Paying the price
With Jamal Khashoggi’s death confirmed, now the kingdom is looking to avoid blowback
Last week, we looked at how the murder of Jamal Khashoggi will affect the operation of diplomacy at a time when diplomatic missions increasingly engage in unconventional, sometimes illegal, activities. This week, we tackle a much more nuanced issue: how such a horrific crime loses its moral force in the world of international relations. “There are no such things as the observation of absolute virtue or high moral ground in international politics,” our chief political scientist notes. Indeed, alliances between nations are often based on the coldest and hardest of facts: money and power. In that calculus, the brutal murder of a journalist is not so much a crime as it is another incident in the geopolitical game.
►The Saud s already have a compl cated relat onsh p w th the U.S. How does th s affect that relat onsh p?
The murder of Khashoggi has created a sense of shock and feelings of repulsion in the U.S. In Congress, with its share of Saudi critics, there has been vocal condemnation. Turning to the position of the American administration, Mr. Trump has said that while what has happened is not to the liking of anyone, the U.S. should go easy on Saudi Arabia. He said that the cancellation of the sale of fighter jets to the Saudis could result in the loss hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs. The comment reveals that the souring of relations with Saudi Arabia could inflict considerable damage on the American economy. Then there is also the American strategy of containing the expansion of Iran in the Middle East. The American strategy has relied on Saudi Arabia as its major partner. The Khashoggi murder is making this cooperation more difficult. The U.S. government is trying to find a way to exclude the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, their main ally in the Saudi regime, from responsibility, placing it on lower echelons of Saudi bureaucracy.
The event has provided an opportunity for Turkey and the United States to work together on a problem. Turkish authorities, by all indications, have been rather meticulous in trying to uncover evidence to decipher the case. Evidence shows that the consular personnel are culpable. What we don’t know is the amount of information Turkey has and whether the Turkish government is willing to pass on all information to the Americans.
►By not releas ng nformat on, Turkey seems to be leav ng some opt ons open. What m ght those be?
Turkey has enjoyed significant economic benefits from Saudi construction contracts. It also gets some oil from Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, there is the Qatari affair where the relations between the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have gone sour. This was the culmination of developments in which, ever since the Arab Spring and Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, there had been a parting of the ways with the Saudis because the Saudis were concerned that once the gates of political change in the region were opened, change would not be confined to Baathist or military regimes only but would also spread to traditional regimes. It may be that now Turkey is holding information over the Saudis as a bargaining chip to make economic advances back in Saudi Arabia and/or to affect its Qatar policy, and to render it a bit more mild-mannered in the way they relate to Islamic movements demanding political change in the region.
►One of the th ngs that keeps cropp ng up s trade. Saud Arab a has put tself n a central pos t on when t comes to not just trade but also the global economy because of what t can do to o l pr ces. Does Saud Arab a get a pass because t s so central?
Exactly. People can easily justify tolerating unacceptable acts of other regimes by finding excuses. In Saudi Arabia’s case, there are two major ways in which the regime is important to the world economy. The first is the immense purchasing power oil wealth represents. This is a country that has to import almost everything because it is basically a desert that doesn’t produce very much of anything save oil. But, there is a proclivity among its upper classes to spend lavishly in international markets; and a proclivity on the part of the government to purchase highly sophisticated military hardware.
The second is oil prices. The amount of Saudi Arabia decides to produce and release into the international markets has a determining role in oil prices. Any attempt to punish Saudi Arabia by not buying its oil would send oil prices way up at a time when they seem to be rising anyway. This would inflict significant harm on the economies that are trying to penalize Saudi Arabia.
So this integration of roles as a major producer of oil and a major purchaser of goods and services in the world, give the Saudis power. You cannot easily sanction them when they commit a horrible deed like the Khashoggi murder. Inevitably, however, the crime will generate costs. Countries will be more hesitant to extend diplomatic privileges to the Saudis and there will be very bad public opinion. But I think in terms of what states will do against Saudi Arabia, effective measures will be limited. Some reasons will be found as to why it is necessary to maintain relations with this country.
When we think about sanctions, we tend to think of them as having negative effects on those on whom the sanctions are applied but not necessarily on those who are applying them. The Saudi case shows that in a system of economic interdependence, the application of sanctions is a double-edged sword: it can hurt those against whom the sanctions are directed but it can also inflict considerable harm on those who are applying them.
►Does that mean f Saud Arab a s go ng to pay a pr ce for th s, the world should be ready to also pay a pr ce?
I think we should look at it with both short and long-term perspectives. Obviously, in the short run you may suffer from the very sanctions you may introduce, but then in the long run you may be able to defeat the reappearance of an evil act which is totally unacceptable. The question is: is the price worth it? Are you willing to bear the consequences?