Saturday, 23rd February 2019

Khashoggi’s ghost still haunts Saudi policy in Yemen and MBS at home

Try as it might, Saudi Arabia can’t put the murder of Jamal Khashoggi behind it. Four months after the brutal killing in Istanbul by a team of men close to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the late journalist’s many friends are unwilling to let the matter be forgotten. Saudi Arabia is making great efforts to win back influence, but looks powerless to change the narrative – at least in the West.

Adel Al-Jubeir, who is just as active on the international stage as he was before being demoted to minister of state for foreign affairs in January (GSN 1,072/1), was in the United States in February to try once again to deflect some of the criticism and deny links the Central Intelligence Service (CIA) has apparently drawn between MBS and the murder. Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation on 10 February, Jubeir met polite incredulity from his host when he said Saudi investigators didn’t know the location of Khashoggi’s body.

The interview will not have convinced many people to change their minds about who should be held accountable for the killing. In the meantime, there is a seemingly endless series of leaks about the case that Riyadh struggles to cope with. The latest emerged on 7 February when The New York Times reported a conversation MBS had in 2017 when he told an aide –who was recently appointed ambassador to the UAE that he wanted to use “a bullet” if US-based Khashoggi couldn’t be convinced to come home. Any trust in Saudi assurances that it was conducting a thorough investigation into the affair was further undermined by evidence that one of those linked to the murder, Saud Al-Qahtani, remains a close confidante of MBS and appears beyond the reach of the investigation.

One of the unintended consequences of this crisis is that Riyadh is coming under persistent pressure to change its approach to Yemen, particularly from its two key arms suppliers: the US and the United Kingdom. On 13 February, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to end US support for the Saudi war effort with a clear majority of 248 votes to 177, in a vote which saw 18 Republicans voting with the Democratic majority. The resolution will now go to the Senate, where it may well pass (a similar motion was carried in the upper chamber in December). Were it to pass, President Donald Trump is likely to issue a veto. However, it would be of only limited comfort to the Saudi authorities to know they now have to rely on the mercurial president.

In a related move, on 12 February three US Senators introduced a bipartisan resolution which would set “the highest possible nonproliferation standard” for any nuclear energy deal between the US and Saudi Arabia (GSN 1,073/12). The motion was introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Jeff Merkley, Edward Markey (both Democrats) and Rand Paul (Republican). “Saudi Arabia has repeatedly shown that it cannot be trusted as a responsible partner in the global community,” said Merkley.

In the UK there are similar concerns among MPs over the Khashoggi case, which is enabling a new approach. Former Conservative international development secretary Andrew Mitchell claims there has been a change in policy since Jeremy Hunt took over at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last July, with London looking to create a gap between the UK and Saudi actions. “The space for that change was created by the extraordinary murder of Jamal Khashoggi… Britain has quite rightly seized it to pivot away towards a position of greater neutrality,” he told a meeting in Westminster on 14 February.

The pressure on Riyadh to rethink its approach to the Yemen conflict is one reason why the deal over Hodeidah was reached in Stockholm, Sweden late last year (GSN 1,072/8). Imperfect as that deal may be, it has at least held out the promise that a political solution can be reached. It has long been clear that a military victory is unachievable for either of the two main sides in the conflict. Saudi Arabia was reluctant to acknowledge that reality until recently, but as its behind-the-scenes pressure on the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to accept a deal in Sweden suggests, that is changing.

Riyadh has also assumed that realpolitik would ensure the Khashoggi case could be brushed under the carpet. On this too, it has been wrong, but whereas MBS can retain power while arranging for a withdrawal from Yemen, it would be impossible for him to do so if Riyadh ever admitted he had been behind the journalist’s murder. No wonder MBS has been seen to make a ‘pivot to Asia’ in his foreign relations, with visits to key partners in February (see Royals watch). Indian commentators said MBS would come under pressure in New Delhi – but mainly to rein in ‘Pakistan-sponsored terrorism’, rather than face any ramifications from Khashoggi, Yemen or other western preoccupations.

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