The disappearance of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was living in self-imposed exile in the United States and writing for The Washington Post, is developing into a significant problem for U.S.-Saudi relations. The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is primarily transactional, and not sentimental or values-based on either side. Therefore, even if many Americans conclude that the Saudi government is responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance or death, the fundamentals of the relationship are unlikely to be re-evaluated and transformed. However, it is likely that there will be a significant impact on the political and foreign policy conversation in Washington regarding relations with Saudi Arabia that could lead to repercussions in both the near and long terms. Saudi Arabia may have to deal with much more opposition in Congress to weapons sales and other forms of cooperation and far more skepticism and criticism in the mainstream U.S. media. At the very least, the tone and tenor of the relationship is likely to deteriorate reflecting a growing anti-Saudi sentiment in American public opinion.
On the early afternoon of October 2, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and he has not been seen since. Saudi authorities insist he left the building shortly after entering, but have not released evidence of this, and Turkish authorities, in a swirl of complex and often contradictory leaked statements, have accused Saudi Arabia of his premeditated murder. The United States is drawn into the controversy because Khashoggi was a resident of Washington, DC and writing for a major U.S. newspaper. Pressure is rapidly mounting, particularly from Congress and the media, especially the Post, on President Donald J. Trump to use U.S. leverage to press both Turkey and, especially, Saudi Arabia for evidence corroborating their competing claims. And there is mounting pressure for some practical consequences for Saudi Arabia from Washington if it is concluded Riyadh was responsible for his disappearance.
But the nature of the U.S.-Saudi alliance in all probability strongly limits the impact this event could have on the fundamentals of the relationship. Each side fulfills a core strategic need for the other, and there are no plausible alternatives for both. The key bases of the alliance are strategic and military cooperation, stability and order in the world’s energy markets, and maintaining security and stability in the Gulf region and the strategically crucial waters of the Gulf itself. As long as the United States wishes to remain the predominant outside power in the Gulf region and the guarantor of stability, it must rely on a partnership with a key local power. That means, in effect, that Washington must partner with either Saudi Arabia or Iran.
As the administration of former President Barack Obama discovered in the months after the nuclear agreement with Iran was concluded, Iran is not prepared to act as a stabilizing power in the region and remains fundamentally a revisionist actor challenging the status quo. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is committed to maintaining most aspects of regional stability and the status quo, and therefore Washington and Riyadh are largely in accord on most long-term goals in the Gulf region and the broader Middle East. Saudi Arabia, too, must partner with a global power that can help ensure its own security needs, which it cannot protect entirely on its own. Russia and China are unable, and probably unwilling, to play that role, because they lack the power projection capability under the current circumstances and also maintain strong relations with Iran.
Therefore, neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia can radically alter the basic equation in this transactional relationship without fundamentally rethinking their strategic posture. No amount of tension that has arisen in recent years, including from the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, or the war in Yemen, has come close to prompting such a fundamental re-evaluation. It is therefore unlikely that even if Washington concludes that Riyadh was responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance or death, this incident would prompt a thoroughgoing reset, whether under the Trump administration or any potential Republican or Democratic successor.
However, if the narrative that is rapidly taking hold in Washington, that Saudi Arabia was responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance, becomes the received wisdom, the relationship will undoubtedly suffer negative impacts if not a total re-evaluation. It would be widely seen in most U.S. political and foreign policy circles as a serious transgression of human rights and diplomatic norms, and part of a disturbing growing worldwide pattern of attacks on journalists. That Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and a columnist for a major U.S. paper intensifies the sense of U.S. investment in this issue, along with the close U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Trump has expressed concern but that is widely regarded as insufficient. Calls are already mounting in Congress for increased U.S. engagement and potentially pressure on Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, this issue plays into two existing political divisions in Washington, and will be used by anti-Trump forces in the Democratic Party to cudgel the president and the administration. This is already happening, and dovetails with major pressure on the administration regarding Saudi Arabia linked to the war in Yemen and other such criticisms. Republican critics of the administration’s foreign policy, such as Senator Bob Corker, or even those who try to nudge and harass the administration toward a more engaged and internationalist policy, such as Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, are already seizing on the issue as well.
The Senate and House of Representatives have many options for bedeviling U.S.-Saudi cooperation on a number of fronts. They can complicate and even, for a time, block weapons sales and other forms of military and intelligence cooperation and technology transfers, especially if Democrats regain a majority in the House or the Senate after the November midterm elections. Among the pending sales that could be interfered with to make such a point are thousands of precision-guided munitions needed for the war in Yemen and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system worth $15 billion. This last sale is especially sensitive given the spate of recent Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities, which has refocused attention on missile defenses generally. There have already been several efforts to block or delay these sales in Congress, mostly linked to humanitarian concerns about the impact of the war in Yemen on civilians.
However, Democrats and friendly and unfriendly Republican critics of administration foreign policy understand the transactional and virtually indispensable nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Therefore, they will not push for a complete rupture or fundamental rethinking of the relationship short of a major political or strategic earthquake that prompts a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of the bases of the U.S. strategic posture in the Gulf region. The fate of any one individual, no matter how distressing and disturbing, is unlikely to prompt that.
There is one final area in which the Khashoggi affair could reverberate and have a negative impact on U.S.-Saudi relations. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act that was passed at the end of Obama’s second term, which allows U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments for alleged cooperation on deadly terrorist attacks in the United States (mainly prompted to allow 9/11 survivors to sue Saudi Arabia) is still in force. Several cases continue to wend their way slowly through the legal process. However, the working assumption has been that judges are most likely to refer the matter to the State Department, which can certify that the country in question is making a good-faith effort to resolve the issue and prevent the case from going forward.
However, if this incident is in the long run widely regarded by Americans as an assassination of a government critic by Saudi Arabia, the chances that a judge will use the authority provided by JASTA to try to allow a case to go forward to discovery without giving the State Department a chance to block it may be increased. JASTA continues to be a ticking time bomb in the back of the U.S.-Saudi closet, and it could explode at some point into a major diplomatic incident.
Therefore, while the Khashoggi affair, however it plays out, will not lead to a fundamental rupture or re-evaluation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, it is also unlikely to have no impact or be dismissed as an unfortunate incident. Congress can act on its own, and pressure from Congress and the media may prove irresistible, forcing the administration to take a stronger stance than it wishes. Finally, the reputation of Saudi Arabia, and especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is likely to be severely damaged if Americans conclude he ordered or permitted the abduction or killing of Khashoggi. A tremendous amount of time, effort, and money spent on generating goodwill in the United States for the Saudi government, and particularly the crown prince, and the major social and economic reforms currently underway in Saudi Arabia would be greatly undermined in a manner seriously deleterious to relations. Riyadh will find U.S. goodwill in general a lot harder to come by, to the extent that it’s going to be much more difficult in the coming months for Americans to even speak positively about the Saudi government without facing serious pushback.