PARIS — As President Trump continues to equivocate in his response to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, European leaders have shown a united front in casting blame on the Saudi government and calling for concrete actions to punish Riyadh for what mounting evidence suggests was a hit job followed by a state-authorized coverup gone wrong.
On Sunday evening, Germany became the first Western government to suspend future arms sales to Saudi Arabia after Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that “arms exports can’t take place in the current circumstances.”
Merkel’s move followed a joint statement from the German, French and British foreign ministries highlighting an “urgent need for clarification” of what happened to Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
European lawmakers will vote Thursday on a parliamentary resolution on Khashoggi’s killing. According to a draft of the nonbinding resolution seen by The Post, some lawmakers are likely to push for “targeted sanctions” against the killers and also for a European Union-wide ban on the export of arms and security equipment to Saudi Arabia.
In a telephone interview with The Post on Saturday, Trump reiterated his refusal to consider sanctions on Saudi Arabia and noted what he insists is a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudi government.
Western European countries are no strangers to Saudi arms deals: Britain and France are the kingdom’s two largest respective exporters after the United States, albeit at significantly smaller levels. In any case, the apparent willingness in Paris, Berlin and London to risk these economic benefits — in word, if not yet in deed — is a rare occurrence, political analysts said.
“These three countries have been spending their time competing with each other for Saudi contracts and benevolences,” said François Heisbourg, a former French presidential adviser on national security and a Paris-based security expert. “The notion that they were going to work together on this was unprecedented.”
As for why Khashoggi’s killing has resonated to such a strong degree in Europe, Heisbourg said that one possible explanation was the memory of the Hariri case. In November 2017, Lebanon’s Saudi-born Prime Minister Saad Hariri was detained in Riyadh, where he announced on Saudi state television his intent to resign. Hariri, a French citizen, was permitted to leave the country only after the intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron. Once outside Saudi Arabia, Hariri withdrew his earlier statement on a pending resignation.
“If we hadn’t stepped in, I don’t know what the Saudis would have done,” Heisbourg said. “I think they would have had to make him fall down the staircase.”
For the moment, Britain and France have stopped short of echoing Merkel’s call for suspending arms sales. According to Britain’s Department of International Trade, Britain exported arms and equipment worth at least $1.4 billion to Saudi Arabia last year, but the real figure is probably higher. In 2017, potential French sales of more than $14.7 billion were approved. Germany authorized exports worth about $290 million, according to the German Economy Ministry.
British Prime Minister Theresa May began her remarks in Parliament on Monday by “condemning the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the strongest possible terms.” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt noted that the ultimate response from Britain and its allies “will depend on credibility of the final explanation given by Saudi Arabia and, second, on our confidence that such an appalling episode cannot and will not be repeated.”
Hunt mentioned Britain’s defense and security relationship with Saudi Arabia, as well as its trading partnership. But “if the appalling stories we’re reading turn out to be true, they are incompatible with our values and we will act accordingly,” he said.
Likewise, France’s Macron announced last week the suspension of “some political visits” to Saudi Arabia and said that Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, would no longer be attending the Saudi government’s investment forum this week.
But when pressed by reporters Monday as to whether France would follow Germany’s lead, Olivier Gauvin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said only that French arms sales were based on case-by-case evaluations. “Weapons exports to Saudi Arabia are examined in this context,” he said.
In Brussels, a spokeswoman for E.U. chief diplomat Federica Mogherini said Monday that European diplomats were working on a “coordinated answer.” But according to a Sunday statement from Didier Reynders, Belgium’s foreign minister, “some big European countries are blocking the idea of an embargo.”
According to a European official, half of European countries export arms to Saudi Arabia, and they would all need to agree to an E.U.-wide embargo.
“It is not the first time we have issues with Saudi Arabia,” the official added.
Some in Europe also noted the security risks of targeting Saudi Arabia, which, ever since Riyadh was struck by a series of al-Qaeda-linked attacks in 2003, has been a useful provider of counterterrorism intelligence to European governments, at least in some instances. But security experts say that these anxieties may be misplaced, given that the dynamics in Middle Eastern terrorism have changed so significantly since 2003.
“I wouldn’t believe that the reaction to the Khashoggi affair would affect the level of knowledge and level of cooperation, because [Saudi Arabia] also needs information from the West, and especially from the United States,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, director of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism.
European officials took particular note of Khashoggi’s identity as a journalist and that his slaying seemed part of a broader narrative of violence against news professionals.
“The threatening, attacking or killing of journalists, under any circumstances, is unacceptable and of utmost concern to our three nations,” the joint statement of France, Britain and Germany read.
By contrast, at a campaign rally last week, Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) for assaulting a reporter in 2017.
Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.