For the past couple weeks, the sudden disappearance (and presumed murder) of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has captured international attention. On October 2nd, Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian diplomatic consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul. It appears that he never came out. Within days of his disappearance, international news media and the Washington Post (with which Khashoggi was a contributor) began accusing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of murder. Saudi Arabia initially dismissed the criticism by saying that Khashoggi probably just got lost somewhere. But their story has been shifting as the situation appears to worsen for them. To make matters worse, it appears there may even be audio evidence of his torture and murder. So while the international drama of this continues to unfold, many average citizens in the United States wonder: what impact could this possibly have on me? This week, we seek to answer this question.
The first (and admittedly most abstract) potential impact is that of the respect for freedom of speech and the defense of international norms regarding journalists and extra-judicial killings. Khashoggi actually used to be a welcome contributor in international media on the topic of Saudi Arabia. However, he has taken issue with recent Saudi policies such as the blockade of the nation of Qatar, the brutal war in Yemen, and the jailing of women’s rights activists in the Kingdom. Now it’s true that Saudi Arabia does not have the same standard of respect for freedom of speech as the United States (and it is not necessarily our place to tell them what their standard should be). But the outright murder of a journalist is a dramatic signal of the same caliber that we typically see from places like Russia or North Korea. The fact that this appears to have happened within the Turkish nation itself, inside a building that is supposed to represent open ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is additionally problematic. We all rely on norms against this sort of behavior to act as a check against the worst abuses of power. If these norms are eroded, who will stand up for those who would speak truth to power? It may seem like a lot of drama over a single person, but this diplomatic fight represents what appears to many to be a growing trend towards blatant harassment and intimidation of foreign dissidents by authoritarian regimes throughout the world. If Russia can poison people on the streets of Great Britain, or Saudi Arabia can murder journalists within a foreign country, what protections do average citizens have who feel compelled to criticize other governments (or even their own)?
As if that wasn’t reason enough, there are also practical consequences if this situation continues to escalate. It’s no surprise that Saudi Arabia is a massive oil and petroleum producer in the world today. While the United States has dramatically reduced its dependency on Saudi oil in recent decades, the Kingdom remains one of the key producers in the world. Their actions go a long way towards setting the global price of oil. If Saudi Arabia is found to be guilty of killing Khashoggi, and if president Trump follows through on his promise of retaliation for this killing, then we run the very real risk of diplomatic tensions escalating into economic disputes over oil prices and petroleum sales. This means not only higher gas prices, but higher prices for nearly all products that require gasoline as part of their transportation supply chain. In addition, the Kingdom is one of the largest purchasers of American military hardware. If these deals were to be threatened or cancelled, it could mean the loss of jobs among American military contractors and manufacturing centers.
So what would be the basis for the United States to place possible sanctions against Saudi Arabia? Well, a group of senators from both major parties are considering the invocation of something called the Magnitsky Act. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same act that was the topic of the now infamous meeting at Trump Tower in the summer of 2016. Named for Sergei Magnitsky (who was a human-rights activist murdered by the Russian government), this act imposed tough sanctions against Russian government officials who were implicated in the killing of Magnitsky. In retaliation, the Russian government halted American adoptions of Russian children. However, the Magnitsky Act was also expanded to potentially cover human-rights violations and extra-judicial killings outside of Russia. So now, the stage could be set for a serious diplomatic and economic showdown if Saudi Arabia is implicated in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Finally, there are domestic political considerations here as well. For decades, the Trump family has maintained very close ties with both Saudi Arabian businesses and the government. To be fair, many businesses and wealthy families have dealings with the Saudis (where business and official government duties are often very closely aligned). Even into the presidential campaign there were open discussions about how much business the Saudi government has provided to the Trump family. Meanwhile, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has maintained an unusually close relationship with Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince (and de facto leader) Mohammad bin Salman and has served as a sort-of unofficial liaison on Middle East policy. All of this is only to highlight that such close relationships will be heavily scrutinized as this situation unfolds, and could impact the results of the November midterm elections.
Of course, these types of events are not likely to completely destroy the long and complicated history of U.S.-Saudi relations. After all, the Kingdom remains a powerful ally with military, economic, and cultural tools at its disposal to shape Middle East policy. Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appear to have been taking the side of Saudi Arabia in this conflict. Saudi Arabia is also at a critical point in its history right now. But with Iran attempting to rise throughout the region, Saudi Arabia is seeking allies wherever it can find them. If the United States backs out over Khashoggi, who will step up to fill that void? Russia and China are eager to move in and begin shaping Middle East policy to benefit their governments and people. And in either of those cases, you can bet Saudi Arabia wouldn’t be punished for it’s human-rights abuses.