Home / Articles / The Khashoggi Affair: Whither the Kingdom?
The media has too often cast the House of Saud as an effete body of idle princes. The image is a distortion. The family has its full share of able, energetic men, both in the older and younger generations. It has far more resiliency than some critics choose to believe.
– Hermann Frederick Eilts – 1980
For much of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s modern history, its foreign policy has been oriented towards preserving regional stability and upholding the status quo of the post-World War I state system. Unlike Egypt or Iraq, Saudi Arabia did not actively seek a dominant leadership role in the Arab state system. If its coalitions fluctuated in foreign affairs, it was because the Saudis usually demonstrated pragmatic flexibility in maneuvering to maintain a regional balance of power. Since the 1980s, Saudi diplomacy and statecraft were characterized by caution, and in practice conducted discreetly, often behind the scenes. The Saudis were known as active regional mediators and were successful in using their oil wealth to advance their security interests.
This pattern of foreign policy behavior changed following King Salman’s accession to the throne in 2015, and the change became sharper and more visible after Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in 2017. To be sure, this change could be seen as a reasonable response to challenging circumstances. The crown prince believed the weakness of the Arab world in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the twin threats of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian expansion demanded that Saudi Arabia emerge from behind the scenes to play a more forceful leadership role. Mohammed bin Salman’s rapport with Jared Kushner (the two are said to regularly exchange text messages on WhatsApp), U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, and his ability to convince the Trump administration to put Saudi Arabia at the center of U.S. Middle East policy, elevated his standing in the international community and bolstered his power at home, legitimizing the bold new approach to Saudi foreign affairs.
However, the Jamal Khashoggi affair was the culmination of a series of missteps over the past year that has cast serious doubt on the both the crown prince personally and the reliability of the Saudis more generally. As a result, the journalist’s murder may alter the trajectory of regional politics and will have a significant impact on Saudi domestic politics, despite continuing signs of strong support for the crown prince in the Kingdom.
The Khashoggi crisis has unfolded along two parallel tracks. On one track, the U.S. media and Members of Congress have brought enormous pressure to bear on the Trump administration to hold those involved in Khashoggi’s murder fully accountable. On the other track, Turkey has attempted to use the audio recording of the killing to diminish the crown prince and reset Turkey’s relations with the U.S. at the Saudis’ expense. While the Trump administration has demonstrated its intention to shield the Saudis and Mohammed bin Salman from a full accounting for the time being, it is not clear whether the Saudis will possess enough political capital and goodwill in the aftermath of this affair to serve as the West’s leading partner in regional politics, as envisioned by the ambitious crown prince.
Public Outcry in the West
On October 2, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to finalize a divorce in order to marry his Turkish fiancé, who was waiting for him outside. He was killed by a team of Saudi officials, who had apparently travelled from Saudi Arabia to Turkey for the purpose of confronting Khashoggi in the consulate. Details leaked from parallel Turkish and Saudi investigations have revealed conflicting information about the specific circumstances that led to Khashoggi’s murder, and it is still not entirely clear whether it was premeditated murder or a botched kidnapping/rendition. If it was a premeditated, who authorized it? And what was the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in it?
The silencing of Khashoggi’s voice of dissent provoked an initial wave of public outrage in the West. The details of Khashoggi’s brutal murder have been slowly leaked by Turkey’s security services to the international media, lending the entire episode the suspenseful quality of a noir thriller. The grisly news has captured the public’s imagination, raising questions about the nature of the West’s close ties to a crown prince, who was portrayed as reckless (and perhaps ruthless), after a series of missteps over the year leading up to this incident. Moreover, Khashoggi was well-liked and well-connected, and his position at the Washington Post meant that an attack on him was perceived as an attack on freedom of the press, a sacrosanct part of democratic political culture in the West. The Washington Post has remained doggedly fixed on the story for more than two months, despite efforts to steer the news cycle away from the Khashoggi issue.
In the United States, Congress, the media, and the business community responded to the news of Khashoggi’s murder in a way that fed the public backlash, turning the issue into a slow-motion diplomatic crisis. A bipartisan group of 22 U.S. senators signed a letter invoking the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act calling on the U.S. president to impose sanctions on anyone found accountable for Khashoggi’s murder. Virgin Group’s billionaire owner Richard Branson announced he was suspending plans to partner with the Saudis on his latest ventures into space, and several prominent and potentially significant U.S. investors backed out of the crown prince’s major Future Investment Initiative (“FII”), which was billed as “the Davos in the Desert” and held in late October.
As details of Khashoggi’s murder slowly emerged in mid-October, Europe also applied public pressure. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany issued a joint statement defending freedom of expression and protection for journalists and calling for a “credible investigation.” Germany announced it would halt all new arms exports to Saudi Arabia until the circumstances of Khashoggi’s murder were clarified. In late October, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for a European-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. Denmark and Finland later announced they would halt all future arms sales export licenses to Saudi Arabia. Yet, this was not a big sacrifice. Their arms sales to the Kingdom are not a major engine for their economies. In Germany, for example, Saudi arms sales amounted to approximately three percent of its total. In the case of other European countries, arms deals with Saudi Arabia remain a significant source of revenues for their economies. France, Spain, and the United Kingdom have all indicated that they intend to honor their defense contracts with Saudi Arabia, despite the crisis, and have not indicated if the crisis would alter future deals. France, in particular, despite selling Saudi Arabia $12.6 billion in arms between 2008 and 2017, has a multidimensional relationship with Saudi Arabia that simply can’t be evaluated in terms of its arms sales to the Kingdom.
