Jamal Khashoggi killing: Donald Trump may be forced to change West Asia policy as pressure mounts to rein in Saudi regime

This columnist had adverted, though in a different context, the delinquencies of the House of Saud in a previous article on Firstpost. It said:

"Saudi Arabia’s most important export throughout the world, apart from petroleum, is, lest we forget, the Wahhabi brand of Islam, that toxic fount of global terrorism. Saudi Arabia is also the most significant exporter and backer of terrorism. Al-Qaeda and its former leader Osama bin Laden — a Saudi national — are prime examples.... Saudi Arabia is also the perpetrator of possibly the dirtiest war being fought in the word today — in Yemen — where it has indiscriminately bombed civilians and innocents, including children and hospitals using sophisticated US-supplied weapons."

The article was published on 7 October, five days after dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by a trained team of Saudi assassins in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi a harsh critic of the Saudi royal family had gone to get some documents needed for his marriage to his Turkish partner. Both had relocated to the United States. The details of the murder, and, in fact, that he was missing started filtering out to the world in the second week of October.

 Jamal Khashoggi killing: Donald Trump may be forced to change West Asia policy as pressure mounts to rein in Saudi regime

File image of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. AP

Since then, the progress on the investigation into Khashoggi’s murder has proceeded in fits and starts. The Turkish government, ironically, given its track record on human rights and its relations with the media and journalists in general, was the first to sound the alarm.

It has now established that Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate. Though a smoking gun is not yet available, the available evidence suggests that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered and the  remains were carried back to Riyadh in a suitcase, misusing the protocols of diplomatic immunity.

Though the evidence is still incomplete, it has gathered a critical mass; enough for the delinquent Saudi establishment to admit that Saudi nationals were involved in the journalist's murder. It has promised to prosecute 11 of them, though it strenuously denies the involvement in the murder of the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. These denials are not exactly washing the stain for anyone other than US president Donald Trump.

The European Union has taken a firm stand, including banning travel permission for 18 people established to have been part of the squad of assassins; it has also signalled the imposition of sanctions against a blatantly criminal regime.

Even more important is the reaction in the United States, the principal backers of the Saudi regime. The latest of reports say that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, controlled by Republicans, has written to the White House seeking a determination on culpability for the murder. Even before the Democrats wrested control of the House of Representatives, a bipartisan consensus had started evolving against the Saudi regime.

The pressure on the Trump administration was ratcheted up when the CIA reportedly submitted its findings to the White House on 17 November. The burden of its song is that bin Salman ordered the killing. The CIA has not produced a smoking gun, but has concluded from collateral evidence that such an audacious assassination, carried out by a team that included members of the de facto ruler’s entourage, could not have been possible without bin Salman’s knowledge (read approbation, if not direct command). Unlike the FBI in its current avatar, the CIA is no pushover, even for a man as pushy as Trump.

Trump is not convinced, however. He has his reasons: among them are arms deals worth billions, Saudi Arabia’s ‘controlling’ interest in the global petroleum market which it can manipulate by calibrating its share of daily supplies and, therefore, crude prices; and his family’s close business dealings with Saudi Arabia and the Saudi elite, now reduced, almost, to bin Salman and his palace favourites. The most recent of reports also suggest an element of obduracy: Trump is reported to have signalled that the US will not abandon its special alliance with bin Salman, while admitting that it is possible that he knew in advance about the murder plot. And then, Trump is not known to be amongst the staunchest supporter of media rights and the freedom of the press.

Will this position pass muster? Perhaps, but with serious riders. With other US allies, including the European Union, gesturing at the need for strong action, possibly including sanctions, and the US intelligence community and Congress ranged against him, the least Trump may have to agree to is a more nuanced approach in West Asia. As argued earlier, the keystone of the architecture of the Trump administration’s West Asian policy is ‘reining’ in Iran, at a time when most of the international community has accepted its bona fides over nuclearisation, by promoting the Saudis. This policy may have to be abandoned.

Members of Arab-Turkish Media Association and friends attend funeral prayers for Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi. AP

Members of Arab-Turkish Media Association and friends attend funeral prayers for Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi. AP

The Saudi-led coalition in West Asia has been involved in one of the dirtiest of modern-day wars, in Yemen. It has been using sophisticated US-supplied weapons to bomb the country into submission, ignoring all implicit and explicit conventions of warfare, including the bombing of health facilities and civilians, especially children. Any deal on West Asia, it seems at the moment, would include an immediate ceasefire, already agreed to by the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Moreover, reports suggest that influential sections of the now beleaguered Saudi regime want bin Salman out and they seem to have backers amongst the US political elite. If the joint exertions of these forces achieve a critical momentum, bin Salman might have to go, which will strike a big blow against Trump’s foreign policy, backed by hawks like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

This means returning to the theme explored in the article cited above. There are two critically criminal players in the West Asian game: Israel is, for all practical purposes, untouchable; but if Saudi Arabia suffers an eclipse, room could be opened up for a more flexible and effective international role in West Asia. This could help bring about a genuine two-state solution in Palestine and leave for Iranians the decision about what is to be done with their theocratic regime.

Most of all, taking bin Salman out could open the way to end one of the most serious humanitarian catastrophes now in progress on planet earth: in Yemen.

Updated Date: Nov 22, 2018 10:36:15 IST