Roughly two weeks ago Jamal Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Mr. Khashoggi, born and raised in Saudi Arabia, was a frequent critic of the Saudi regime who was living in exile as a permanent green card holder in the United States and was a Washington Post journalist. Mr. Khashoggi entered the consulate, as seen on security cameras outside the building, but was never observed coming out and has not been heard from since. The Saudis claim that he left the Consulate in fine condition but can provide no proof and cannot say where he may be. The Turkish government states that it has hard evidence — reportedly audio and possibly video recordings — that Mr. Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured, murdered and dismembered inside the Consulate. The Turks report that a fifteen man “hit squad” flew in and out of Turkey from Saudi Arabia on two private aircraft before and after the alleged murder.
This incident is getting the full attention of both political parties in the United States Senate as well as freedom loving nations around the world. Demands for answers from the Saudis and a full investigation into the disappearance of a respected journalist are growing. For those nations that care about human rights, this is an egregious and blatant act of state sponsored terrorism against an innocent civilian conducted on the foreign soil of a NATO ally. It cannot be tolerated.
While acknowledging that a state ordered murder of Mr. Khashoggi (“if it’s true”) would be a problem (“We don’t like it. We don’t like it even a bit.”), the President of the United States has been clear over the last several days that restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia should not be on the table. Or as he said on Thursday, ” I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money.” (Mr. Trump keeps touting the $110 billion arms deal, but analysts say that the Saudis have only committed to about $10 billion and it is debatable that the Saudis will ever buy the full $110 billion as their military cannot assimilate all of those weapons.) So we know that Mr. Khashoggi’s life is not worth $110 billion or even $10 billion. What is it worth?
This murderous development significantly impacts U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The Trump Administration, through the president’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, has put all of their Middle East policy eggs in the Saudi basket. The reasons are many, varied and complicated, but if you can’t tell the players without a score card, a quick summary follows.
The modern state of Saudi Arabia was created in 1930 under King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud. The relationship with the United States began following the discovery of oil in the kingdom in 1938 and dates to a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul-Aziz aboard the USS Quincy while anchored in the Suez Canal. A hand shake between the two took on the force of a treaty. The kingdom would supply oil to the U.S. in exchange for security and protection guarantees from the U.S. That same basic agreement is still in force today, but with greater complications.
The kingdom was ruled for most of its existence by one of the sons of King Abdul-Aziz. As one half-brother died, another would succeed him as king. For all of this time, the main focus of Saudi policy was, and is, the preservation of the rule of the royal family (which now numbers in the thousands with uncles, cousins, second cousins, etc. that can trace lineage back to King Abdul Aziz) and their wealth. As the brothers died off, there was a power struggle within the family as to how succession would be passed down for the future. Currently, the winner of that struggle is Mohammad bin Salman, at 33 the current Crown Prince, heir apparent and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as his father, King Salman, the nominal ruler of the kingdom is reported to be in poor health.
Crown Prince Mohammad, commonly referred to as MBS, is also good friends with Mr. Kushner. Both are young and apparently bonded in the days following the election in 2016. Many thought originally that Prince Mohammad would be a reformer within the kingdom and bring it into the 21st century through economic and social reform. Recently, analysis of his efforts indicates that he is a good public relations man in pushing the appearance of reform, but in fact his efforts are focused on establishing himself as the autocratic head of state and in consolidating power for himself, regardless of who gets hurt in the process. For example in 2017 he had over 40 members of the royal family and senior government officials arrested and imprisoned along with roughly 200 other businessmen, bankers, broadcasters and others. Ostensibly this was to rid the government of corruption but it is widely viewed as a test of his power and an attempt to eliminate any competition for his leadership. Most were eventually released after paying “fines” (read bribes) to the Crown Prince worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It is widely believed that Mr. Kushner may have shared highly classified intelligence with the Prince prior to the purge naming those in the country that opposed his taking the reins .
Mr. Kushner sees MBS as the key to countering Iran in the region and as the key to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The prince positioned himself to be a “player” but so far the Saudis have not delivered on their promises (as anyone knowing how things work in that area would know) even as the U.S. has delivered on their end, most controversially by supporting the Saudis with arms and intelligence during their ongoing military involvement in Yemen.
Additionally, and not surprisingly, both the Trump and Kushner family business organizations have long-standing and wide-spread business involvement in Saudi Arabia. When Mr. Trump was in serious financial trouble in the 1990s, for example, he sold condos, a hotel, parts of his business and his yacht to Saudis to raise money. It is rumored that the Saudis saved the Kushner family business by taking on the loan for a prominent New York land mark. There are other business connections that have been detailed in many venues, but without the release of a certain president’s tax returns and other normally provided financial information, the true extent of the deals cannot be determined. Oh by the way, the biggest spender at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC since the election is the Saudi government.
Mr. Khashoggi wrote often and furiously about the corruption in the Saudi royal family, their business ties and the efforts by Prince Mohammad to take control of the country. Or as he said last year to The New Yorker, “It’s an interesting form of dictatorship that is being created in Saudi Arabia. MBS is now becoming the supreme leader.”
Mr. Khashoggi would never have been murdered without the knowledge of Prince Mohammad.
And all of this is the tip of the iceberg. Our relationship is a complicated one, on all levels. There are advantages and disadvantages to working with the Saudis. The alleged murder of Mr. Khashoggi puts a lot of the national and personal goals of this administration in peril should the president choose to act on punishing the Saudis. The Senate is invoking the Global Magnitsky Act based on a December 2016 law that invokes sanctions against anyone or any government implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world. The president is resisting. (Ironically the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Mr. Trump, Jr. and the Russians concerned the Magnitsky Act which at the time involved sanctions against Russians committing human rights abuses. In December of that year it expanded to a global scale.)
Mr. Trump knows he must act tough, but my bet is that he hopes that it all blows over. Today he reportedly spoke to King Salman, the titular head of Saudi Arabia, who assured him that the Saudis had nothing to do with Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. He flatly denied it. Or as Mr. Trump told reporters today, “It wasn’t like there was a question in his mind. The denial was very strong.” (As one recalls, anyone or any government that strongly denies a murder by chemical attack — hello Russia — or preying on young girls — hello Roy Moore — or anything else is believed by Mr. Trump because they are “very strong” in their denials.)
To add injury to insult, Mr. Trump added to his statement by saying that “It sounded to me like it could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” Indeed. Can you say “cover up”?
I can see it developing already. No official U.S. government action will ensue as Mr. Trump says we can’t be sure who did it. The Saudis deny it. Very strongly. It could have been rogue killers. We cannot give up billions in arms sales. Too bad. I feel bad for his family. Hey, look over there!
And we move on.
There was a time when the U.S. cared about and set an example for human rights, freedom of the press and other values we held dearly as a nation. Now, not so much. Apparently all of our relations are now transactional and only get fully considered based on the financial bottom line. It only matters how much money is involved, not what is right.
Apparently a human life isn’t worth anything to the United States anymore.