In mid-November, the Trump administration and the Saudi government took concrete steps to defuse the crisis by announcing their intentions to punish those involved in Khashoggi’s murder. The Saudi investigation found that Khashoggi had died by lethal injection and his body was then dismembered and disposed of in Turkey. The Saudis announced that they would arrest 18 individuals involved in the incident, and seek the death penalty for five of the eighteen. The U.S. government, for its part, designated 17 Saudis involved in the operation for sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, which would freeze their assets in the U.S. and prohibit U.S. entities from dealing with them. Mohammed bin Salman was not implicated in either the Saudi investigation or the U.S. sanctions, which prompted a new bipartisan group of six U.S. senators to propose an array of sanctions that targets not just the individuals involved in the killing but also the Saudi regime, arguing that the U.S. had not gone far enough to hold the Saudi government accountable.
The Senators’ proposal for broader sanctions emerged with a leaked Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessment that concluded, with “high confidence,” that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of Khashoggi. On Saturday, November 17, Vice President Mike Pence referred to Khashoggi’s death as an “atrocity,” and reiterated that “the United States is determined to hold all of those accountable who are responsible for that murder.”
Nevertheless, on November 20, the U.S. president issued a statement that reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed, downplaying the CIA assessment implicating bin Salman. President Trump justified his defense of the crown prince in terms of U.S. strategic and national interests, arguing that the Saudis were a profligate customer for U.S. defense manufacturers, an important source of oil production for a global market, and a valuable partner in the U.S. effort to contain Iranian expansion in the Middle East. While Trump claims the Saudi defense deals will inject $450 billion into the U.S. economy, only $14.5 billion for a missile system has materialized in concrete terms to date. And while the Saudis are a critical swing producer for the oil market, the U.S. is far less dependent on Saudi production than it has been since the 1970s. In the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing, the Saudis delivered on a $110 million pledge to support the U.S. military mission in Syria, and there have been rumors that there are a small number of Saudi troops on the ground there. Whatever the merits of Trump’s claims, the White House’s staunch support for the Saudis and the administration’s effort to shield the crown prince from further damage has played a critical role in helping Crown Prince Mohammed weather the storm of this crisis.
In late November, the White House prevented CIA Director Gina Haspel—who traveled to Turkey to hear the audio recording of Khashoggi’s killing—from testifying at a U.S. Senate foreign relations committee hearing on the civil war in Yemen on Wednesday, November 28. Observers described the hearing as an important litmus test for whether Congress will push for more sanctions on Saudi Arabia. There is renewed support for the bipartisan “Saudi Accountability and Yemen Act,” which would limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia; end U.S. refueling of Saudi aircraft involved in the Yemen war; demand a new report on human rights in Saudi Arabia; and mandate sanctions on individuals implicated in Khashoggi’s murder. However, it is doubtful that any such new legislation could pass until the newly elected House begins work in 2019.
Turkey, for its part, tried to take advantage of the affair by leaking evidence to extract concessions from the Trump administration, which has tried to bury the crisis. The Turkish leaks fed the media coverage, suggesting there was more damning evidence against the Saudis that had not been disclosed. The subtext of this process had been that unless Turkey’s demands were met, it would publicly release the most damaging information it possesses and discredit the Saudi crown prince and the U.S. efforts to insulate the crown prince from the affair. In this carefully calibrated game of diplomatic extortion, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to both reset his relations with the U.S. and supplant the Saudis as the putative leader of the Sunni world in the Middle East without openly rupturing ties with the Saudi kingdom.
In an early November Washington Post op-ed, Erdoğan took pains to emphasize that the Khashoggi “slaying” was not a “problem” between two countries [Saudi Arabia and Turkey], and while he did not believe “for a second” that King Salman had ordered “the hit on Khashoggi,” Turkey “must reveal the identities of the puppetmasters behind Khashoggi’s killing and discover those in whom Saudi officials — still trying to cover up the murder — have placed their trust.”
When the Khashoggi crisis erupted, Erdoğan’s relations with the United States were unraveling. The Turkish lira had loss 40 percent of its value, inflation was at a 15-year high, and the economy was ailing, in part, due to an ongoing confrontation between Turkey and the U.S. over the American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was being held by Turkey on espionage charges. As the Khashoggi crisis unfolded, a Turkish court abruptly released Brunson from two years of detention, creating a new atmosphere for engagement between the U.S. and Turkey. Turkey hoped this reset would allow it to offer its support to the Trump administration on Khashoggi affair as part of a broader exchange for concessions from the U.S. on other more vital Turkish interests.
