On 2nd October 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, and was never seen again. A Saudi national, Khashoggi was a notable critic of the Saudi government, writing frequently about human rights issues in major publications such as the Washington Post. Protests erupted at Khashoggi’s disappearance. Many initially believed that he had been ghosted away to Riyadh. However, Turkey soon spoke up, accusing Saudi agents of murdering Khashoggi in the consulate. Saudi Arabia initially denied the killing had taken place. However, this position became untenable after Turkey announced it had sent recordings of the journalists death to other countries. At time of writing, it is believed that Khashoggi was choked to death upon entering the building, his body then dismembered and destroyed.
After the revelation of the recordings, Saudi Arabia changed its tune, declaring the team of Saudi agents were supposed to bring Khashoggi back alive and took the initiative to kill him themselves. 11 suspects have been arrested, with 5 being tried for the death penalty. Saudi Arabia also made it clear that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen as the country’s de facto ruler, had no knowledge of the operation. However, the CIA disagrees, instead concluding that it was the Crown Prince who ordered the killing. There are now even rumours of a “Tiger Squad” that carries out the Crown Prince’s private operations, including assassinations. These rumours are yet to be proven.
This would not be the first time Saudi nationals have disappeared abroad. There is evidence that dissenting Saudi royals have been abducted by Saudi agents. Understandably, these cases all fuel fears among other Saudi nationals abroad that they too could disappear for protesting, regardless of where they might be. Nor would disappearances be the only issue facing Saudi Arabia on the international stage: the Kingdom is accused by the UN Human Rights Council of committing war crimes in neighbouring Yemen’s civil war.
As Khashoggi was killed in Istanbul, Turkey is apparently leading the charge in confronting Saudi Arabia on the issue. However, Turkey is also interested in increasing its power in the region. As a result, there are claims that Turkey, which itself has poor record on freedom of speech, is trying to use the Khashoggi case strategically to weaken Saudi Arabia. For example, President Erdogan has been accused of trying to drive a wedge between the Saudi King and Crown Prince.
Western nations on the other hand, have yet to take any concrete action against Saudi Arabia. Bafflingly, after the CIA concluded the Crown Prince has ordered the hit, Trump backed the Prince; saying “He told me he had nothing to do with it” and questioned whether anyone would ever know who ordered Khashoggi’s death. Instead, Trump has called Saudi Arabia a “steadfast ally”. Trump also said it would be “foolish” to cancel the United States’ arms deal with Saudi Arabia, saying that other measures could be taken – with no clarification what those measures might be. Similarly, Canada is holding firm on its own $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia despite calling for further inquiries into Khashoggi’s death. So far then, Saudi Arabia seems to have received little more than a rap on the knuckles from the West. Given all the problems the oil rich nation seems to cause, why then do many Western nations refuse to impose serious measures against it for the Khashoggi killing or any of its other actions?
You may have noticed the first reason already: arms deals. Saudi Arabia is now the 3rd biggest military spender in the world, having spent $69.4 billion in 2017, 9.2% more than the previous year. Some Western countries, such as Spain, have previously cancelled military contracts over allegations of war crimes in Yemen; with only Switzerland cancelling sales over Khashoggi’s death. However, these countries only account for small portions of Saudi Arabia’s total spending – so long as major exporters such as the US, UK and France are happy to supply Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom is unlikely to be too troubled by these small losses. Recently, Germany became the first major arms exporter to announce it was cancelling all arms deals with Saudi Arabia due to Khashoggi’s death. Whether any other major exporters follow suit remains to be seen. The deal with the US has been heavily discussed in the media, and although much of it is still speculative, it could create a gigantic windfall for the States. So far, $14.5 billion worth of sales have been finalised, but over the next 8 years, the US could secure a grand total of $110 billion; and President Trump is certainly keen to secure as much of that as he possibly can.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t only deal in arms though – the Kingdom is also valuable to the West as an oil exporter. Saudi Arabia is the world’s second largest producer of crude oil, behind only the US; who is also about to take Saudi Arabia’s crown as the largest exporter. Currently, Saudi Arabia exports billions of dollars-worth of oil to Japan, China, Europe and yes, the US. However, many believe that Saudi Arabia’s reserves are not as great as they claim. In any case, demand is sure to increase soon, as renewed US sanctions on Iran will limit Iranian exports, leaving room for Saudi Arabia to pick up the slack, if it has the capacity to do so.
Not only is Saudi Arabia valued as a powerful trade partner, but as a powerful ally in the Middle East: a region Western powers have long been interested in influencing. As one of the Middle East’s great powers, Saudi Arabia holds tremendous influence in the region. Saudi Arabia can exert this influence either through individual relations with its neighbours, or through the League of Arab States; which contains 22 member-states across Northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and has been a major intergovernmental institution for over 70 years.
Finally, Saudi Arabia is valued as an ally against one specific opponent: Iran. The regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been a driving force in modern Middle Eastern history, with each nation backing different sides in conflicts across the region. In this context, the US has clearly backed the Saudis. Even in a letter addressing his stance on Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi’s death, Trump could not help but insert a paragraph attacking Iran, and frame Saudi Arabia as a reliable friend. This should come as no surprise given the historic hostility between the US and Iran. After all, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, making Saudi Arabia and the US ideal friends if they both wish to contain the influence of Iran.
Saudi Arabia is an ideal match for many of the Western powers: a regional power with a major market for arms exporters and the world’s largest oil exporter, sitting in a tactical geographical location, Saudi Arabia has everything they need for a reliable trading partner. Opposing Iran may as well be the icing on the cake for the US. Therein lies the problem: Saudi Arabia is too useful for the Western powers to turn on it; even if Saudi Arabia violates many of the freedoms and principles the West claims to stand for. Which begs the question, how bad does Saudi Arabia have to be before it is held accountable? Because at the moment, it’s getting away with murder.