Will the Disappearance of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi Bring Down the US-Saudi Alliance?

Journalist James M. Dorsey says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has suffered significant reputational damage on the eve of a major global trade conference known as Vision 2030 or  “Davos in the Desert”

Will the Disappearance of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi Bring Down the US-Saudi Alliance?

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The anger over the disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi is intensifying. Senator Lindsey Graham said Wednesday that there would be hell to pay if missing Khashoggi was killed by the Saudi government. President Ttrump chimed in on the controversy on Fox News on Thursday.

DONALD TRUMP: I don’t like it. I don’t like it with respect to reporters. It’s a terrible, terrible precedent. We can’t let it happen. He went in, and it doesn’t look like he came out.

FOX HOST: What’s at stake with U.S.-Saudi relations, sir?

DONALD TRUMP: I would say they’re excellent. I’ve told them they’ve got to pay for their military. You know, Saudi Arabia has a, is a very rich country. And for years and years- there would be no Saudi Arabia if there wasn’t the United States, because we protected them. And we don’t get paid for this protection. We should be paid. We spent billions and billions of dollars a year protecting Saudi Arabia. And I’ve told the king, King Salman, I said, King, sorry, you’ve got to pay.

SHARMINI PERIES: Meanwhile, CNN is reporting that U.S. government has intercepted Saudi officials discussing a plan to persuade Khashoggi to travel to Saudi Arabia and detain him there. Instead, Turkish officials are saying that Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey last week, and is said to have never left. Now, Turkish officials say that they have evidence that Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate.

SPEAKER: After Jamal Khashoggi entered the consulate, fifteen people came by two different planes. He was murdered inside the consulate. We assume that he was cut into pieces, and they put his body in bags and left. He was killed because of his opinions about the wars in Yemen and Syria. He was too much trouble for the Saudi government.

SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to discuss the Khashoggi disappearance and what this means to U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, and of course the region, is James Dorsey. James is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the just-published book China, the Middle East, Venturing into Maelstrom. He joins us today from Singapore. Thanks for joining us, James.

JAMES DORSEY: As always, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

SHARMINI PERIES: James, this is a still-breaking story. Let’s start off with updating our viewers as to what has unfolded thus far in this story in terms of the assumed assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.

JAMES DORSEY: Well, all we really know is that Jamal Khashoggi more than a week ago went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and has not been seen since. The Turkish authorities, through anonymous sources, are saying that they actually have concluded definitively that he was murdered, and they, in fact, know the room within the consulate in which he was murdered. And that obviously has provoked enormous international outrage, particularly in the United States, where you’ve had President Trump speak out, as well as a host of members of Congress.

SHARMINI PERIES: James, this is not the greatest atrocity that the Saudis are involved in. I mean, there are terrible things that they’re doing around the world in Yemen and Saudi Arabia itself. So this kind of criticism on the part of the Trump administration in particular, given that many people say that Prince bin Salman’s ascendance to power in this way had been orchestrated by Jared Kushner himself. So why is the U.S., and particularly Trump and senators, bipartisan senators, making such a big deal about this?

JAMES DORSEY: Sure. If you want to be cynical about this, this is the life of one person versus thousands who are being killed, or have been killed in Yemen. However, I think there are a number of reasons. First of all, this was not an anonymous assassination of a dissident, or someone in exile on the streets of some city. This was someone who entered a diplomatic facility and was killed in the diplomatic facility. And that’s fairly unprecedented. That is not the way these things usually happen. On top of that, this was a very widely-respected journalist who was a U.S. resident, and who was contributing to one of the most powerful news outlets in the United States in the U.S. capital. Add to that you had building anti-Saudi sentiment for quite some time within the Congress, for sure, with regard to the way that Saudi Arabia, alongside the United Arab Emirates, has been conducting the war in Yemen. There is, of course, a residual issue with Saudi Arabia that dates back to 9/11, and now the 9/11 court cases.

So that relationship with Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, was one which was very close, albeit very transactional, because Saudi Arabia and the United States always had a given share of interests, but never shared values. But nonetheless there are serious sensitivities in that issue, in that relationship.

SHARMINI PERIES: James, there’s been growing discontent on the part of the U.S. Congress over Yemen. Now it has bipartisan support, as far as the resolution that’s on the floor now being discussed about the U.S. role in Yemen and assisting the Saudis in this way. Now, the senators have now called for an investigation into Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance. Now, if that happens, and we actually learn that the Saudis were directly involved in what happened to the journalist, how does this affect U.S.-Saudi relations? Obviously it’s breaking down.

JAMES DORSEY: Let me take one step back. Most probably, the most important investigation is the Turkish investigation. Now, in the last couple of hours the Turks have said that they are going to do a joint investigation with the Saudis. But ultimately the Turks are in a position in which they claim to have the evidence. They claim that that evidence is incontrovertible. And there’s not that much time that they have before they have to start releasing that evidence. And I think that is what’s really going to impact what happens in the United States. Of course, the United States is going to investigate, but they’re not probably going to have the kind of access that the Turks have, and they’re not going to have the kind of intercepts, presumably, that the Turks have. So I think that the more important investigation is that by the Turks.

Once it is established, if it is established, or assuming that the Turks incontrovertibly establish that the Saudis murdered Jamal Khashoggi, then I think the United States, alongside certain European nations, will have no choice but to act. I think that the Trump administration will try and, on the one hand, act firmly, but on the other hand try and preserve multiple interests that it has with the Saudis, including the enormous economic investments, significant arms sales, and other primarily economic and security relationships.

