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Many weeks on, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is continuing to roil U.S. relations with a key regional ally. The journalist and critic of the Saudi government was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2 and, along with mounting criticism about civilian casualties and a growing humanitarian crisis associated with the war in Yemen, has produced the greatest crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations since the attacks on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath, the reputation of the Saudi government, and particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been profoundly damaged in the United States and much of the West.
But why? There have been numerous assassinations of critics, journalists, dissidents, and others around the world in recent years that have not comparably captured the public imagination, so deeply changed perceptions, challenged accepted policies, and undermined long-standing alliances. Russia, in particular, stands accused of a wave of such killings, including in Britain and other European Union countries. Iran, too, has a long history of this behavior, and has recently been accused by Denmark of resuming such efforts. There are many other instances of such assassinations, and Turkey itself has a uniquely aggressive record in repressing and imprisoning, although not necessarily murdering, journalists in recent years.
So why has the Khashoggi affair hit politics, policies, and international relations with such ferocity and why does it not appear to be receding into the background despite numerous shifts in the usually definitive news cycle? The answers reveal much about the context in which the scandal is playing out and what its short-, medium-, and long-term impacts might be on U.S.-Saudi relations.
To understand the impact of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the U.S. context, it’s necessary to understand his standing and perceived role in Washington. Many people in the Middle East and Europe may have had a somewhat different view of him, and most Americans, including most who follow politics, in the United States had never heard of him. But among Middle East watchers in Washington, Khashoggi was a ubiquitous and almost universally appreciated figure. It would be difficult to find someone plugged into this scene who didn’t know him, and even harder to find anyone who didn’t like him. He was personable, effusive, generous, charming, and blunt. He also knew a great deal, having covered the Saudi role in the Afghan war in the 1980s, and then having been very close to some Saudi ruling circles in the 1990s and beyond. This gave him a particular cachet as a commentator and critic, and made him an invaluable interlocutor for scores of U.S. policymakers, academics, journalists, and analysts of the Middle East. It also may have contributed to his assassination.
Moreover, in Washington he was widely, if not universally, perceived as primarily a liberal critic of Saudi government repression and a proponent of free speech and human rights. His Islamist sympathies were real and evident to those who know the language of such things. But they were limited to sympathies, rather than the full-fledged Muslim Brotherhood partisanship now being alleged by his critics, and were mixed with a very compelling interest in freedoms and democracy. Everyone who knew him well understood that Khashoggi’s views were evolving and complex, and very different from the caricature of his critics. But many Americans who knew him failed to pick up on those aspects of his political orientation that so riled his enemies, and which are now being frequently exaggerated. He did not, for example, make Islamist arguments in Islamist terms. He made often Islamist-friendly arguments in liberal terms. Therefore, in the United States he was widely perceived simply as a liberal, which is a true but incomplete picture.
In short, he was well-known and well-liked in Washington to a degree and in terms that are probably still not fully registered by many people in the Middle East. This author, for one, knew and respected him for 15 years, despite deep disagreements on many issues. But the universal sense of outrage in Washington is amplified by the number of people who respected and appreciated Khashoggi. Moreover, it was magnified in the slightly more than a year he spent as a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, which elevated his already significant profile considerably and provided him with a powerful posthumous champion.
There are several aspects to the killing itself that greatly contributed to the impact of the murder. Most obvious is its location in a Saudi diplomatic mission, which is a violation of the most fundamental norms of diplomacy and international relations. Second, the notion that Khashoggi was killed while trying to advance a new marriage and with his fiancée waiting plaintively outside the consulate certainly adds to the pathos of the scenario. Third, Turkish authorities used the media skillfully to emphasize the most bloodcurdling and lurid suggestions about the murder, many of which have yet to be confirmed and some that appear utterly unfounded. However, what is now known is so appalling that there was no need of Turkish tall tales to chill the blood and rouse the spirit. All three factors added to keeping the story in the public eye, building suspense, and maximizing revulsion.
There is no underestimating the extent to which pre-existing anti-Saudi attitudes play into the extraordinary reaction to the Khashoggi killing. Since the oil embargo of 1973, Americans have been primed to see the “oil sheikhs” of the Gulf Arab countries as thoroughly bad actors. The 9/11 attacks greatly cemented such attitudes. While the plainly vital strategic alliance between the two countries, and particularly cooperation on counterterrorism, helped to quickly repair bilateral relations, lingering American doubts about the essential nature of Saudi Arabia were never eliminated on either the left or the right. While it might be possible for such critics to precisely point to this murder as evidence of the veracity of their views, one aspect of the extraordinary and sustained response to it is rooted in a deep-seated pattern of animus that has nothing to do with the event itself.
