The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is raising new questions about the US-Saudi Arabia alliance. The Daily Signal, a publication of the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank based in Washingon DC), released the podcast of a conversation between Katrina Trinko, the newsletter’s managing editor, commentary editor Daniel Davis and senior research fellow on Middle Eastern Affairs Jim Phillips. What should the US do, now that the Saudis have admitted Khashoggi is dead?
Katrina Trinko: Khashoggil’s disappearance actually happened in Turkey. The Turks have been releasing selective information that they claim is valid. How does Turkey figure into all this and what should the US be thinking about their role or lack thereof in an investigation?
Phillips: Unfortunately, one of the problems that has muddied the waters – even further beyond the Saudi attempts to muddy them – is the fact that there’s an information war, or really a disinformation war, going on between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Probably the first accounts of both are false. The Turks claim that they have an audiotape and initially they claimed they had a videotape too of Khashoggi being killed and tortured by the Saudis, but now it appears that they may not have those tapes.
In fact, the story behind those tapes was released in a Turkish newspaper of very questionable credibility, a newspaper that has falsified interviews before and added manipulated audiotape to make Kurdish demonstrators look guilty. It has a very questionable record in terms of reporting the facts. This same newspaper claims that the US is training ISIS terrorists in Syria.
I think what has happened, unfortunately, is that the Turkish government is using these series of damaging leaks to pressure not only Saudi Arabia, but pressure the US into breaking relations with Saudi Arabia in order to further the agenda of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Davis: If the Saudis did kill Khashoggi, would that mean the crown prince is behind it, that he plotted this?
Phillips: Unfortunately, it probably does mean he was behind it because in the Saudi system, it’s very difficult to see some kind of rogue force –especially since, in recent years, the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has consolidated power in his hands. It’s likely that this did occur at his orders although now the Saudi government is trying to distance itself from that.
Davis: You wrote a piece for us recently in The Daily Signal, talking about the cautious approach that the US should take and make sure we have all the facts before we make any big decisions. Knowing what we know now and assuming that, for the sake of argument, it was the crown prince who did this, how does that change the calculus and the way we relate to Saudi Arabia?
Phillips: Although not all the facts are known, what is known has greatly undermined faith in the judgment of this crown prince and definitely has undermined his reputation. He’s not likely to ever visit the US again, let alone other countries that are likely to see huge demonstrations focused on his presence if he does show up.
But I think it would be a mistake for the US, first of all, to rush to judgment and impose penalties before the investigations are known because, as I mentioned, the information coming out of these leaks in
Turkish newspapers is not a very credible source to base US action on.
We need to get to the bottom, and essentially this is turning into a murder investigation. We shouldn’t be rushing to get the facts here. We should be sure of what we’re getting not only from the Turkish side, but from the Saudi side.
Secondly, that this looks like this act, if it did occur on the prince’s orders, is motivated by, to a large degree, insecurity. The US should be careful that, in tailoring a response to this, we don’t further inflame Saudi insecurity or there will be other acts like this in the future.
I would advocate trying to insulate the US-Saudi security relationship from sanctions that would be taken in this course. I know, for instance going back to the ’80s when the French were found to be responsible for the death of an environmental peacekeeper in, I think, South Pacific, the US didn’t break relations with France even though it was found to be responsible for the death of that protestor. There were some steps taken, but the broader relations survived. I think that’s very important for Saudi Arabia.
Trinko: You have referred in one of your commentaries to Saudi Arabia as a key Middle Eastern ally for the United States. Why is that relationship so important for the US?
Phillips: Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest producers of oil in the world. Now that the US is stepping up sanctions against Iran, it’s very important that the oil that Iran formerly exported which is not going to be exported because of sanctions, it’s important that that oil be replaced and that Saudi Arabia has the largest untapped source of oil production. It’s important for containing Iran, for combating Islamic terrorists. Saudis are an important part of the terror coalition. They’ve had problems in restricting the Islamic charities from passing some of this money to terrorist groups in the past, but they’ve done a better job.
Saudi Arabia is important for stabilising the Middle East in the future. If the US unilaterally torpedoes the security relationship, then the Saudis could be doing a lot more very dangerous unilateral things.
Trinko: So you had mentioned earlier that you thought insecurity was a big part of the reason why the Saudis presumably killed Khashoggi. Khashoggi – he’s a US resident, writes for the Washington Post, someone I had never even heard of until this all happened. Why did he get under their skin so much? I mean this seems insane to us, I think, looking at this calculus. Why would you do this? What do you think their thinking is?
Phillips: I think Khashoggi potentially represented a dual threat. One was an internal threat because he was very … He had very close ties to other members of the royal family, including members of the royal family whose toes that the crown prince stepped on when he elbowed them out of the way on his rise to power.
Secondly, Khashoggi showed some sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood which the Saudis are extremely opposed to and they see as a deep existential threat to their continued rule. They may have suspected him of taking money from Qatar, which is an Arab Gulf state that the Saudis have had a cold war with because they consider it too close to the Muslim Brotherhood and too close to Iran. Khashoggi may have represented to the prince both a potential internal and an external threat to his personal political power.