Turkey is seeking greater U.S. cooperation on four key bilateral issues. First, Erdoğan wants the U.S. to extradite Islamist leader Fetullah Gülen, whom Turkey accuses of orchestrating the July 2016 attempt coup. Second, Turkey would like the U.S. to end the federal investigation into Halkbank, which is accused of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions. Third, Turkey is seeking a permanent exemption from the U.S. for importing Iranian oil. And, fourth, Turkey wants to see the U.S. end its support for the Kurds in northeastern Syria. The U.S. has its own outstanding claims on Turkey, which include the release of three U.S. citizens who worked for the U.S. consulate, and who are being held on terrorist charges that U.S. officials characterized as “baseless”; an end to Turkish targeting of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria; and the cancellation of Turkey’s commitment to purchase the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. Thus far, the Trump administration appears unwilling to participate in this kind of quid pro quo with Turkey, which has led to Turkey’s renewed calls for an UN investigation into the Khashoggi affair.
Beyond its attempt at diplomatic horse-trading, Turkey’s broader strategy has been to use the crisis to diminish Crown Prince Mohammed. This would provide Turkey with three important gains. First, it would undermine the Saudi-Egypt-UAE tripartite front against the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. This grouping has placed itself in opposition to Turkey and Qatar, which, in different ways, have represented Muslim Brotherhood interests in the region since the fall of the Mohamed Morsi government in Egypt in 2013. Second, Turkey hoped to demonstrate that it was more reliable than the Saudis as an American ally in the region. Third, and most importantly, a more timid Saudi Arabia would allow Erdoğan to continue his effort to establish Turkey as the dominant regional power in the Sunni world.
Turkey’s possession of an audio-recording of the Khashoggi killing continues to provide it with significant political leverage over the Saudis, who do not want it publicly released. Turkey would also prefer not to leak the full recording and risk rupturing ties with the Saudis, who still control access to the Hajj and provide considerable economic opportunities to the Turkish private sector, which is reeling from its currency free-fall. However, it is also clear that Erdoğan would like to see the crown prince sidelined as a consequence of the Khashoggi affair. Therefore, despite the Trump administration’s effort to shield the Saudi crown prince, we may see additional developments in the Khashoggi affair that reflect the fundamental differences between Erdoğan’s and Mohammed bin Salman’s vision for the future of the region.
Crown Prince Mohammed has been trying to fight on all fronts at the same time: at home, he has challenged the jihadists, the Islamist activists, even the Wahhabi religious establishment, while at the same time shaking down senior Saudi princes accused of corruption; abroad, he has led the charge to counter Iranian regional expansion, while also trying to stamp out the sources of Muslim Brotherhood influence across the region. All of this was in addition to pursuing the Kingdom’s most ambitious attempt at socio-economic reform in more than 50 years.
While there is much to commend about the crown prince’s efforts to urgently address the legitimate challenges facing the Kingdom, some believe he has been recklessly tilting at windmills simply in order to accumulate power. A series of bad decisions leading up to the Khashoggi affair have undermined his credibility abroad, which also affects his legitimacy at home, despite his popularity with young people in the Kingdom. The blockade of Qatar, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the coerced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the sharp break with Canada, among others all have called into question the crown prince’s judgment. Among the latest revelations, from David Ignatius, that the crown prince’s court was running a foreign rendition program that unsuccessfully targeted hostile members of the Saudi royal family and their entourages raises further questions about the crown prince’s competence and judgment.
While some have argued the West’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is not based on shared values and is therefore inherently unstable and expendable, the Trump administration has made the case for the relationship with Saudi Arabia in terms of “vital” U.S. security interests. However, looking beyond the moral or realist dimensions of the debate, which are as old as the Saudi-U.S. partnership, the Khashoggi affair has raised the question of whether a third generation of Saudis is capable of delivering on the full measure of its considerable ambitions. It is this aspect of the relationship that will ultimately determine whether the Saudi partnership becomes an asset or liability to the West.
 Herman F. Eilts, “Security Considerations in the Persian Gulf,” International Security 5:2 (1980), 79-113, here 96.
 Jacob Goldberg, Saudi Foreign Folicy: The Formative Years, 1902-1918 (Harvard University Press, 1986); Elie Podeh, The Quest for Hegemony in the Arab World: The Struggle Over the Baghdad Pact (Leiden: Brill, 1995); Mordechai Abir, Saudi Arabia: Government, Society, and the Gulf Crisis (New York: Routledge, 1993).
 William Quandt, Saudi Arabia in the 1980s: Foreign Policy, Security, and Oil (Brookings Institution Press, 1981); F. Gregory Gause III, Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994); Gerd Nonnemon, “Determinants and Patterns of Saudi Foreign Policy: ‘Omnibalancing’ and ‘Relative Autonomy in multiple environments,” in Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs (London: Hurst Ltd., 2005) edited by P. Aarts and G. Nonneman: 315–51.
 Mehran Kamrava, “Mediation and Saudi Foreign Policy,” Orbis 57:1 (Winter 2013), 152-170.