The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – with the CIA confirming the involvement of the Saudi Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman – has sparked international backlash against the Saudi regime. Governments and leading politicians have been quick to criticise the regime while CEOs of major corporations such as Uber and J.P. Morgan have signalled their dismay by pulling out of a flagship investment fund.
This is serious for the regime and the Crown Price who views himself as a moderniser of this most deeply traditional, indeed old-fashioned, of states. This is reflected in the decision to finally allow women to drive from June this year. Foreign investment is seen as a main vehicle for his agenda particularly in pushing forward economic reforms. The question here is whether there will be a damaging and long term fall out with Khasoggi’s murder? The likely answer is no.
Saudi Arabia is too much of a political and economic ally to the West, and particular the US, for issues over human rights to trump existing relations. In comparison, the US’s decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) with Iran, revoking the removal of decades long sanctions on the country, reflects an international move back to realist relations based on security and business interests rather than cooperation.
The murder of journalist and Saudi dissident and critic Jamal Khashoggi on the 2 October at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul sparked international outrage. Republican senator Lindsey Graham, on the back of an investigation carried out by the CIA, concluded that the Crown Prince was ‘involved to the highest level possible’. A UN resolution has been passed since agreeing the Crown Prince himself was involved.
The killing of the journalist is particularly apposite because he was an outspoken critic of the regime and was personally expelled by the Crown Prince on these grounds. Saudi Arabia, despite the move to modernisation is a country where you can still be imprisoned for a tweet.
However, leading Western politicians have been quick to stress that close relations with the regime are still of high importance. Not least Theresa May and Donald Trump, and this is because Saudi Arabia is viewed as being too important to let an extra-judicial murder get in the way of existing relations. One journalist for the Council on Foreign Affairs has remarked ‘having a strong ally in the Middle East is considered more important than openly opposing an oppressive regime’.
So why is Saudi Arabia of such importance, politically and economically, to the West?
Saudi Arabia holds 18% of the world’s proven oil reserves and is the world’s biggest exporter of oil, according to OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries). If, for example, Iran-style sanctions were put on the Kingdom then the state could cut its oil production which would increase the global price of oil.
Even more alarming for the West could be the potential agreements that would be struck up between the Saudis and other major powers, namely Russia and China. Business is also a huge factor in the lack of action against the Kingdom. As of 2017, goods and services between Saudi Arabia and the US totalled $46bn with the US enjoying a $5bn trade surplus. The US commerce department calculates that bilateral trade supports 165,000 jobs in the US. If sanctions were imposed over the murder of Khasoggi, or if the Kingdom decided to cut ties with the US, there would economic ramifications that make it difficult to take any concrete action against the Middle Eastern lynchpin.
In August 2018, Saudi Arabia cut all ties with Canada over its interference in domestic affairs, describing Ottawa’s calls to release civil society and women’s rights activists as breaches of Saudi sovereignty. As a result, the Kingdom blocked imports of Canadian grain and recalled thousands of Saudi students on government scholarships.
More importantly, Western powers have stressed how Saudi Arabia plays a key role in combatting extremism and terrorism in the powder keg region. Since 1951 the US and Saudi Arabia have helped each other with their foreign interests, from funding the Mujihadeen in the Soviet-Afghan war (with unpredicted but catastrophic results for Afghanistan) to the current supply of weapons in the Kingdom’s war in Yemen. Successive US and UK administrations have long regarded Saudi Arabia as a critical strategic partner in the region. Today, the US for example has an arms deal with Saudi Arabia nearing $100bn, while the UK’s sales of arms in 2017 hit $1.1bn and crucially, Saudi Arabia is a strategic part of the coalition that has fought Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Theresa May reiterated the need to maintain a close relationship because it ‘helps keep Britons on the streets safe’.
The difference in attitude with another Middle Eastern power is stark. The US administration has decided to pull out of the JCPA and reinstitute sanctions against Iran with Trump tweeting that anyone who does business with Iran is not working with the US. Although the European Union and others have not backed Trump in this move, they still hold Iran at arm’s length, worried about the country’s uranium enriching programme which could lead to viable nuclear weapons. Long seen as a power which encourages instability in the region, Iran also does not have the oil to export that the Saudis have, nor does it have the same level of business and commercial links. In other words, the country is simply not as useful to the West. Thus, the West can play the human rights and morality cards against Iran which it cannot do against Saudi Arabia.
Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was Machiavellian in the extreme and while condemned in the strongest terms will remain unlikely to result in deeper action against the Kingdom. The same goes for Saudi Arabia’s often brutal and continuing actions in Yemen, words not deeds. The West’s attitude to Saudi Arabia and Iran can be described as a convenient hypocrisy.
Author: Oliver Schofield