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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to reveal today what his country knows about the tragic events which led to the death of Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. But regardless of the quality of the information released by Turkey, it is clear that the Khashoggi affair has grown into a crisis that may potentially affect the geopolitics of the Middle East. The shocking nature of his death, combined with an admission of guilt by the Saudi state after two weeks of denials and half-truths, has plunged the House of Saud into a deep crisis.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has dominated domestic and foreign policy in the kingdom for the past two years, has been exonerated by official Saudi explanations which claim that Khashoggi died in a fist-fight. But at the time of writing, the UK, France, Canada, Germany, and even the kingdom’s most important ally, the US have all questioned the credibility of the official Saudi version of events.
In an attempt to calm international ire, the Saudis have identified 18 suspects, and dismissed two senior advisers to the Royal Court: Major General Ahmed Al-Assiri and Saud Al-Qahtani. However, this does not appear to have been enough to stop Western states mulling options for the imposition of targeted sanctions, and further moved to impose a diplomatic isolation on Saudi Arabia. Much will depend on whether the Saudis choose to hold to their current chosen explanation line, or accept further censure by revealing more evidence around Khashoggi’s death. A joint diplomatic statement by Germany, France and the UK notes that the three countries ‘will ultimately make our judgement based on the credibility of the further explanation we receive about what happened and our confidence that such a shameful event cannot and will not ever be repeated’.
If a decision is taken that matters cannot remain as they are, it is likely that a number of states will need to act in concert, either in the form of an ad hoc coalition imposing punitive actions collectively, or through pre-existing mechanisms at the UN. The UN track is complex, since any UN Security Council-mandated punishment would require Russia and China to agree, neither of whom appear likely to do so. A UN General Assembly declarative statement based on a majority vote would be non-binding, thereby not compelling states to act, although it would be damaging for Riyadh.
More likely is a coordinated set of bilateral sanctions imposed upon Riyadh, or upon individuals connected with Khashoggi’s death. This would require a number of states to agree to take the step forward together, and the US would be the crucial player in such an endeavour.
However, one of the unintended consequences of the Khashoggi affair is that the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) appear to be less constrained by Washington’s reticence to act than they might have otherwise been in years gone by. London and Paris have deep relationships with the kingdom, and would be hoping to prevent any escalation from targeting the Saudi state itself. But neither France nor the UK is in any mood to let Riyadh off the hook.
For London, the scars of the Skripal affair have had a marked effect. Having rallied much of the world against Moscow for what happened in Salisbury, the British are aware of the potential charge of hypocrisy should they back away from seeking action against Riyadh. US senators have already mulled the prospect publicly, and regardless of what Donald Trump thinks, may pursue action through Congress.
In any actions governments may care to undertake, they will have to grapple with the following questions:
1) Has Riyadh’s apparent contrition, and admission of guilt been sufficient to negate the prospect of punishment?
2) What benefits would emerge from punishing the kingdom, or would Riyadh’s behaviour in the international system change as a result of punishment?
3) Would censuring Riyadh lead to an empowerment of Iran, destabilising the region further and leading to heightened regional tensions above their currently inflamed levels?
4) What will the potential impact on world oil prices be, especially with the threat of looming US sanctions on Iran and its oil exports?
5) Is the potential financial cost of alienating Riyadh an acceptable price to pay for enforcing international norms?
There is no easy set of answers to these questions, and individual states may well find their tolerance for action is disproportionately affected by the answers they arrive at. The question of alienating Riyadh may be the most difficult problem of all. Often the US, UK and France have preferred to keep their problems with the Saudis quiet, for fear of losing diplomatic leverage over the kingdom. However, given the egregious nature of Khashoggi’s death, all three states may well be wondering whether the softly-softly approach only empowered bad behaviour, rather than constrain it.
Regardless of what Western states do, the kingdom will need to focus hard on rebuilding its shattered reputation. The Saudi explanation of a fistfight breaking out in the consulate, points to a diplomatic and intelligence network so incompetent that seniors were not able to control those beneath them, and diplomats failed to cable instructions to Riyadh effectively. Even if the world does accept the official Saudi version of events, this is highly damaging to Saudi Arabia’s regional and international position. The consequences of this will be long lasting, and almost certainly weaken Riyadh in the short to medium term.
This week will prove pivotal in determining whether Saudi Arabia will be made to truly face the full consequences of what happened in its consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. Many may consider that Saudi Arabia will be let off the hook eventually, but this is to misunderstand the gravity of Riyadh’s current predicament. In short, there is no positive ending for Saudi Arabia at this point.
Michael Stephens is a Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at RUSI.
BANNER IMAGE: Jamal Khashoggi in March 2018. Courtesy of POMED
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.