There is growing clarity about the denouement to the Jamal Khashoggi affair. The strong likelihood – a virtual certainty, one may say – is that the Saudi regime has weathered the storm. But issues remain.
The “known unknown” is of course what the US President Donald Trump may say or do tomorrow in any given situation in regional and international politics. But here too the signs are that there is a method in his madness vis-à-vis the Khashoggi affair – leave the present leadership hierarchy in Riyadh undisturbed while negotiating new terms of US-Saudi engagement that suit American interests in the short term. In the long term, Trump believes rightly, we are all dead, and he won't lose sleep on it.
So far, under immense pressure from the US media and the Deep State in America, Trump acted against Saudi Arabia by imposing sanctions under the Magnitsky Act – against 18 Saudi officials. None of them is really consequential to the US-Saudi strategic partnership. This is essentially a pro forma act that coveys the optic that Trump is on the move on the Khashoggi ball.
The so-called sanctions were actually imposed in te wake of a closed-door meeting between the US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in Riyadh last Monday. Mnuchin’s dash to Riyadh itself was curious – although he was notionally “boycotting” the Saudi investment conference scheduled for later in the week, which was touted as a big international pageant to highlight the Crown Prince’s “Vision 2030” project.
Presumably, Trump would have a fair idea now as to how far to sanction Saudi Arabia if push comes to shove and, importantly, the absolute “red lines” for the Saudis. Trump will now do the minimum that is necessary by way of any actions against Saudi Arabia until the November 6 got over. Meanwhile, he has an ally in the Israeli lobby to work on the opinion in the US Congress and there are some signs already that the lawmakers are less hysterical over the Khashoggi affair.
However, rhetoric continues. But here too, Trump is increasingly turning hot and cold on the Saudi Crown Prince, whom the Deep State is gunning for (more of that later.) This approach serves three purposes. First, Trump hopes to ride out the tsunami of opinion in the US, which is demanding that the Crown Prince must be removed from power.
Here the problem for Trump is that it is not as simple as issuing an executive order that the Saudi Crown Prince must start walking toward the sunset with immediate effect. Trump would be aware that the Saudi royal family might have rallied around the present leadership, contrary to the naïve, wishful thinking amongst many in America.
The fact of the matter is that left to himself Trump has had a jolly good time by and large with the Saudi regime. Why should he upset the apple cart? Son-in-law and presidential advisor Jared Kushner has a thriving one-on-one with the Saudi Crown Prince. There have even been innuendos that Kushner has long private conversations with the Crown Prince and probably even shared intelligence of sensitivity and relevance to the Saudi side.
The bottom line is that the conditions are not exactly ripe for a color revolution in Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince has a firm grip on the organs of power, coercion and authority in Saudi Arabia. Which means that any robust American push against the Crown Prince will most certainly destabilize the Saudi situation with consequences that are difficult to foresee. The nervousness among the other authoritarian regimes of the Persian Gulf region over the Khashoggi affair is palpable. Even Qatar is watching in silence and there is no schadenfreude discernible. The point is, the denouement to the Khashoggi affair will not leave the region unscathed one way or another.
Second, Trump has no reason to feel emotional attachment to the late Khashoggi. His first instinctive reaction when he heard the news of Khashoggi’s death was that he wasn’t a US citizen! Perhaps, he was out of touch and was unaware of the compulsions working on the Deep State. The heart of the matter is, “Who’s Khashoggi?” The US media has been projecting him as a journalist but it is fairly well established that Khashoggi’s connections with the Saudi (and American) intelligence run deep, dating back to Osama bin Laden’s entry into the “jihad” against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
Khashoggi served, in many capacities for over a decade and a half, the ace Saudi spymaster Prince Turki who was the CIA’s main collaborator for almost 3 decades in the business of using Islamist groups as geopolitical tool in American regional projects in the Greater Middle East. More recently, in the downstream of the Arab Spring appearing on the Arab doorstep, Khashoggi began viewing Islamism as a charioteer for the “democratization” of the Middle East.
As recently as on August 28, he had penned an article in the Washington Post lamenting that the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi was overthrown (with Saudi and UAE backing), or else it could have provided a role model eventually for the transformation of the entire region (read Saudi Arabia.)
Now, it is no big secret that the Saudi regime regards the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential enemy. The regime has historically adopted harsh and violent methods to snuff out any traces of the Brothers on Saudi soil. That is why the Saudis bankrolled the overthrow of Morsi in Egypt. Quite obviously, Khashoggi’s open espousal of the Brothers – and that too, in Washington Post – was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Thirty-five days after the Khashoggi’s article appeared, he met a tragic end.
Khashoggi was planning to settle down in Turkey after his second marriage to a Turkish citizen. A famous dissident from one of Saudi Arabia’s richest families with such excellent connections with the US intelligence establishment who possessed unmatchable insights into how power flows with through the Byzantine corridors of the Saudi royal family settling down in the region in a country whose ruling elite openly empathizes and patronizes the Brothers – it was an intolerable scenario, plainly put, for Riyadh. Simply put, the project had to be stopped on its tracks before it got any further – with whatever means available, come what may. The rallying of the Saudi royal family behind the King Salman and the Crown Prince is perfectly understandable.
Trump has no passion for a project aiming at the democratic transformation of the Greater Middle East – least of all, using Islamism as the charioteer of change. He won’t be impressed by the fine logic that the Brothers are a “moderate” lot. In any case, Trump’s logic will be: Why kill the geese that lay the golden eggs in and around the Arabian Peninsula?
Third, most importantly, Trump sees a window of opportunity here. There are enough signs that lately he was feeling frustrated with the Saudis on a number of issues – his unsuccessful push for Saudi Aramco’s IPO in New York Stock Exchange; Saudi’s unhelpful role in keeping oil production high to make up for the shortfall in Iranian oil exports; signs of Saudis losing interest in bankrolling the US’ military presence in Syria; the “Look East” template in Saudi regional policies and so on. Trump actually voiced his grumpiness openly in tweeters and even in his UN General Assembly speech in September – at one point, even threatening that the Saud regime won’t survive for a fortnight if the US pulled back from backing it.
Trump, in the best spirit of the Art of the Deal, can now be trusted to use the lifeline he offers to the Saudi Crown Prince to extract concessions in the Saudi policies. Principal among them will be a stepping up of the “maximum pressure” approach on Iran. The Saudi announcement this week to label Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization can be seen in this light. So, indeed, the Saudi allocation of another $100 million as budgetary support for the good work that the Pentagon is doing in northeastern Syria.
Equally, the Saudi Crown Prince used the investment conference in Riyadh this week to make his first conciliatory gesture toward Doha, even praising Qatar for its magnificent record in the economic sphere. Suffice to say, a Saudi-Qatar rapprochement, which Trump had assiduously sought, seems to be imminent.
Iran is already bracing for a grim winter ahead and on Wednesday, it broke its silence on the Khashoggi affair by lambasting both Riyadh and Washington. Tehran appears to have given up any hope of a moderation in Saudi policies.
The big question is what is on the anvil in Yemen. These are early days, but change is in the air in the trajectory of the brutal war.