The Implications of Khashoggi’s Death for Saudi Arabia

A great deal of uncertainty still surrounds the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. CSIS Middle East Program director Jon B. Alterman outlines what we know about this case and what developments and responses we can expect to see in the coming weeks.

Q1: What Do We Know about What Happened to Jamal Khashoggi?

A1: The Saudi government has now admitted that Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the consulate. Most of the other details are coming from Turkish intelligence and are filtered through the Turkish press, some of which are quite lurid about what happened in the consulate. However, we don't know that everything that's been reported is true, and we don't know what investigators found.

We will certainly know more in due time, and I strongly suspect that some of what we think we know now will turn out not to be true. Some of what we know is likely to be contested. Both intent and direction are likely to be among the hardest to prove.

Q2: This is the latest of a series of controversial moves by Saudi Arabia. Why is this event provoking a strong western response compared to other events?

A2: There is something about the graphic nature of the details that Turkish intelligence have leaked that gives this story a special resonance: hearing about his fiancée waiting outside the embassy, hearing about the bone saw, and the purported tape of the writer being tortured. I think those details give this story an immediacy it wouldn't otherwise have. Another piece of this is that a lot of people working on Saudi Arabia knew Jamal Khashoggi, and I suspect a number of people in the U.S. government must have met him. Third, journalists are feeling especially besieged these days, and he wrote for the Washington Post, which is the hometown paper of the U.S. government. Overall, this isn't abstract for a lot of people who matter. It has become very personal. If you combine the personal aspects of the individual with the lurid aspects of his reported death, I think that combination begins to explain why so many people are paying attention.

Q3: What factors are influencing Turkey’s decisionmaking on this issue?

A3: I'm not sure there's a single driver of the Turkish response. Turkey may be trying to extract some sort of payment from Saudi Arabia in exchange for not revealing some of the most damning evidence, or Turkey may be seeking to get support from others who want to tarnish Saudi Arabia's image.

Turkey is likely to be feeling that its sovereignty was violated and that it's unacceptable for people to insult Turkey in this way. It’s a matter of national pride on the Turkish side that they don't want to be pushed around. After all, Turkey has been hosting a lot of dissidents from the Arab world for quite some time, and Istanbul is their safe haven. In addition, many in Turkey think that Saudi Arabia should not be leading the Muslim world; they think that Turkey should, as it did for many centuries. I think this is going to be an issue in Turkish-Saudi relations for some time to come.

Q4: Saudi Arabia has yet to release a report regarding this issue. What are the considerations of the Saudi government? How does this affect the internal dynamics of the royal family?

A4: It's unclear exactly what the Saudi report will say when it comes out, and it's unclear how believable it will be. The first Saudi explanation—that he walked out of the consulate—wasn’t believable, and current Saudi explanation—that he died in a fistfight—isn't especially believable, either. To my mind, the response to the report will also shape what the impact of this all will be inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed bin Salman has been embraced as a change agent. He was widely seen not only as somebody who was leading the country toward greater prosperity but also as one who was able to heal the breach that had opened between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Part of Vision 2030 is convincing people that Saudi Arabia is a place that lives by observable rules under which they can make money. This event is not necessarily the death knell for Vision 2030, but people have to be persuaded that there's a way forward. If Saudi Arabia seems not to operate under a logical framework, a lot of people in the business community will think twice about investing the necessary money to make Vision 2030 work.

And if it turns out that, in fact, the world doesn't want to deal with Mohammed bin Salman anymore, and if it turns out that rather than healing the breach he's deepened it, I think the royal family in Saudi Arabia is going to have to think about what his role needs to be going forward. After all, Saudi Arabia is a family business, and the most important part of the family business is staying in business. What effect this all has on global opinion is going to shape what effect it has inside the kingdom.

Q5: What tools does the United States have to respond to Jamal Khashoggi’s death?

A5: The United States can respond in many ways. There can be an executive branch reaction, which I expect to be fairly limited in scope. Congress could also respond. Several groups have issues with Saudi Arabia, many of whom have a voice in Congress, and this event may unite them and give them a rallying point. There's the threat of punishment through the Global Magnitsky Act, but I'm not sure we're going to have clear enough evidence to pursue those kinds of consequences. I have a hard time believing that the U.S. government is going to sanction Saudi Arabia. We have a very broad and very deep relationship that encompasses military issues, intelligence issues, financial and commercial issues, and educational issues. So, I don't think we're on the verge of sanctions, but I also think it is hard to believe there won't be consequences.

I also think U.S. businesses are likely to respond, especially if there's sustained congressional pressure. Mohammed bin Salman was seen as the great hope for change in Saudi Arabia, and that drew a lot of business interest. If there's a sense that Saudi Arabia is not going to change the way people thought of it, or that Mohammed bin Salman is a liability rather than an asset, you may see a lot of U.S. business interest in Saudi Arabia dry up. That may be the most consequential impact of all given the importance that Saudi Arabia has attached to its economic transformation.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program