At least two of the major accusers in the case have played a major role in amplifying and sustaining it: the Turkish government and U.S. media, in particular The Washington Post. The Turkish government saw an opportunity to weaken and hobble a major regional rival at very little cost and exploited it with great skill. Yet Turkey has been careful to avoid any total rupture with, or to provoke any major retaliation from, Saudi Arabia. Instead Ankara has sought to embarrass Riyadh, and particularly Mohammed bin Salman, while making clear that it does not want a break in relations and does not insist on formally blaming the crown prince personally (while continuously implying his culpability). These highly effective tactics greatly increased international attention to the case, by emphasizing and even exaggerating the cruelty of the murder and through a slow drip of information and evidence that captured the public attention around the world.
A major factor in the impact of the Khashoggi murder in the United States has been the role of the media. The Washington Post, understandably, regarded this as a killing within the family, and has spared no effort to demand information and accountability and to keep this crime in the public eye. As one of the most influential newspapers in the United States, if not the world, there is hardly a more potent information warfare adversary. Moreover, many other U.S. media outlets have taken this personally as well. The maxim that an attack on one journalist is an attack on all is not always fully operative, to say the least. But in this case, it could not have been more thoroughly embraced.
The Trump Effect
One of the most crucial and overlooked aspects of the potency of this affair is the vast range of political and social anxieties that have attached themselves to and coalesced in Khashoggi’s murder. Several key factors for this can be readily identified. Many of them have to do with anxieties connected with the presidency of Donald J. Trump. In particular, there’s the sense that Trump has cultivated an atmosphere of hatred and violence against journalists, whom he calls the “enemy of the American people,” responsible for “fake news.” This theme has been echoed by authoritarians and despots around the world, including those who have jailed and abused journalists, at times in large numbers. So, to critics of the president, the killing of a Washington Post columnist by a key U.S. ally appears to be one culmination of a campaign of vilification and violence against the media he has whipped up.
Then there is the additional impression that Trump’s rhetoric and policies have largely, if not entirely, dispensed with the notion of human rights as an issue in U.S. foreign policy, particularly in dealing with long-standing allies like Saudi Arabia. Trump’s rhetoric about the value of “sovereignty” and “nationalism” and attacks on what he calls the “ideology of globalism,” and his evident disinterest in “imposing values” on other societies have amplified fears that the policies of his administration have greatly encouraged human-rights abuses around the globe. The Khashoggi murder has been widely interpreted as a key example of this dynamic in action.
Finally, the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family have both cultivated a public perception of their closeness that has magnified the damage this scandal has caused for each. Trump has been implicitly implicated in an affair to which he has no direct connection. The Saudi government has become a favored target of Trump’s political and foreign policy critics because of this attachment and because, unlike other close Trump Middle East allies (for example, Israel) Riyadh can be bashed without any domestic political cost or backlash.
The war in Yemen was already the source of growing concern due to its mounting civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis it has exacerbated. Because of the association between Trump and Riyadh, anti-Trump forces in U.S. politics have often seized on the Yemen war as a means of bashing the president. Criticism of the Yemen war has dovetailed with horror at the Khashoggi murder to create a massive anti-Saudi backlash in Washington that is often tied to hostility toward the Trump administration. Even some Republican critics of administration foreign policy, such as Senators Bob Corker, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio, advocates for a more internationalist and traditionally conservative direction, have used criticism of Saudi Arabia as a means of applying pressure on the Trump White House. This effect is likely to be amplified in the coming months, particularly after Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. There will likely be major hearings on, and possibly investigations into, aspects of both the Yemen war and the Khashoggi murder, and possibly both together.
The Long-Term Implications
There are undoubtedly numerous other factors that have contributed to the extraordinary impact and staying power of the Khashoggi murder in the American conversation. But those outlined above are probably enough to ensure that the issue will not simply fade away, particularly as long as the Yemen war continues. The core elements of the U.S.-Saudi partnership – military ties, intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation, and efforts to stabilize and manage global energy markets – are unlikely to be affected. However, the tone and tenor, and many of the transactional aspects of the alliance (even including weapons sales) may be significantly and negatively affected.
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