Jamal Khashoggi: The stakes are too high to punish Saudi Arabia

Economic sanctions aimed at modifying Saudi’s behaviour, which Trump, at times backed by the EU, had invoked over violations of international law by Russia and Iran remain a far cry.

Jamal Khashoggi: The stakes are too high to punish Saudi Arabia
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Dhairya Maheshwari

“I do not doubt the sincerity of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz,” said Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday, while making a statement in the Turkish Parliament on the chilling execution of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In a widely awaited address in which the Turkish strongman had vowed to reveal the “naked truth,” there wasn’t anything particularly eye-popping that he revealed. Except for challenging the Islamist monarchy’s line of investigation into the October 2 dismemberment (allegedly using a bonesaw) of the Washington Post columnist and calling for a Turkey-led probe, Erdogan’s speech failed to meet the hype that it had created.

While Erdogan did allege the killing to be “premeditated,” “savage” and “a meticulously planned political operation”, he, at the same time, omitted any reference to the crucial audio clip allegedly featuring Khashoggi’s mumbles as he was being butchered alive by Saudi’s top forensic expert, Muhammad al-Tubaigy.

Al-Tubaigy was allegedly part of a 15-member state-backed hit squad that flew into Istanbul in three batches over October 1 and 2 to carry out the chilling assassination plot of Khashoggi, a US resident and a noted critic of the policies of Crown Prince. Riyadh says that it has arrested all 15 members of the team and three consulate officials who were allegedly behind Khashoggi’s death, billing the operation as a “botched extradition plot.”

An otherwise eloquent US President, Donald Trump, too, has been measured in his tone so far. A wary statement from Trump hinting at the king-tobe’s involvement came yesterday, almost three weeks after the execution. “Well, the prince is running things over there more so at this stage. He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him,” Trump remarked during an interview to The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, hours after Erdogan’s statement in the Parliament. “I want to believe them. I really want to believe them,” Trump, however, reportedly replied, asked if he believed the Crown Prince’s claim that he didn’t know anything about the plot.

However, a few verbal slaps on the wrist of Prince Salman is all the gruesome atrocity has evoked internationally, even as the US State Department sanctioned at least 21 Saudi individuals from visiting America on Thursday, amid calls for a coordinated global retaliation by civil rights activist.

Economic sanctions aimed at “modifying” Saudi’s behaviour, which the Trump administration, at times backed by the European Union, had conveniently invoked over alleged violations of international law by Russia and Iran (arguably) remain a far cry.

On the first day of Future Investment Summit in Saudi Arabia, an event strikingly billed as ‘Davos in the desert,’ the Sunni Gulf monarchy signed deals worth $50 billion with various multinationals from major powers, including the US. The Crown Prince, whose imprimatur the event bears, also made a brief stop at the summit on the first day, seen clicking selfies with other participants.

According to reports, Saudi’s state-owned oil firm Aramco, in itself, clinched agreements to the tune of $34 billion with companies from China, Japan and even India, among other countries.

In India, which is Saudi Arabia’s second largest oil market, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has refused to comment on the matter. The influence that Saudi Arabia holds in India’s strategic calculation became ever more evident as two former high-profile former secretaries refused to react to the “sensitive matter”

“Aramco understandably signed 15 MoUs valued at $34 with 15 partners, of which one is for investment in drilling chemicals facility with GumPro (India). The major partnerships announced are with Total (France), Hyundai (South Korea), Schlumberger (Texas, US), Sumitomo (Japan), Norinco (China), Halliburton (Texas, US) among others,” notes Ashok Dhar, an expert in international trading and downstream petroleum, as he impresses the importance of Saudi crude in coming months.

As the unilateral US sanctions on Iran kick in on November 4, Saudi Arabia is being widely expected to fill in the void in the global oil supply in the face of major economies trying to reduce their reliance on Iranian crude. A proposed $110 billion US-made arms export deal with Saudi Arabia looks well on track to completion. On a visit to Riyadh where he held talks with the Crown Prince last week, US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, reiterated “the importance of the Saudi-US strategic partnership.” According to official data, at 18 percent, Saudi Arabia bought the largest share of US arms between 2013 and 2018.

Any perceived offense to Prince Salman could push Saudi Arabia into the arms of Russia, which has been waiting in the rear. In the backdrop of several US companies pulling out or sending lower-level delegates to the Future Riyadh Summit, it were speakers from top Russian and Chinese investment firms that were the main draw.

Demands for accountability have, so far, mostly come from the private players (including the CEO of ride-sharing app Uber who pulled out of the conference), with the German government being a notable exception that’s mounting pressure on other Western allies to take a stern view of Khashoggi’s death.

Putting its arms sales deals with Saudi Arabia on standby until a clearer picture emerges, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s economic minister told a state broadcaster earlier this week, “The government is in agreement that we will not approve further arms exports for the moment because we want to know what happened.”

However, Germany’s reservations in continuing business with Saudi Arabia is a drop in the pond. A perceived break in ranks among the European Union allies was at display at the Riyadh summit as France opted to sign major deals with Saudi companies in hydrocarbons, like other major powers to the east of the Persian Gulf.

In India, which is Saudi Arabia’s second largest oil market, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has refused to comment on the matter. The influence that Saudi Arabia holds in India’s strategic calculation became ever more evident as two former high-profile former secretaries refused to react to the “sensitive matter.”

“It seems that it will be business as usual,” said another ex-diplomat, formerly India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

(The story first appeared in National Herald on Sunday).

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Published: 27 Oct 2018, 3:00 PM