The suspected murder of Jamal Khashoggi has caused a stir in the U.S. and across the world. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and contributor to The Wasington Post, is thought to have been killed by his native Saudi Arabian government while inside their embassy in Turkey. Although no evidence has yet been produced to confirm the allegations, it would be no shock if the notoriously repressive and human rights abusing House of Saud has decided to abuse human rights once again, and kill a journalist known for criticizing their regime.
While most are willing to ignore the vast majority of Saudi indiscretions, the Khashoggi case seems to have hit a nerve. Perhaps some thought the hip new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was genuine about his supposedly “progressive” new reforms, only to have their hopes dashed. For others, the Saudi-led war in Yemen has simply become so horrific that people are finally willing to turn away from the bloody kingdom. Or it could be that the enthusiastically revitalized camaraderie between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that has people squirming in their seats because the Trump administration may have become a little too friendly with the bully in the playground.
President Trump has made it a major point of his foreign policy to promote U.S.-Saudi relations, prioritizing economic interests over human rights concerns. From the beginning, Trump has positioned himself as a businessman whose first priority is U.S. financial health, and in many respects he is succeeding at this agenda. But with Khashoggi’s disappearance, Americans may be forced to finally ask themselves if they are striking the right balance between profit and principle.
It appears that much in the Middle East boils down to a choice between two cliques: Iran and its allies, or Saudi Arabia and its allies. In another episode of rivalry between these two powers in their interminable cold war, Turkey (Iran ally) has accused Saudi Arabia of killing Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia has denied the claim and shot back counter-accusations on its Al Arabiya news outlet of “fake news” pushed by Iran-backed Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi allies quickly weighed in to support the key player, while others appeared terrified to upset the delicate balance of relations in the region.
So did Saudi Arabia do the deed, or is this a setup to discredit the kingdom, as the House of Saud would have us believe? The Trump administration is surely crossing its fingers that the Sauds weren’t stupid enough to actually murder Khashoggi, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has arrived in the kingdom to make sure of it.
The U.S. has come firmly down on the side of Saudi Arabia in its rivalry with Iran – but what makes Iran worthy of membership to the “Axis of Evil” while the Sauds remain in U.S. favor? No, it’s not because Iran encourages terrorism, because so does Saudi Arabia. The answer is money, of course. Iran ain’t got none, but the Sauds have plenty to share with their friends.
Trump and Saudi Arabia
Since winning the presidency, Trump has renewed the alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. He famously made his first presidential overseas trip to the country, where he announced a $110 billion arms deal that would bring “hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.” Then in March, Trump received Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House, where the president showed off $12.5 billion in finalized military sales to the press.
While arms sales on a huge scale may be good for American business interests, the moral cost may be starting to weigh on some minds. Those weapons, as well as other military support, have been used to prop up the Saudis in one of their proxy conflicts with Iran – also known as the civil war in Yemen.
While support for the war began under President Obama, who agreed to a 2015 weapons deal worth $1.29 billion, the Trump administration upped the ante with massive arms sales as well as logistical support, intelligence, and a number of 2017 direct U.S. operations. The administration reaffirmed its cooperation with the Saudi led coalition in Yemen in September, despite calls that the war has turned into a humanitarian crisis with high rates of noncombatant deaths.
Various stories have emerged about the damage that U.S. manufactured weapons have done to Yemeni civilians. It was reported by The New Yorker that shortly before President Trump took office, a bomb made by U.S. manufacturer Raytheon killed and injured hundreds of mourners at a funeral – many of whom were negotiators sympathetic to the Saudi/U.S. side. A few months later, a school bus was hit during a Saudi airstrike, killing 51 people, including 40 children, and allegedly the weapon was manufactured in the U.S. by Lockheed Martin.
Money v Conscience
President Trump has been openly reluctant to point the finger at Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s disappearance for economic reasons. “Well, I think that [applying sanctions] would be hurting us,” he said to reporters in the Oval Office, continuing:
“We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before. Part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems, and everybody’s wanting them, and frankly I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
Trump suggested that Khashoggi could be the victim of “rogue killers,” later tweeting:
Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened “to our Saudi Arabian citizen.” He said that they are working closely with Turkey to find answer. I am immediately sending our Secretary of State to meet with King!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 15, 2018
“I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump said to the Associated Press. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.” He and his staff also told reporters at the White House that it was necessary to fully investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance before taking punitive measures – a luxury not afforded to U.S. enemies Syria or Russia over recent chemical weapon allegations.
The president added that it would be “very foolish” to cancel the $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis, suggesting that America would be punishing itself by losing out economically to Russia and China. He told Leslie Stahl of 60 minutes, “I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that. And you know what, there are other ways of punishing.” What non-economic methods could be used to discipline Saudi Arabia are unknown, but the kingdom has already threatened to hit back against any measures taken against it. “The kingdom … affirms that if it receives any action, it will respond with greater action, and that the kingdom’s economy has an influential and vital role in the global economy,” an unnamed source told the state run Saudi Press Agency.
Donald Trump understands money. As a businessman, his interests are financial and he has never denied that his priorities are economic – and many Americans thank him for it. But as the U.S. no longer needs to rely on Saudi oil, is the money from arms deals enough to justify such a distasteful alliance?
Stay tuned, as Liberty Nation’s economics expert Andrew Moran will be analyzing the financial implications of a potential break with Saudi Arabia.