U.S.-Saudi relations always were a marriage of convenience, but the murder of one man has come to lay bare the gulf in values between Washington and Riyadh. Indeed, one year after Jamal Khashoggi met his end in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the outspoken journalist has become a lasting symbol of the very different ways that the United States and Saudi Arabia view human rights, dissent and political values. And try as he might to limit the damage, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has failed to assuage outrage in the United States, leading to ever-greater calls in Washington, especially in Congress, for the country to reconsider its alliance with the desert kingdom. And given the present White House's support is one of the few factors papering over the cracks in the relationship, Saudi Arabia could be staring at deeper sanctions, fewer arms deals and more boycotts in the future if Congress gets its way.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have papered over their differences for decades for mutual strategic gain. But a changing energy landscape has reduced U.S. dependence on Saudi oil, and U.S. voters increasingly want to pull away from the Middle East in general. That has made human rights violations more impactful on their relations — and given dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi a lasting symbolism that will galvanize Riyadh's critics.
Khashoggi the Symbol
In the run-up to the Oct. 2 anniversary of Khashoggi's assassination, Crown Prince Mohammed appeared on American television in an effort to change the narrative surrounding the journalist's death. The crown prince denied ordering the killing but did accept political responsibility for the incident. Nevertheless, Crown Prince Mohammed is swimming against the tide in Washington: Whereas human rights used to be an afterthought in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, Saudi Arabia's human rights record has become a major bone of contention between the two since Khashoggi's assassination.
A number of congressional votes since Khashoggi's death have illustrated the chamber's outrage; never before has Congress so stridently singled out either the kingdom or any particular Saudi official. Congress introduced legislation aimed at relations with Saudi Arabia. First, the Senate demanded a Magnitsky Act investigation, leading to sanctions against those deemed responsible for Khashoggi's death. (Ultimately, the White House sanctioned 17 Saudis, including Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser to the crown prince.)
Congress, however, soon went beyond sanctions, introducing legislation and resolutions with a lasting effect. In a bipartisan resolution in December 2018, the Senate voted to hold Crown Prince Mohammed responsible for Khashoggi's killing. Then in spring, a similar bipartisan vote in Congress formally called on the United States to end its support for Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen through the War Powers Act; only President Donald Trump's veto managed to save U.S. support. Congress also attempted to block an arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; again, only an extraordinary presidential declaration of emergency allowed the deal to proceed in June. What's more, the killing galvanized congressional investigations into America's ongoing negotiations to supply a civilian nuclear program to Saudi Arabia.
Whereas human rights used to be an afterthought in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, Saudi Arabia's human rights record has become a major bone of contention between the two since Khashoggi's assassination.
A Coming Rupture With the U.S.?
Although Trump's veto and emergency powers have helped keep U.S.-Saudi ties stable, his efforts offer only Band-Aid solutions to a more permanent problem. Congress now distrusts Saudi Arabia, and, unlike the president, there is little chance that next year's elections will remove some of Congress' most ardent Saudi critics. Some, like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, are in safe seats; others, like Democrat Senator Chris Murphy, aren't up for election at all. Meanwhile, there's no guarantee that Trump will win in 2020 — or that a new Saudi human rights abuse will not cause the president to change his mind about the current close relationship.
Khashoggi's murder is also affecting the conversation surrounding U.S.-Saudi ties — encouraging more politicians to exploit it for political gain for a variety of reasons. Democrats, for one, are using the symbolism of Khashoggi to attack Trump and his pro-Saudi policies, firing up the Democratic base and donor network they need. But Republicans are taking advantage, too, as some are using Khashoggi to advance their position that the United States should decouple from the Middle East. While such Republicans are slow to rebuke Trump for his vetoes, rhetorically they are more willing to exploit Khashoggi to portray themselves as champions of a U.S. departure from the region.
That means it is more a question of when, rather than if, Khashoggi's killing will resurface to impact America's policies with Saudi Arabia. Congress, for instance, could still push for further sanctions on Saudi Arabia under the Magnitsky Act. So far, Trump has deferred widening the sanctions net beyond the initial 17 Saudis accused of conducting the assassination, but the chamber could push to broaden those measures.
Congress could also expand the scope of its Magnitsky Act investigation to include other alleged human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, or it could demand that the White House complete its Khashoggi-related investigation and provide a full report. (The White House missed the original deadline to provide a report about Riyadh in regard to the Magnitsky Act in February.) While the Trump administration may ignore those requests, Congress may choose to tie unrelated issues, such as other arms deals or defense budgets, to the Magnitsky Act investigation to force the White House to act.
Unsurprisingly, the threat of sanctions remains focused on Crown Prince Mohammed. Because his authority over the Saudi state is nebulous and because the state is involved in much of the country's economy, it is difficult to determine whether sanctions would merely affect the crown prince or reverberate further in the economy. The CIA and Senate both hold Crown Prince Mohammed responsible for the killing, meaning it is only the White House that is preventing Congress from chasing after his assets or the institutions associated with him. Should that political protection weaken, the United States may expand its sanctions dragnet to entities connected to the crown prince or to his own properties.
Without a substantial change in Saudi Arabia's human rights record and a major shift in the crown prince's reputation in the West, Khashoggi's assassination will continue to drive Washington and Riyadh apart.
But even without successful congressional action, social and political forces in the United States and Europe will draw upon Khashoggi's symbolism to protest and boycott Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi's death has empowered critics of Saudi policy in Yemen; in the wake of his demise, for instance, Germany banned arms exports to the kingdom. Activists have also harassed French arms shipments to Saudi Arabia, and in the United Kingdom, a court ruling cited Saudi Arabia's human rights record in Yemen as part of its rationale for blocking arms exports to Riyadh. This activism will remain prevalent and may extend to not just governments but also private businesses that do work with Saudi Arabia. And while the arms industry of each of these countries will fight this trend, they have fewer political allies than in the past.
There is one possible, major arrestor to this trend: a conflict with Iran, in which Saudi Arabia's status as both a military base and a regional ally would be crucial. That, however, would sideline the Khashoggi issue, not bury it: Once the military emergency ended, questions about the journalist's demise would resurface, especially as Crown Prince Mohammed appears likely to be on the throne for decades to come. That's why, without a substantial change in Saudi Arabia's human rights record and a major shift in the crown prince's reputation in the West, the assassination will continue to drive Washington and Riyadh apart.
What happened to Khashoggi will have a lasting effect. In the United States, the current White House is delaying sanctions against the kingdom, but it can scarcely hold such measures off in the long run. Further afield, Khashoggi's death will haunt Crown Prince Mohammed's reputation and legacy so long as the monarch remains in power, creating risk for both governments and businesses that want to work with him.