Khashoggi’s fate? Why Trump should squeeze the Saudis
Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, paints himself as reformist. He has allowed women to drive, reined in the kingdom’s religious police and permitted movie theaters to open. Those reforms, however, mask a regime that routinely arrests its critics and prosecutes a bloody, Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen that continues to yield mounting civilian casualties.
Now the Western world fears that track record may include assassination. Evidence continues to build that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi succumbed to a vile death plot carried out by a team of Saudi agents at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Early on the afternoon of Oct. 2, Khashoggi, 59 and a resident of the U.S., walked into the consulate to retrieve documents he needed for his upcoming wedding. His fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, waited until after midnight outside the consulate for him to come out. He never did. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, wrote critically about Prince Mohammed and the Saudi regime. Through a steady stream of leaks and videos, Turkish officials have laid out their allegations against the Saudis: A team of 15 Saudi intelligence agents, including an autopsy expert, arrive in Istanbul, murder Khashoggi at the consulate, dismember his body and return to Saudi Arabia. Several media outlets report that Turkish officials have audio and video recordings of Khashoggi’s murder at the consulate. Riyadh has stuck to its assertion that Khashoggi left the consulate alive, but it hasn’t provided security video or other evidence to back that claim.
Turkey has pressed the Saudis to explain what happened. The response from President Donald Trump, who has coddled and courted the Saudi royal family, has been conspicuously timid. In an interview Thursday with “Fox & Friends,” he described relations with the Saudi kingdom as “excellent.”
In Congress, calls grow for sanctions against the Saudi regime, as well as a halt to U.S. arms sales to Riyadh. Trump bristled at that idea. “What good would it do us?” he said.
Well, Mr. President, it would send a clear message to the Saudis that business as usual isn’t going to happen with a regime that silences its critics in violent, gruesome ways. Maybe Trump the businessman should look for inspiration from other U.S. and Western business leaders, who in reaction to what happened to Khashoggi are rethinking ties with the Saudis. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi pulled out of an upcoming government-sponsored investor conference in Riyadh, The Wall Street Journal reports. Viacom’s CEO, The New York Times and The Economist also pulled out. One invitee who still plans to attend: Trump’s treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin.
Prince Mohammed may be miffed at the Western world’s recoiling, but he shouldn’t be surprised. Western CEOs and investors are right to think twice about doing business with a government that wants and needs strong ties with the West yet increasingly looks and acts like other, brutish regimes now branded as pariahs. If the crown prince wants the West’s seal of approval, he should come clean about the fate of Jamal Khashoggi.