If reports are correct, journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain a document he needed to marry his fiancée, a Turkish citizen. While there, he was attacked by as many as 15 Saudis, who cut off his finger and then killed him. Then, one of his murderers cut off his head. It is unlikely that we will learn how accurate those reports are, since it isn’t clear that there will be an impartial investigation into the murder of Khashoggi, a Saudi government insider turned critic and a U.S. resident. As of this writing, it appears that President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are content to let the Saudis investigate the matter themselves.
For decades, many in the United States have urged our government to speak out about Saudi human rights abuses. That hasn’t happened. And Pompeo’s amiable visit with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week did not outwardly appear to focus on the seriousness of the alleged Saudi actions in connection with the murder. Instead, we got what appeared to be unclear messages from the administration — with the president first commenting that “Saudi Arabia is innocent until proven guilty,” and then threatening that Saudi Arabia could meet a “very serious” U.S. response for what is alleged (and now partially admitted) to have been done.
We have, however, heard near-universal and bipartisan outrage and concern from Congress. For example, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), if the administration does nothing, “Congress will. That I can tell you with 100 percent certainty. With almost full unanimity, across the board, Republicans and Democrats, there will be a very strong congressional response.” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) voiced agreement. Those promises are reassuring, but we have been disappointed by Capitol Hill before.
Whether Khashoggi’s murder has any impact on U.S.-Saudi relations remains to be seen. The United States is, fortunately, no longer reliant on Saudi oil. Promises of large Saudi arms purchases have proved somewhat ephemeral. And the crown prince’s impetuous decisions — such as cutting off relations with Canada — raise questions about the kingdom’s role as a steady and reliable ally.
Israel is among the neighboring countries that has greeted the Khashoggi crisis in silence. And that’s somewhat understandable. The Jewish state has been buoyed by its growing relations with Saudi Arabia, particularly against a hegemonic Iran, but has been fully aware of the underlying brutal nature of the kingdom’s regime. At this point, Israel has nothing to gain by criticizing the Saudis, and can leave that work to others in the Western world.
But Israel and the United States may need to rethink how much they should rely on Saudi Arabia to help their national interests. Right now, the reliability and predictability of the Saudi government, and where its allegiances really lie, are open questions. The answers may hinge on whether the state comes clean in the Khashoggi murder. PJC