KHASHOGGI MURDER: THE INTERNATIONAL CONSEQUENCES
horrible murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is now
marginal if compared to its consequences. The elimination of a
columnist who dared criticize, albeit moderately, his country has
become the least important element in this murky story. Ethics,
justice and human rights are useless corollaries of a bigger game
in the Middle East.
Apart from Saudi Arabia, the other country most interested in finding a painless solution to the PR disaster is the United States. The Saudis are still their most relevant Arab ally. The Americans are trying to save appearances by watering down the facts. Regardless of whether this is right, or wrong, foreign policy deals with national interests, not ethics. And in this specific case, the death of Jamal Khashoggi is not worth a strategic or economic interest.
The consequences of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the affair stretch well beyond Saudi Arabia as Mohammed was conducting a new foreign policy for the Kingdom in the region. Having a lot at stake, he also stands to affect his country’s standing.
Iran is the country that can most benefit from the Khashoggi affair because of them being Saudi Arabia’s main competitor in the region. Iranians and Saudis compete over religion – in the Sunni vs Shia struggle – and for military and political supremacy.
The more so if we consider Saudi Arabia’s role for the United States. The Kingdom was set to contrast the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East. The weakening of Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership strikes at the heart of the privileged relationship with Washington and, in particular, with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The US have sold 100 billion US dollars worth of weapons to the Saudis, they gave them intelligence assistance in the disastrous conflict in Yemen and have tightened economic ties. If the Crown Prince falls, so will the special relationship between the two countries. And this will, in turn, determine turbulent days ahead domestically in Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi’s murder has put the US in a tight spot. On one side – as President Donald Trump has constantly repeated – Saudi Arabia is a vital partner in the Middle East. More so now that Russia has returned on the regional scene. On the other, while keeping US public opinion into consideration (after all Khashoggi lived in self-imposed exile in the United States), Trump needed to show some form of reprieve from the man responsible for ordering the killing, i.e. Prince Salman.
This is why the US President initially doubted, then asked for time to verify, but eventually capitulated after the evidence showed what the young Prince had done. At that point, Donald Trump was at a crossroads: keep the dialogue with Saudi Arabia open regardless of its responsibilities, or keep Mohammed bin Salman at a distance.
Trump chose neither, or both. The Saudi kingdom has found a new friend in Washington despite the Khashoggi affair. However, it will be difficult for Donald Trump to accuse Iran of human rights violations when its favorite ally slays journalists inside a Consulate. The US also fear that a weak and elderly king and his ambitious son may have gone too far and could destabilize the kingdom.
Mohammed bin Salman was the go-to-guy for Washington. He signed the arms deals, he accepted that Jerusalem become the capital of Israel. No one else would have in Saudi Arabia. If the Crown Prince falls, so will Saudi support for the US policy in Palestine, the war in Yemen will witness an Iranian triumph and Russia will lead the way in Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s downfall is the outcome of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan actions. Ankara has been through some trouble as of lately, both in Washington and abroad. Several international analysts wonder whether Turkey is still part of NATO after it purchased Russian anti-aircraft missiles and negotiated its presence in Syria with Moscow and Tehran. Turkey is waging its own personal war on Saudi Arabia for the leadership of Sunni muslims. If the Kingdom’s influence wanes, the Turks believe theirs will rise.
Ankara and Ryad have entered a collision course over Qatar, where Turkish soldiers have been deployed to protect the emirate, and prior to that over Egypt, Syria and even Libya. Erdogan supported Mohamed Morsi before he was ousted and is opposed to Khalifa Haftar in Libya. In the background, the fight over the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan’s AKP is one of the Brothers, while the Saudis have banned the movement. Saudi Arabia has accused Qatar of supporting the Brotherhood and, no wonder, Khashoggi of being an affiliate.
The Saudi dissident was killed in Istanbul. The circumstance has granted Turkey the access to details on the murder that they have then used to pressure Saudi Arabia. By accurately dosing rumors, speeches, releases of information, Erdogan has kept the thriller going and has stuck to his byline: where is the corpse? Knowing the slain journalist has probably been dissolved in acid, the Turkish President has been able to emphasize the most brutal details of the killing.
Erdogan seeks to profit from Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and aims to gain international prestige (by taking over Saudi Arabia’s as the US favorite ally), strategic goals (the so-called Neo-Ottoman dream) and make financial gains. Turkey has been through some economic hardship lately and Saudi investments could favor the Turkish decision to turn a blind eye on the Khashoggi affair.
Mohamed bin Salman, although not officially, had become a great friend of Tel Aviv. Jared Kushner had managed to sway the Kingdom’s stance on Jerusalem and established a direct relationship between the two countries. The first example was an Israeli delegation’s visit to the UAE.
In the recent past, a relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia would have been considered impossible. But they now face a common threat, Iran, and Mohammed bin Salman seems to want to go out of his way to fight against Tehran. The synergy between the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia has put an end to the negotiations over Palestine after Donald Trump turned the peace talks into a blackmail.
Israel has obtained that its commercial flights will be able to fly over Saudi territory on their way to India. Everyone knows that Israeli strikers have used commercial routes for military flights in the past. And this gives Benjamin Netanyahu another option in case of an attack against Iran.
If Mohammed bin Salman were to be replaced by another Crown Prince, the relationship with Israel could be in peril.
Moscow has tried to improve its ties with Ryad lately, although Russia is conscious of the role Saudi Arabia plays in the Middle East for the United States. The two countries may agree on oil prices, but have diverging strategic goals. The fact that the Khashoggi affair has dented Saudi Arabia’s prestige is just another piece of the puzzle of growing Russian influence in the Middle East.