international analysis and commentary

The geopolitics of the Khashoggi crisis beyond the West


As international pressure continues to mount on Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, the Saudi monarchy is struggling to defuse its worst crisis since eleven Saudi citizens engineered the fatal attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. However, unlike 9-11, the Khashoggi crisis is self-inflicted with strong evidence pointing to the highest levels of the Saudi monarchy, and specifically to Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

Deactivating this diplomatic time bomb remains an enormous uphill battle that could ultimately prove insurmountable. Whatever the outcome, this crisis will inevitably tarnish Saudi Arabia’s image and impact future ties with its traditional Western allies. However, the kingdom’s relations with many other parts of the world beyond the West are likely to remain business-as-usual in the long term.

Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman between Saudi officials


Much of Saudi Arabia’s international leverage can be boiled down to oil and Islam, and all the advantages it entails. The kingdom still retains the ability to disrupt the international price of oil and adversely impact the global economy. Although Saudi Energy Minister, Khalid Al-Falih, publicly rejected using oil as leverage in the Khashoggi affair, no scenario can be excluded amid a highly volatile crisis.

Secondly, Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and the monarchy remains the official guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, which still carries enormous weight with many of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, who account for nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

In the broader Middle East, the Khashoggi crisis is being largely determined by regional fault lines, at least at the governmental level. Saudi Arabia’s rivals in its vicinity and beyond are relishing the unfolding crisis, which fuels the fires of their anti-Saudi narrative of corruption and decadence. The kingdom’s traditional regional allies such as Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain have already expressed firm support for King Salman’s acknowledgement of the journalist’s premeditated murder and commitment to pursue a complete investigation.

However, behind the scenes there is growing concern about the crisis’ continuing fallout and potential harm to their own long-term interests. In particular, should the Saudi Crown Prince continue in his post with unrestrained power. Internationally, enormous pressure has been mounting over the deteriorating humanitarian plight of the Yemen conflict, the blockade of Qatar and other worrying developments largely choreographed by the Crown Prince.

Others reliant on Saudi largesse in the broader Muslim world, beyond the Middle East, have also largely fallen into line, at least for now. Due to the Khashoggi affair, most Western leaders and captains of industry boycotted the recent high-profile gathering in Riyadh known as the Future Investment Initiative, but commonly dubbed as “Davos in the Desert”. However, many heads of state and business leaders from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere attended the event, including Imran Khan, the new leader of economically troubled Pakistan, the world’s second most populous Muslim nation and a traditionally firm Saudi ally.

Although expressing shock at the Khashoggi murder, Khan publicly admitted “we are desperate for money” just before boarding a plane to Riyadh. By the time he left the kingdom, Khan had secured from the Saudis a $3 billion balance of payments-deposit while his country’s reserves are near rock-bottom. Furthermore, the Saudis agreed to defer payments for oil deliveries to Pakistan for three years, which could potentially be valued at $3 billion.

Despite the Western boycott, Saudi officials attempted to put the best possible spin on the conference. On the first day, the Crown Prince made an unannounced appearance and received a standing ovation. On the second day, his speech exuded with self-confidence and determination. The kingdom claimed to have signed deals worth $50 billion at start of the gathering. However, many of these contracts were already disclosed in advance or are provisional agreements.

In a recent meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, expressed the standard diplomatic line of concern over Khashoggi’s murder and need for a thorough and transparent investigation. Immediately afterwards, Indonesia signed a defense cooperation agreement with the kingdom, its first ever with a Middle Eastern country. Furthermore, an agreement was reached to re-allow Indonesian domestic workers back into Saudi Arabia after a three year absence due to human rights concerns. As of 2014, there were over 1.5 million Indonesian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Remittances serve as a key source of hard income for Indonesia’s economy.

