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reflections

Oct 9, 2018 | 00:14 GMT

8 mins read

How a Saudi Journalist's Disappearance Could Have a Global Impact

People hold posters of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest organized by members of the Turkish-Arabic Media Association at the entrance to Saudi Arabia's consulate on Oct. 8 in Istanbul.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Highlights
  • The mere suggestion that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered will have a chilling effect on all Saudi citizens who criticize Riyadh's policies.
  • Saudi Arabia might calculate that any move against dissidents is unlikely to produce too many international consequences, but it could jeopardize much-needed foreign investment.
  • If Riyadh and Ankara's stories continue to clash, however, relations could sour with Turkey, a key regional influence in the Sunni world.

Jamal Khashoggi only needed to take care of some routine paperwork. On Oct. 3, the respected Saudi journalist and government critic arrived at his country's consulate in Istanbul to finalize divorce proceedings as his fiancee waited outside. Khashoggi, however, failed to reappear. And three days later, Turkish authorities announced that they had reason to believe a 15-person Saudi security team had tortured, murdered and dismembered the Washington Post journalist. The bombshell has given the unsettling disappearance a drastic, new level of seriousness that is sure to have repercussions across the region.

The Big Picture

Saudi Arabia is committed to a range of ambitious economic and social reforms, all in an effort to achieve its Vision 2030 goals. One key problem Riyadh is encountering, however, is the challenge of attracting foreign investors to take advantage of the opportunities the kingdom has to offer. Saudi Arabia's aggressive foreign policy under King Salman is proving an additional challenge.

Silencing a Dissident

What Turkey has declared to be a brutal murder, though, isn't just a matter of silencing the free press; it's about how far Saudi Arabia will go to quell dissent from its citizens and the far-reaching consequences of such a policy change. How will Saudi Arabia's key allies, from the United States to its European partners, respond to such a brazen act of extraterritorial abduction, if Turkey's assessment is proven true? How will foreign investors, nervous as they are about the palace's more mercurial tendencies, respond? And how will Turkey respond, locked in an already tense relationship with a fellow Sunni power?

There are a number of reasons why someone might wish to silence Khashoggi, a journalist who is well-known in the kingdom for his decades of investigative reporting and editorializing. His most recent writings have irked the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, as they criticized the harsher aspects of his reform drive.

Reform, Khashoggi had long opined, is necessary but not ideal when it is purely a top-down approach. Khashoggi has challenged the monarchy not on the eventual goals of reform — he generally agreed with many of the social changes the kingdom is introducing — but on the question of the origins of such social change. In Saudi Arabia, where a hierarchical culture favors remote, direct leadership, Khashoggi has challenged core Saudi national values, offending not only the royals whose legitimacy he threatened but also ordinary Saudis who rely on these power structures to negotiate the difficulties of everyday life. This has made him a uniquely threatening voice of dissent among the Saudi monarchy's many critics.

Saudi Arabia would have a clear, useful purpose in silencing a known critic and then denying it.

If the Turkish police report is true (the investigation is continuing), then Saudi Arabia has adopted a new level of brazenness in its efforts to silence dissent — and is clearly willing to transcend national boundaries to do it. Saudi Arabia has categorically denied the Turkish police's initial assessment, but if Riyadh did move to silence the journalist — or if his whereabouts remain unclear – then there will be profound implications.

Domestically, Saudi Arabia would have a clear, useful purpose in silencing a known critic and then denying it. The very suggestion that Khashoggi might have suffered a violent end stands as a stark warning to all who might follow in the journalist's footsteps: Critique the kingdom and face the consequences — particularly if you have a megaphone, as Khashoggi did. So far, Saudis have largely backed their government's denial of any involvement in Khashoggi's disappearance. Saudi and Emirati media have, for instance, accused Qatar of spreading the Turkish police's story of his murder in the consulate — an idea that is supported by the Saudi public. And, for the moment at least, the crown prince wields enough control over the message at home to clearly signal the consequence of dissent and maintain support of the people.

Getting Off Scot Free?

