Never before has the death of a journalist threatened to cause such an upheaval in the global affairs as has the death of the US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He entered the Saudi mission in Istanbul on October 2 — never to come back alive or dead. A fierce critic of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he wrote regularly in The Washington Post. Khashoggi was lured into the consulate for being supplied the divorce papers so that he could marry his fiancée.
Fifteen elite members of the Saudi intelligence and security services had flown in a hired jet that morning. They are said to have killed him within the embassy premises, cutting off his body in small pieces and disposing it in the wooded areas in Istanbul before flying back to Riyadh. Only intense pressure by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan succeeded in keeping the state-sponsored murder alive, forcing the US President to dispatch the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to fly to Saudi Arabia to seek a fair and transparent investigation.
Sixteen days after maintaining that Khashoggi had left the Saudi mission unharmed, the Saudis finally gave up the charade, now conceding that he was killed in a fist fight with the Saudi officials on October 2 itself and that a couple of senior personnel had been dismissed for the reckless conduct. Skepticism greeted that claim, though Trump, as usual, was willing to buy the lemon and move on. And, what happened to the bodily remains was not explained.
The Khashoggi murder has, at once, changed equations within the Middle East. Erdogan’s zeal in getting at the root of his death probably stemmed from his desire to seek a bail-out from the Saudis and the US for his sinking economy with the Turkish lira in a free fall in recent weeks following the US sanctions over the detention of an American pastor (since freed and safely back home). Erdogan’s support to Qatar, a nation whimsically blackballed by the Saudis and the Gulf States, for toeing an independent foreign policy, had brought him in direct confrontation with the Saudi crown prince.
The American foreign policy in the entire region pivoted around the Saudis who had entered into a not-so-secret understanding with Israel in containing Iran. Following the gruesome killing of Khashoggi, the American policy makers are no longer sure of relying exclusively on the Saudis for protecting their geo-political interests in the region. There was a faint hint in Washington of easing the sanctions on Iran, to allow it to export a million barrels of oil daily so that when required to tighten the screws on a wayward Riyadh, there is no crisis in the global oil markets.
Though Trump would like to brush the Khashoggi killing under the carpet presumably because the crown prince has made substantial investments in various Trump-linked businesses, the Congress was in no mood to allow the barbaric crime go unpunished. Members of the Republican Party seem to be one with their Democratic counterparts in wanting to see some sanctions imposed on the Saudis. The incident would have a direct impact on the crown prince as well. His attempt to project himself as a reformer lies in tatters. He has already become a pariah in the western capitals with the leading lights of international business and finance boycotting the upcoming Davos-type conference in Riyadh.
Russia, which like the Saudis is an autocratic country, killing critics of Putin at regular intervals, has sought to immediately fill in the seats left vacant by the Western boycott, another sign that in foreign relations enemy’s enemy is your friend. Trump, meanwhile, justifies his soft stand on the ground that sanctions would result in a huge order worth hundreds of billions of dollars for military hardware, such as missiles, fighter jets, etc being cancelled, thus putting in jeopardy tens of thousands of American jobs.
Human rights concerns do not animate him, but these do animate the Congress which could still impose some sanctions to send a message that countries cannot kill people without a transparent and fair due process merely because they are critics of the incumbent powers. The Khashoggi bungle will make the West Asian autocracies a little more humane, a little more responsive to the needs of their people and, above all, result in making them a little less reckless and irresponsible members of the global order.