The 10 days since Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul have been discomfiting for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. Op-ed columnists and seasoned foreign policy observers in the United States have been scathing in their appraisal of the Saudi government. Businesses are pulling out of the Future Investment Initiative, MBS’s attempt at a “Davos in the Desert.” The mainstream media are running stories about MBS, underscoring “a dark and bullying side of a young man in a hurry, one who has absolute power and does not tolerate dissent.”
The Saudi government has handled this very, very badly. It has offered no plausible explanation for where Khashoggi could be other than dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Over the weekend, it reacted to the negative reports with the maturity of a 3-year old. According to The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris, Souad Mekhennet and Kareem Fahim:
A combative Saudi Arabia said Sunday that it would not bend to “threats” as it pushed back against growing U.S. and international pressure over allegations that it is responsible for the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, warning of retaliation for any sanctions.
The kingdom’s government is as “glorious and steadfast as ever,” and neither threatened economic measures nor the repetition of “false accusations” will hurt it, the official news agency said, even as the Saudi financial market plummeted. Censure of any kind would be met with “greater action” from Riyadh, it added, pointing out Saudi Arabia’s “vital role” in the world economy.
An al-Arabiya column by its general manager, Turki Aldakhil, was even more bellicose than the state news agency, suggesting that the Saudi government was preparing “more than 30 potential measures to be taken against the imposition of sanctions on Riyadh,” including the prospect of $400-a-barrel oil. Aldakhil concluded: “The truth is that if Washington imposes sanctions on Riyadh, it will stab its own economy to death, even though it thinks that it is stabbing only Riyadh!” The Saudi Embassy in the United States, however, has tried to walk back the rhetoric quite a bit. And a senior adviser to the Saudi Embassy said that Aldakhil’s column “in no way reflects the thinking of the Saudi leadership.”
So it is safe to say that Saudi Arabia is feeling the heat from Washington, and that has taken Riyadh by surprise. What’s interesting is the degree to which the media firestorm also has taken the kingdom’s critics by surprise. There is little love for the Saudi government on either the left or the right in the United States. The outcry over Khashoggi’s disappearance, however, seems to have rankled longtime critics of the U.S.-Saudi alliance:
Walt isn’t entirely wrong here. The Saudis have been prosecuting a misbegotten war in Yemen and puzzling sanctions against both Qatar and Canada. Congressional attitudes toward Saudi Arabia have soured slowly over the past year, but Khashoggi’s disappearance has accelerated matters. The Trump White House has refrained from criticizing MBS’s ill-conceived ventures but has been forced to ratchet up its rhetoric in this case. Even President Trump warned about “severe punishment” if the United States determined that Saudi agents murdered Khashoggi.
Why has Khashoggi’s suspected death rattled the relationship so much more than previous policy miscues? Let me suggest that the same dynamic that affected U.S. soft power in the wake of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations is now affecting the Saudis' ability to influence U.S. elite public opinion.
Immediately after the Snowden revelations, Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argued in Foreign Affairs that what made Snowden so damaging was twofold. First, as they wrote, Snowden’s disclosures “undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why.” Second, the damage put U.S. allies in an impossible situation. What made Snowden so damaging was that long-standing allies such as Brazil and Germany curtailed cooperation because the evidence of U.S. surveillance could no longer be denied.
The foreign policy community in the United States could forgive a lot from the Saudis, because the other alternatives for allies in the Persian Gulf region seemed worse. Yes, the war in Yemen has been a humanitarian disaster, but it is also a civil war on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, so its intervention was not entirely surprising. This meant that U.S. elites were willing to look the other way even as the Saudis screwed up.
It is impossible to look away from Khashoggi’s disappearance. He was a permanent U.S. resident and a Washington Post columnist, and therefore had a higher profile than other Saudi dissidents. He went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and did not return to his waiting fiancee outside. This is a brute fact that cannot be denied. There is no cover story that can explain this away. Even if all the gory details about Khashoggi’s disappearance are not true, there is enough that is indisputable to appall.
Whether the Trump administration will take coercive action against MBS is a question for another day — tomorrow, to be specific. What cannot be contested now, however, is that the Saudis look guilty and have offered no exculpatory evidence. Khashoggi’s disappearance also allows outside observers to retrofit a more unflattering narrative onto MBS’s supposed reform efforts. It’s almost as though he resembles Kim Jong Un more than Peter the Great.
The Saudis have a lot of chits invested inside the Beltway. To say the Trump administration is reluctant to pressure MBS would be an understatement. Saudi leverage over other U.S. actors might increase. Akbar Shahid Ahmed noted in the HuffPost, “By directing billions of dollars of Saudi money into the U.S. for decades, Riyadh’s ruling family has won the support of small but powerful circles of influential Americans and courted wider public acceptance through corporate ties and philanthropy.”
I doubt that gambit will work this time. Already, the appearance of accepting Saudi money is beginning to carry a toxic whiff. There is no evidence that the Saudi government will try to fob this off on a rogue element or simply demonstrate contrition (as the United States did to its allies after Snowden).
Jamal Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He never came out. There is no artifice, no pleasing illusion, that can mask that fact. Which means that long-standing U.S. friends and partners will continue to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia. There is no longer any hypocritical way out.
[CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Khashoggi had entered the Saudi Embassy. The facility in Istanbul is Saudi Arabia’s consulate.]