A murder, and business as usual

The CIA report on Khashoggi will not lead to a major reversal or even re-evaluation of U.S.-Saudi ties

March 01, 2021 12:15 am | Updated 01:58 am IST

In this file photo taken on October 10, 2018, a demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with blood on his hands protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, demanding justice for  Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In this file photo taken on October 10, 2018, a demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with blood on his hands protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, demanding justice for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The case of the “smoking saw”, to use U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham’s phrase , is solved. The declassified version of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report on journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder states in no uncertain terms “that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved [the] operation…to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi ”. It bases this conclusion on the evidence that the persons responsible for the crime were members of the security detail of the Crown Prince, who is popularly known as MBS, and reported to his close advisers. It argues that an operation of this nature could not have been conducted without his approval. Although the declassified version does not provide the gory details of the heinous act, it is common knowledge, thanks to revelations made by Turkish intelligence, that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered with an electric saw before its final disposal.

A short-term recalibration

The U.S. Congress had been demanding for over a year that the report be declassified but former President Donald Trump had refused to do so because of his and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner’s cosy relationship with MBS as well as Mr. Trump’s interest in selling massive amounts of arms to the petrostate.

Also read | Saudi Arabia rejects U.S. intelligence report on Khashoggi's killing

However, the release of the report does not mean a major reversal or even re-evaluation of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. It only signifies a short term “recalibration” of Washington’s approach towards the Kingdom. It is primarily a public relations exercise undertaken to assuage Congressional anger and to appease the human rights constituency. This was indicated by the fact that although some sanctions were imposed on a few Saudis, MBS was not subjected to any penalties.

President Joe Biden’s call to King Salman the day before the document’s release reinforces this message. It made no mention of the imminent release of the damning report and instead assured the Saudi monarch of America’s continued support for his country’s security. According to the White House, Mr. Biden “discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups.”

Balancing act

These actions demonstrate that Mr. Biden is engaged in a balancing act aimed at assuaging domestic anger at the Saudi government’s role in the murder of an American resident and a columnist for The Washington Post while preserving America’s long-standing strategic and economic relationship with the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance for Washington derives from the fact that it is America’s principal regional partner in its efforts to contain Iranian influence in West Asia. Riyadh’s strategic value has increased with the sequential normalisation of Israel’s relations with Arab countries allied to it since the success of this process is heavily dependent upon Saudi approval. Such normalisation suits Washington, for it relieves pressure on it to address the Palestinian issue.

Also read | U.S. in delicate balancing act as Saudi Prince spared sanctions

Furthermore, Mr. Biden cannot afford to alienate the Saudi regime beyond a point because this could intensify Riyadh’s opposition to his stated intention of returning to the Iran nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia may decide to go public on this issue in conjunction with Israel, which also considers Iran its mortal enemy.

While the U.S. is no longer dependent on Gulf oil, the importance of Saudi Arabia as the swing producer of oil for the health of the global economy on which U.S. prosperity depends rules out any possibility of the Biden administration punishing the regime for its human rights transgressions. Once the brouhaha over the CIA report blows over, one can expect Washington and Riyadh to return to business as usual. Realpolitik will, as has always been the case, trump human rights concerns.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

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