The question is how the Saudis are going to respond to that. My assumption is that the Saudis don’t have a lot of choice in this, because they don’t really have anywhere else to turn. Which really leads to the question whether, and if so, what fallout all of this is going to have within Saudi Arabia itself.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, James, what do you expect that to be? Because we know that bin Salman has been very, very adamant about cleaning up the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia and getting rid of people who have not been supportive of him. What does this tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia do to his own reign in his country?

JAMES DORSEY: I think the real question is what is the king going to do? Because ultimately power in Saudi Arabia rests with the king. Any power that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, he has because that is the leeway and the power that the king has granted him. What you have is a situation right now where many people within the ruling family are saying to the king this is going off the rails. We are going to face, we’ve already faced, enormous reputational damage. And irrespective of what happens, even if by some miracle, I would call it, Jamal Khashoggi were to reappear- let’s say that he had been kidnapped, held incognito, and the Saudis in one form or another produce him, nonetheless there would have been a significant breach of diplomatic protocol. A significant breach of Turkish law. And the Saudis, as a result of that, have suffered reputational damage that it will take them a long time to repair. And Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for that reputational damage.

The question, also, is whether Mohammed bin Salman, who was featured up until several months ago in the West as the great reformer, whether or not he can recover to a position in which he will be a party with which the West and the United States will want to do business with. So I think right now it’s out in the open. And frankly, reading what happens in the ruling family in Saudi Arabia is the equivalent of what we were doing with criminology in the days of the Soviet Union. In other words, your guess is as good as mine.

James, speaking of the damage done to the reputation of Mohammed bin Salman, during his visit to the United States earlier this year, Mohammed bin Salman was held up as the solution to the conservative elements of Saudi Arabia. He was going to be the new prince bringing enlightenment, liberation of women. And the U.S. media held up that reputation. Organizations like 60 Minutes went out to visit him and interview him prior to his visit to, of course, manage that public profile as the new leader emerging in Saudi Arabia. Now, all of this has worked out pretty well for Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has also promised to invest a lot of money here in the United States in all kinds of energy businesses. And the Crown Prince held a number of conferences throughout the United States, including in New York, where very high-powered businessmen and women attended the conference. He was promising all of these wonderful collaborations with the U.S. Now, at the time I remember discussing this with you. We assumed that that was also somewhat preparation for the Republicans and the elections coming up, and the way in which the Saudis have committed to investing in states that were the groundswell of Trump’s success to the White House, and so forth. What does this kind of tension do to those relationships that were promised to the United States?

JAMES DORSEY: Well, I think first of all we’ve got to separate the issues. So with other words, CBS or Tom Friedman or whoever going out to interview the crown prince of Saudi Arabia at a moment the country is in transition, and that he is going to visit the United States, it just makes perfect journalistic sense. I think where parts of the media failed is that they were so enamored by the fact that you had this reformer in the medieval kingdom, that he was going to let women drive, that any sense of skepticism fell away. I think that’s where the problem lies in the media coverage.

Now, the Saudis, in the context of having suffered significant reputational damage, are going to try to want to limit that damage to the degree that they can. So with other words, anything that’s going to help Trump they’re probably willing to do, given that Trump probably definitely does not want a total rupture as a result of this whole crisis.

SHARMINI PERIES: James, speaking about the business alliance and trade and commerce between Saudi Arabia and the United States, there is a conference, a major business conference scheduled to be taking place in Riyadh. I believe it’s next week. What does this tension now do to those relationships with the Saudis?

JAMES DORSEY: That remains to be seen. Until now you’ve the New York Times withdraw from the conference as a sponsor. There are other media sponsors, including Bloomberg, the Financial Times. And they have yet to announce whether or not they want to continue to be a sponsor given what’s happening in Istanbul. You also have senior prominent Americans- including administration officials, if I’m not incorrect- who are scheduled to attend, and it’s not yet clear what they’re going to do. The one person who has already suspended his participation in a committee that is supposed to oversee or advise on Neom- that is, the $500 billion high-tech city that Prince Mohammed wants to develop- and that is the former nuclear arms negotiator of the Obama administration, who was also secretary of energy.

I would suspect that as this unfolds, at the pace it’s unfolding at the moment, we may see others withdraw in the coming days, or at least suspend their association until it’s clear what happened in Istanbul.

SHARMINI PERIES: James, there’s been a very strategic formation between Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabis and Israel and the United States in terms of managing the politics and the warfare in the Middle East. Now, what does these new developments do to the relationship that has been formed in order to contain Iran?

JAMES DORSEY: I think there’s several factors. In terms of the Israelis, they are probably upset about the fact that Saudi Arabia is suffering this damage, because they attribute immense importance to the relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. I don’t think that they particularly would be upset about the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, except for what it does to the ability of Saudi Arabia within an alliance against Iran.

What I think is much more fundamental is this goes to a discussion that is sort of permanent, which is, you know, what is terrorism? And is terrorism something that can only be committed by nonstate actors, or can states commit terrorism? So with other words, you now have, if indeed it is proven that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis in a foreign diplomatic mission of theirs, that basically comes down to terrorism, too. And so the whole Saudi argument against the Qataris, which is based on the accusations that Qatar is supporting terrorism, or the whole U.S.-Saudi-Israeli argument that it is the Iranians who are the main state supporter of terrorism, whereas countries like Saudi Arabia do not, is being called into question. So I think, depending on what the investigations prove and the solidity of the evidence, this could have far-reaching consequences for the political map of the Middle East.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, James, we’ll be watching all of that. Thank you so much for joining us today.

JAMES DORSEY: It was a pleasure to be with you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.