Jamal Khashoggi and the future of Saudi-US relations
Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in 2018. The United States’ intelligence report into Khashoggi’s death was recently declassified after being withheld by the Trump administration for two years. This damning report revealed the belief that “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi”.
Khashoggi was a prominent Saudi journalist who had been close to the Saudi royal family for decades and served as an advisor to the Saudi Government. After falling out of favour and fearing arrest from those in power, Khashoggi went into self-imposed exile in 2017. Living in the US, Khashoggi began writing a monthly column for the Washington Post where he criticised the Saudi royal family, government and specifically the policies of the Crown Prince. This criticism is believed to have been the leading cause of Khashoggi’s murder.
The men implicated in Khashoggi’s disappearance and subsequent death were the subject of trials held in both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Although these trials resulted in convictions, Agnes Callamard, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, who investigated Khashoggi’s death, concluded that both investigations failed in their attempt to seek justice. The trials did not meet international procedural and substantive standards and the evidence available merited further investigation by an independent and impartial international inquiry. Callamard states there was “credible evidence, warranting further investigation of high level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including the Crown Prince’s”. In another emboldened statement, Callamard adds that “…until and unless evidence has been produced that he bears no responsibility for the execution of Mr Khashoggi” sanctions focussing on bin Salman’s personal assets abroad should remain in place.
The US-Saudi relationship
Despite directly implicating the Crown Prince in Khashoggi’s death in their intelligence report, the US did not impose sanctions against him. Senior officials within the Biden administration have strongly denied allegations that the decision to not impose sanctions was a continuation of the ‘cosy’ relationship Trump held with Saudi rulers. Further, officials argue that the US does not generally apply sanctions to the highest leadership of countries which it has diplomatic relationships with, and that there was a unanimous decision within the administration that there are other, more effective, means to deal with these issues going forward.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US is highly beneficial for both sides. For the Biden administration, the risks of rupturing the relationship by imposing sanctions on the Saudi Government are too high. In brief, Saudi Arabia:
possesses about 18 per cent of the world's proven oil reserves, giving them power and influence on the global stage;
has the third largest defence budget globally and imports the majority of its arms from the US;
plays a crucial role in maintaining security in the Middle East and combatting extremism and terrorism;
has worked closely with the US to counter the influence of Iran; and,
sources 13 per cent of all its imports from the US (second to China at 14 per cent).
In Saudi Arabia’s favour, at only 35 years of age, the Crown Prince is the de facto and soon to be absolute ruler of Saudi Arabia. Hampering the relationship now could, in theory, sour US-Saudi relations for decades to come.
Despite no direct sanctions being imposed on bin Salman personally, sanctions have been imposed against other Saudi officials implicated in Khashoggi’s death. Other efforts have also been made to demonstrate Washington’s disapproval of bin Salman’s actions through the ‘recalibration’ of the Saudi-US relationship. Since taking office, Biden has indicated he wants to deal with Saudi’s King Salman and not the Crown Prince bin Salman - in reality the father and son work closely together, so this distinction is largely meaningless. The Biden administration announced a moratorium on US weapons for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen, and have implemented the ‘Khashoggi ban’. This ban imposes visa restrictions on anyone found to be “acting on behalf of a foreign government and involved in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities”. As of February 27 2021, 76 Saudi citizens have experienced visa restrictions under the ‘Khashoggi ban’.
In reality, it is possible that the steps taken to ‘recalibrate’ the relationship, could still sour or at least weaken Saudi-US relations. Of particular concern is the possibility of disrupting the power structures in place within the Middle East. Experts have already concluded that Iran has achieved an upper hand in the Middle East through its strategic proxy militias across the region, leaving Saudi Arabia surrounded by its most significant enemy. In the wake of the moratorium on US weapons for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen, Iran was quick to capitalise by advancing on several fronts as their enemy was ‘hobbled’ behind the arms ban. If the moratorium continues in the long-term, Saudi Arabia will likely be pushed towards diversifying its defence and security partnerships, likely with Russia and China.
As both sides continue to respond to the fallout from Khashoggi’s murder, the US-Saudi relationship will continue to evolve. It is plausible, that despite the attempt by the US to ‘recalibrate’ rather than ‘rupture’ the relationship, it will nonetheless lead to the weakening of the Saudi-US relationship and see Saudi officials favouring a relationship with Russia or China. For Khashoggi’s family and supporters, the hope that the US’ recognition of bin Salman’s involvement would lead to justice has been quashed.
Belle Davenport is a first year Master’s student in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland. Her interests include security, conflict and geopolitics.