Since the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, Saudi Arabia's foreign policy has been bold, even erratic, as Riyadh seeks to address its critical domestic imperatives to maintain its monarchy. Each time, Saudi Arabia has been willing to risk its foreign and economic relationships, and, in several cases, the country has emerged unscathed even after its policies failed. In November 2017, for example, Saudi Arabia forced the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and then rounded up hundreds of businessmen and other high officials in its Ritz Carlton crackdown. But just a few months later, Hariri was seen taking photos with Crown Prince Mohammed, as were many of the detainees from the Ritz. It cut business ties with German companies when Berlin criticized its handling of the Hariri affair, and it downgraded relations and divested from Canada after a tweet from its Foreign Ministry in August. Nevertheless, Germany used the recent U.N. General Assembly to negotiate the return of Riyadh's envoy to Berlin, while Canada remains committed to delivering on a major arms deal to the kingdom. For Riyadh, the calculation that it can afford to upset relations temporarily with friends, only to restore them later, is a reasonable one.

The big risk Saudi Arabia faces in making aggressive moves to silence detractors — upsetting international relations in the process — is the impact such activity could have on foreign investors. At present, Saudi Arabia is desperately trying to drum up foreign investment. So far, the levels of foreign direct investment pale in comparison to what Riyadh desires to satisfy its ambitious reform drives. To date, France, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States have registered their "concern" about Khashoggi's disappearance, but have yet to press Riyadh robustly for answers. Foreign companies that struggle to control or predict the Saudi government's actions might fear for the safety of their investments. As foreign companies calculate the geopolitical risk of greater involvement with Saudi Arabia, they want to ensure that the government won't deal with them in the same erratic way it has dealt with some of its own citizens and foreign relationships.

The big risk Saudi Arabia faces in making aggressive moves to silence detractors and upset the balance in its international relations is the impact it could have on foreign investors.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia's extraterritorial activity against a dissident may net one response from the Riyadh-friendly Trump White House, but quite another from America's Congress. Saudi Arabia's growing assertiveness is driven in part by the political cover it receives from its special relationship with the current U.S. administration. The White House relies heavily on Saudi Arabia in its effort to contain their mutual adversary, Iran. Washington also seeks Saudi cooperation to temper oil prices. But the more controversial Saudi policies become, the more likely Congress is to reshape the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Already, bipartisan motions against Riyadh's conduct in Yemen have passed through the House of Representatives, only to be stymied in the Senate. But with midterm elections rapidly approaching, Saudi Arabia could soon face a more hostile U.S. legislature.

Closer to home for the kingdom, Khashoggi's fate might cause a rupture between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have been quietly jostling for influence and power in the Sunni world. To Riyadh, Turkey is already getting too close to Qatar. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is closely watching the investigation and could use the issue to bolster Turkey's profile as a moderate Islamist country relative to the Saudi kingdom. How far Turkey will push the issue remains an open question, especially as other issues, such as the country's economic crisis and its fragile de-escalation zone in Syria, could occupy more of Ankara's diplomatic and political attention.

Finally, Saudi Arabia's bold usage of a consulate as a venue for punitive security activity dramatically changes the nature of Saudi diplomatic missions everywhere. It also raises the issue of just who ordered the alleged operation and why. Questions as to whether King Salman was directly involved in the decision remain unanswered. It's unknown whether the crown prince ordered the operation on his own or whether there was even an intent to assassinate Khashoggi (should such accusations be proven), yet the answers have critical implications on the future of Saudi Arabia. Such activities might even drive King Salman to attempt to reduce the independence of his son.

The kingdom has signaled it will protect its core imperatives, even at a tremendous cost. For Saudi critics everywhere, consulates and diplomatic missions risk becoming areas fraught with danger; and for Saudi Arabia's relationships abroad, the incident will test others' tolerance of Riyadh's bold foreign policies. Beyond the fate of a dissident journalist, however, the affair in Istanbul will ultimately induce greater uncertainty over Saudi Arabia's economic and political future.

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