Many in Washington Are Not Assuaged by Saudi Admission in Khashoggi Death

Kingdom says Saudi journalist was killed in a fistfight.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy, and Lara Seligman
A protester dressed as Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and another dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump demonstrate outside the White House in Washington on Oct. 19. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A protester dressed as Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and another dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump demonstrate outside the White House in Washington on Oct. 19. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

After weeks of denying it had any knowledge of Jamal Khashoggi’s whereabouts, the government of Saudi Arabia did an about-face on Friday, announcing through its state-run media that the journalist is dead and blaming his death on an accidental “fistfight” at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The statement said 18 Saudis whom it did not identify had been arrested as a result.

Five other senior officials were fired, including Saud al-Qahtani, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s court advisor, and deputy intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, according to the Washington Post.

The announcement, which had been hinted at for days, was an obvious attempt to deflect blame from Mohammed bin Salman—the de facto Saudi ruler who has faced international condemnation over the killing—and place it on “rogue” killers acting on their own, despite mounting evidence that the crown prince knew of the operation.  It comes after days of talks with the Trump administration, which is trying desperately to preserve relations—and in particular arms contracts—with its Saudi partner.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, had been critical of the crown prince’s increasingly dictatorial rule.

U.S. President Donald Trump appeared eager to accept the newest Saudi explanation. On Friday night, Trump called the Saudi confession “a great first step” and said he was impressed by the arrests made, though he said Khashoggi’s death was “unacceptable.” Asked if he found the Saudi statement credible, he responded, “I do.” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders put out a more neutral statement, saying in part, “We are saddened to hear confirmation of Mr. Khashoggi’s death.” She added: “We will continue to closely follow the international investigations into this tragic incident and advocate for justice.”

But it is far less likely that the Saudi statement will appease a growing bipartisan group in Congress who believe the evidence is overwhelming that Mohammed bin Salman was behind Khashoggi’s killing, and who are condemning the ongoing Saudi investigation as a whitewash. According to numerous reports from Turkish officials, Khashoggi was tortured, murdered, and dismembered in secret on Oct. 2. “The story doesn’t hold water,” tweeted Sen. Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon. “The US govt needs to demand the truth and hold the responsible parties accountable, not go along with Saudi efforts to cover up this murder.”

Already opposed to the brutal Saudi war in Yemen, more and more U.S. senators and congressmen will try to block future arms sales. One leading Republican senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—who in 2017 voted against a resolution seeking to deny the Saudis military support for Yemen—now says Mohammed bin Salman has “got to go.” On Friday, Graham tweeted, “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement.”

What will likely ensue now is a fierce war of wills between Washington and Riyadh that could roil relations for months or even years.

For the Saudis, the weapon of choice in this geopolitical struggle will be multibillion-dollar contracts and, to a lesser extent, oil; for the Americans, it will be weapons and technology.

As Mohammed bin Salman fights for his kingdom and possibly his crown, hundreds of billions of dollars in promised contracts with U.S. companies are at stake over the crisis precipitated by the killing of Khashoggi. Saudi experts say the crown prince will use this leverage to the hilt by dangling the possibility of withholding those deals, which Trump openly covets.

“They clearly are threatening to do that,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA career official who has advised several presidents on Saudi-related issues. Riedel said that when Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—the administration’s main liaison to Mohammed bin Salman—and National Security Advisor John Bolton called the crown prince last week, what ensued was a tense exchange that centered on just such possibilities.

“My understanding is that was very difficult conversation. Mohammed bin Salman essentially threatened that if you try to sanction us, we will strike back. Of course, a lot of that is completely bluff. He cannot buy a Russian engine and put it in an F-15. But there are other things he can do.”

Cutting oil exports—once the Saudi weapon of choice—is not as effective as it used to be, even though Saudi Arabia’s role as a major oil producer is crucial as Trump increases economic pressure on Iran. If Riyadh slashed oil exports, that would only hurt the Saudi economy the most when it can least afford it, at a time when Mohammed bin Salman is fighting an expensive war in Yemen; it would also accelerate the move of other nations, especially the United States, away from Saudi oil as an energy resource.

But Mohammed bin Salman himself has noted that as part of his Vision 2030 plan to modernize Saudi Arabia he has pledged some $400 billion in total contracts with the United States, including $110 billion in arms deals with the Defense Department. He has said the pledge is largely bound up with his personal affection for Trump.

“When President Trump became president, we’ve changed our armament strategy again for the next 10 years to put more than 60 percent with the United States of America,” the crown prince told Bloomberg Oct. 5, just as Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance was becoming news. “That’s why we’ve created the $400 billion in opportunities, armaments and investment opportunities, and other trade opportunities. So this is a good achievement for President Trump, for Saudi Arabia.”

The Saudis appeared to drive home that point on Tuesday, when a long-expected $100 million pledged to help stabilize Syria—which had been committed over the summer—finally arrived in U.S. accounts, just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Riyadh to meet with King Salman, according to the New York Times.

