Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Despite International Outrage, Saudi Arabia Will be Just Fine

By Kevin ZongPublished November 15, 2018

Mohammad bin Salman watches on at the "Davos in the Desert" conference amid swirling allegations of his involvement in the murder of report Jamal Khashoggi.
The premeditated killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has dominated international news cycles for weeks, putting Saudi Arabia under the microscope for its cover-up of the killing, its brutal war campaign in Yemen, and the Crown Prince’s power grab. Yet, despite the overwhelming pressure and negative attention the nation currently faces, it is unlikely that Riyadh will experience many long-term impactful consequences.

     The details of the murder are gruesome: Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent reporter, entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2nd, never to be seen again. A team of 15 Saudi agents, who were reportedly waiting inside the consulate, killed Khashoggi. Then, with the aid of a doctor specializing in post-mortem operations and a bone saw, they dismembered the body, which has yet to be recovered. Since the beginning, the Saudi story has evolved as intelligence has emerged, from the government insisting that Mr. Khashoggi walked out of the consulate alive and in good health, to a “rogue” tourist hit-squad and then an accidental death in a fistfight inside the consulate. Finally, on October 25th, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor acknowledged that the killing appears to have been premeditated. This explanation is the first account that has come out from Saudi Arabia that has not been met with widespread skepticism. Even so, every explanation has sought to distance Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from the killing, despite intelligence indicating the plot would have never taken place without Salman’s direct word.

     The fallout from Khashoggi’s killing has cast a spotlight on some of Saudi Arabia’s other questionable practices. The New York Times published a harrowing report on the devastation caused by the Saudi war campaign in Yemen and the prince's authoritarian tendencies have received renewed scrutiny from international media outlets. The international community has also begun to respond: Germany has vowed to withhold all arms sales to Saudi Arabia until Riyadh provides a truthful account of the Khashoggi killing and Turkey has been using its slow drip of intelligence leaks to ratchet up pressure on the U.S. and Saudi governments. However, one country that has not responded with much severity is the U.S., and it is highly unlikely this stance will change.

     We can look to Salman’s Vision 2030 plan to see how limited backlash has been. The Future Investment Initiative conference or “Davos in the Desert” opened on October 23rd to announce $50 billion of deals made to advance the Crown Prince’s platform of transforming Saudi Arabia into a modernized economy. However, the conference was sharply overshadowed by the Khashoggi killing, as many American and European companies chose not to attend. Even as world leaders continue to condemn Saudi Arabia’s actions and the outcry over Khashoggi’s murder increases, very little has changed for Riyadh. “Davos in the Desert” represents a pertinent example: even though some companies pulled out of the conference, many other firms remained within the pact, with U.S. business leaders calling the Khashoggi killing unfortunate, but not derailing to U.S.-Saudi deals.

     From a political perspective, Saudi Arabia is also unlikely to lose the support of the United States and thus, other allies. It is true that President Trump believes the attempted cover-up was “one-of the worst” and that U.S.-Saudi ties would be strained if the Crown Prince had been dishonest, with him saying: “Certainly it would be a very bad thing in terms of relationship. It would take a while to rebuild.” The key to that statement is not about the damages, but the line “it would take a while to rebuild”. Despite everything that has happened, severing ties with Saudi Arabia is completely out of the question. From a purely economic purview, for President Trump, absorbing the loss of the arms deal he struck with the Saudis last year, which he values at $110 billion, is unacceptable. Beyond that, the Trump Administration has developed a warm relationship with Mohammed bin Salman. Bin Salman has forged a tight bond with Jared Kushner, and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin still met with Saudi officials in the midst of the attempted Saudi cover-up. Even President Trump waited until the last second before caving to public outrage and calling out the Saudis.

     Washington has been left without any choice but to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia to preserve U.S. influence in the region. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has always been challenging, and Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Iran Deal last year has left Saudi Arabia as the U.S.’s only influential and stable ally in the region. This has essentially given Mohammed bin Salman a free pass, knowing that the U.S. is limited in what kind of response they can deliver. Furthermore, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the other allies in the region, worry that damages to Saudi Arabia will in turn jeopardize their own priorities and strategies, causing them to press the United States to not take action.

     All-in-all, every bit of scrutiny and criticism aimed at the Saudi Crown Prince for Khashoggi’s death is justified. However, beyond a bruise to his reputation, Mohammed bin Salman is unlikely to see much backlash for the killing. U.S. companies are afraid to miss out on the opportunity of the Vision 2030 plan and the Trump Administration’s friendship with the Crown Prince have put the U.S. in a place where significant long-term consequences are impossible. After all, American foreign policy has always been self-interested first. Since keeping healthy relations with Saudi Arabia is the safest strategy for the Trump Administration, Washington will maintain that relationship.