kingdom;
  • the need to encourage its recently-found emphasis on moderate Islam; and

  • the hope that MbS can be steered away from ill-thought-out actions of which the Khashoggi operation is, allegedly, the most egregious. (Others include the forced but brief resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, imprisoning princely rivals and business magnates in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton, and arresting women activists.)

The public relations campaign likely cannot rely on “Khashoggi fatigue,” although this is emerging. The strategy appears to depict every development in the kingdom as a positive. The recent initial public offering, or IPO, for Saudi Aramco was disappointing, according to reporting by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and The Economist. The Saudi response to that has been to emphasize its limited domestic success and to avoid the suggestion that pushing forward with it was another sign of MbS’s stubbornness; contrary reporting has been described as merely an indication that foreigners don’t understand the kingdom.

Meanwhile, another consequence of MbS’s style has just taken place in Kuala Lumpur, where Malaysia hosted an Islamic summit attended by such countries as Turkey, Iran and Qatar. Pakistan, the Islamic world’s only nuclear-armed state, also would have been there had Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan not been summoned to Riyadh and had his arm twisted, according to news reports. 

Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leader of the Islamic world, so it doesn’t like that such summits occur. Is its leadership being challenged? That’s the sort of topic about which Jamal Khashoggi might have written an op-ed in the Washington Post.

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. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.