The growing number of Western companies distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia over the alleged killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi is undermining the kingdom’s push to diversify its economy beyond oil and provide more opportunities for its young and often restive population.
By Friday afternoon, nearly a dozen tech, media and entertainment companies had backed out of a Saudi investment conference to be held this month, as dismay over Saudi agents’ alleged murder of Khashoggi spread to companies that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has tried to woo. . . .
Tech investor Steve Case said he was suspending plans to attend the conference and a meeting for a Saudi tourism project. Bob Bakish, chief executive of Viacom Inc., owner of MTV and movie studio Paramount Pictures, also said through a spokesman Thursday he would no longer be attending the conference. . . .
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson was one of the first non-journalism executives to break with the Saudis. “I had high hopes for the current government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and it is why I was delighted to accept two directorships in the tourism projects around the Red Sea,” Branson said in a blog post Thursday.
Good for them. The next step should be for think tanks, universities and press outlets to disclose their Saudi funding, if any, and disentangle themselves from the repressive regime that does not value intellectual or press freedom. In fact, Congress should hold hearings to determine the extent of Saudi influence-buying in the United States — including their dealings with President Trump and his family.
Trump is promising to talk to King Salman — though there is no set date for their chat, and no looming threat of U.S. retaliation. It was not until Saturday that we heard anything emphatic on the subject. (“We’re going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment,” he said in a 60 Minutes interview, clips of which were released on Saturday.) We can surmise that his generally mild reaction to the apparent killing of a journalist might have had to do with Trump’s business interests. He may simply have too much to lose to take on the Saudi regime. If Democrats take control of the House, they should end Trump’s free ride on foreign emoluments, vote to disallow them, and then proceed to investigate his holdings and pursue divestiture. (Trump’s lack of urgency also might be nothing more than Trump’s gullibility in the face of the Saudis’ charm campaign. He is a sucker for repressive regimes that fawn over him.)
Whatever the reason for Trump’s belated reaction, Congress can and should proceed to reexamine our arm sales (while the administration professes satisfaction with the Saudis’ efforts to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen, human rights groups cite mass casualties). We must signal in a meaningful way that we will no longer tolerate Saudi Arabia’s repression at home and excesses in the region.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has it absolutely right: If appropriate, we should apply Global Magnitsky Act sanctions to any Saudi official involved in what appears to be an abhorrent human rights atrocity. Cardin also urged:
Congress could consider the outcome of ongoing investigations when debating future U.S. arms sales to the kingdom, future International Military Education and Training assistance, and future U.S. support to the Saudi coalition’s role in the Yemen conflict — one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. We should also weigh the kingdom’s support for a truly transparent investigation when considering potential U.S.-Saudi nuclear power cooperation.
Meanwhile, during an interview this past week with Hugh Hewitt, national security adviser John Bolton sounded less than alarmed about the Saudis conduct. “Well, I don’t think we, we’ve known enough. I spoke with the crown prince [Thursday] along with Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, spoke to the crown prince as well. The president has spoken to this issue,” he said. “It is something we need to get resolved. And we need to do it as soon as possible.” Resolved? Does he think there has been some mix-up the Saudis can clarify in a phone call? Bolton’s utter disinterest in human rights — with the exception of Iran — is among his many disconcerting attributes.
In sum, Trump’s slow-motion reaction to the disappearance and likely murder of a U.S. resident is deeply worrisome. Certainly, having a president who vilifies the U.S. media and shows little or no interest in protecting human rights is a serious barrier to curbing autocrats’ misconduct. The good news is that he may have been forced to finally sound serious because American business leaders and Congress stepped up to the plate. To those in Congress and the private sector who are speaking up and taking action, we can say well done — and keep at it.