At the center of the crisis surrounding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi lies Turkey and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who claims the Saudi journalist was a friend. Ironically, in 2017 Turkey ranked for a second consecutive year as the country with most imprisoned journalists in the world, according to the annual report of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Despite serious political and diplomatic differences with Saudi Arabia, the Turkish government has preferred to avoid a direct diplomatic showdown until now. It aims to extract maximum, and desperately needed, leverage from this crisis, particularly in light of its faltering economy. Saudi investment remains crucial to Turkey and Erdogan must proceed with caution and avoid triggering divestment and capital flight. Erdogan publicly emphasized that Saudi Arabia is a “brotherly and friendly country” and “does not want ties harmed”.

However, from the start of the Khashoggi crisis, Erdogan’s strategy of gradual leaks to the largely government-affiliated Turkish media, and broader international press, was designed to influence public opinions globally and pressure the Trump administration and Congress to take action against Saudi Arabia. Erdogan’s promise to reveal “the naked truth” in a speech on October 22, 2018 proved an anti-climax.

It was primarily designed to attract continued global media to his cause. He provided an official chronology of events and evidence already leaked since the start of the crisis. However, he publicly confronted and questioned the Crown Prince’s credibility without ever mentioning his name. The Khashoggi crisis will drag on for the foreseeable future, while investigations proliferate and the geopolitical game ensues. However, President Erdogan must tread carefully and strike a balance between his very tenuous economic situation at home and the considerable political and diplomatic leverage he has accumulated internationally since the start of the crisis.

In the broader international landscape, leading international powers, such as China and Russia, will use the Khashoggi crisis as a pretext to draw closer to the Saudi monarchy, seek common cause and tempt it away from the US orbit. Ultimately, the foreign policies of such states are primarily driven by raw realism and national economic interests. They also resent often being subjected to Western demands, and at times sanctions, for violations or lack of adherence to human rights.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin publicly clarified that the Khashoggi affair will not interrupt its relations with the kingdom. Putin is aiming to reshape the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape by emerging as a pragmatic power broker pursuing practical bilateral economic and diplomatic relations with all regional players. These include committed allies such as Syria and Iran and their sworn enemies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. In December 2016, Russia and Saudi Arabia agreed to coordinate global crude oil supply after the markets collapsed. To the surprise of many, the deal has generally endured and ties have improved. Putin would achieve a diplomatic coup if Russia eventually succeeded in selling arms to the Saudis, which would panic the US.

As Saudi Arabia’s leading export destination, China looms large economically but has remained diplomatically discreet throughout the crisis. It is reaping the rewards of its status as a key trading partner and aid provider to many Muslim-majority countries, particularly Pakistan, and its traditional policy of not commenting on the internal affairs of other countries.

The Khashoggi crisis ultimately highlights a classic dilemma that has permeated the foreign policy of the US, and many of its Western allies, since the end of the Second World War. That is, the struggle to strike a balance between national interests and national values, which are not always compatible. From the start, President Donald Trump clearly endorsed the former by emphasizing the broader US-Saudi relationship and how Saudi purchases of American products and services benefits the US economy by creating jobs at home. Much of Congress increasingly demands that democratic values and respect for human rights be upheld in America’s relations with the kingdom.

Congress is armed with, and has threatened to use, the Global Magnitsky Act which penalizes state officials, but not states, who violate human rights through asset-freezing and banning them from traveling to the US. Canada and other European countries have similar legislation and are considering its use against Saudi officials for Khashoggi’s murder. Any sanctioned state official would be blacklisted from most Western nations.

Despite extensive economic ties and close relations with Saudi Arabia spanning decades, European leaders across the political spectrum have condemned Khashoggi’s murder and are firmly pressuring for clear answers. As a first step, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has set a new tone by calling for the freezing of all arms sales to Saudi Arabia until the Khashoggi murder is appropriately resolved.

For now at least, the case for “Western values” appears to be prevailing among most transatlantic leaders. President Trump appears to be shifting to the same path as more convincing evidence emerges in the murder of the well-known journalist who had been critical of the Saudi government. Nevertheless, whatever the outcome of the Khashoggi affair, Saudi Arabia will continue to retain considerable leverage in many quarters beyond the West.