On the face of it, Trump and the Congress would seem to enjoy far more leverage than Mohammed bin Salman over the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Though only a small amount of the $110 billion in promised arms contracts from Riyadh has materialized, the Saudis need some of that weaponry badly, especially to wage their war in Yemen. And most of it can only be purchased from the United States. Though Trump has raised the fear repeatedly in recent weeks that Riyadh might back out and deal instead with Russia or China, in practice that would be nearly impossible, because their already U.S.-built military apparatus is not interoperable with Russian or Chinese weaponry.

But a great many of those Saudi purchases are mainly for goodwill and influence; Riyadh could decide to withdraw them.

“Saudi Arabia is always buying weapons as an insurance policy,” said Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar at the Institute for Gulf Affairs. “They have not used them.”

And Trump, by bluntly staking his argument for strong Saudi ties on the jobs he says all that Saudi money is supporting, has left himself open to Saudi retaliation through contract delays.

In a slew of interviews scheduled before the midterm elections next month, Trump has clearly made this issue—jobs—his main argument in favor of withholding judgement over the death of Khashoggi, far more than Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance against Iran.

The $110 billion arms deal is “the largest order ever given by an outside country,” he told Fox Business this week. Earlier he told 60 Minutes: “I tell you what I don’t wanna do. Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon … I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that.”

But few of the military contracts pledged in May 2017 have fully materialized a year and a half later—and that could give Riyadh more leverage, experts say.

According to Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael, out of the $110 billion in potential deals planned over the next 10 years—indicated in a 2017 “Memorandum of Intent” signed by both parties—Saudi Arabia now has contracts only for around $14.5 billion. These sales include helicopters, tanks, ships, weapons, and training.

Slow progress on finalizing the arms deals is not necessarily an indication that the Saudis are dragging their feet. It is normal for foreign military sales to take years to materialize for any number of reasons: Pentagon bureaucracy, the extensive State Department vetting process, or an issue with the U.S. production line. The initial contract value is just an estimate and may turn out to be significantly lower than promised.

But by framing the issue as one of contracts, Trump has also left himself vulnerable to retaliation by Congress. Khashoggi’s death has led several lawmakers to renew calls to block the rest of the $110 billion in pledged arms sales. On Wednesday, Rep. Jim McGovern, the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, joined with several Democratic and Republican co-sponsors to introduce a bill to prohibit all military sales and aid to Saudi Arabia unless the secretary of state determines that the Saudi regime did not order Kashoggi’s death. Senate legislation is also expected.

It’s not clear that these efforts have much weight without the administration’s support.

Trump, who has pledged “severe punishment” for the Saudis if it turns out to be true that Khashoggi was killed by agents of Mohammed bin Salman at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, has at the very least raised the price Riyadh must pay to buy peace again: more signed contracts.

“I think the withdrawal of the treasury secretary from the conference is a big development,” Riedel said. “For two and a half weeks, the Trump administration tried to pretend that business as usual was just going to go on. There is a growing realization that they have to find some way to put distance between themselves and Mohammed bin Salman.”

Some critics of the Saudi regime say that if he pays Trump’s price—and withstands a move against his stature among the royal family at home—the crown prince might just ride the crisis out, especially if he winds down his war in Yemen. Indeed, according to U.S. government sources, only a small percentage of the $14.5 billion contracted so far and the $110 billion pledged is intended for use in that war.

A bipartisan group of senators is already planning to target U.S. intelligence support and munitions for the Yemen war, repeating an effort they almost succeeded at more than a year ago—and this time they have reason to think they’ll succeed. “The tide is definitely turning,” said Chris Harris, a spokesman for Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) who sponsored the resolution that failed last year. “The Saudi explanations have become less and less believable.”

Among the senators who have clearly changed their views is Graham, who voted against Murphy’s resolution last year, saying that while Saudi Arabia had “real” internal problems and he didn’t trust Riyadh, it deserved U.S. aid because it has shared life-saving intelligence and is a hedge on Iran and “all in” against the Islamic State.

This week, by contrast, an outraged Graham promised to “sanction the hell” out of Saudi Arabia.

Even so, despite the now-overwhelming evidence that the Saudi regime had Khashoggi killed in the most gruesome fashion, the Trump White House and the Pentagon are almost certain to argue that the relationship is too valuable to spare. In recent days, all senior administration officials have gone out of their way to temporize over Saudi culpability. Defense Secretary James Mattis said he needs to wait for “the facts,” while Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford said it’s “premature to speculate.”

After returning from his trip to Turkey, where he almost certainly was presented with solid evidence of Saudi culpability in Khashoggi’s killing, Pompeo said it’s important to keep in mind the bigger picture—the long-term “financial” and “governmental” relationship with the Saudis. “We have a long—since 1932—a long strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

What this means, said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution, is that “we are essentially neutral hostages to each other. … I think we have as much leverage over them as they do over us.”

Still, O’Hanlon said: “I actually think we are in a position we could use this Khashoggi tragedy to really force the Saudis to revamp their policy on the Yemen war. … I think it’s the most realistic way to do something that’s on a scale with the depravity of what they do in Istanbul.”

For Mohammed bin Salman’s part—if his international isolation continues—he may have little choice but to wind down the war just to survive. “They can end this war and cut their losses,” said Ahmed. “They’re running out of money.”

Update, Oct. 19, 2018: This article was updated to add new details in the Khashoggi case and response from the White House.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman