Beyond the heinous crime committed by the Saudis and the way in which the Saudis as well as the Trump Administration have dealt with the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, there are numerous critical regional and geopolitical issues that this incident has brought to the surface.
The total, blatant, lack of concern for human rights considerations within the framework of Trump’s foreign policy vision is appalling but hardly shocking. After over two weeks of an unresolved diplomatic contretemps, the matter of future U.S.-Saudi economic ties is in limbo; current and future military arms sales are being reviewed; and major potential private American investment in the monarchy undoubtedly will be held up. The accusations raised concerning the President’s personal interests –as well as those of his son-in-law’s perceived personal ties with Mohammed bin Salman—has been discussed extensively and is visibly transparent. They include everything from hotel development and their future growth to questionable violations of the Constitutional emoluments’ clause to Jared Kushner’s personal quest for business loans as well as possible Saudi investment in Kushner real estate ventures. These matters largely have distracted, however, from the significant regional, geo-political consequences that this crisis has exposed: these matters have the potential to drastically shift and change U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The Saudis have been encouraging and supporting Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-JCPOA). Riyadh, joined Washington, in expressing its dissatisfaction with the deal as inadequately monitoring the possibilities of Iranian deception and continued development of nuclear weapons. The Saudis supported the hard-line approach taken by Trump against the Iranians on both the nuclear issues. They also expressed their desire to contain the Shiite spread to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon as well as Iranian backing of Sunni dissenters and radical opponents in the Gulf.
This apparent joint policy has brought Washington and Riyadh much closer and has opened the possibilities—given the U.S. lead—for the appearance of Saudi support for Trump’s awaited Israel-Palestinian peace proposal. With Mohammed bin Salman leading the Saudis and the Kushner-Greenblatt team, together with the tacit approval of the Egyptians, there appeared to be a sense that Riyadh might well be prepared to demonstratively improve its relations with Israel.
For the Saudis their most, important immediate need is to sustain American support for its war in Yemen. Saudi use of American supplied weapons has emboldened the Saudi military in its efforts to crush the Iranian supported Houthi. Its fight in Yemen has been conducted with indiscriminate punishment being rained on local civilians. While the Saudis may be willing to see this as another dimension of the war against the Iranians and radical Islamic militants, there is growing congressional challenge to the fact that the U.S. is a partner in widespread human rights disregard that is being accomplished with American provided weapons systems.
The kidnapping and murder of Khashoggi clearly demonstrated as well how U.S. policy in the region has tacitly permitted Saudi Arabia to project their rather trivial and largely symbolic signs of political liberalization while continuing business as usual. Their disregard of human rights when also compounded with the kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister and the blockade of Qatar suggests that little indeed has changed in the monarchy. Perhaps President Trump—along with all those others who were deluded by Mohammed bin Salman’s liberal reform offensive—ought to take this tragic crime as a signal to confront the Saudi reality in the Gulf.