Jamal Khashoggi and Our Fear of a Kingdom

BEN TAUBER: Jamal Khashoggi was a journalist whose progressive views and articles critical of the Saudi government led him to flee the country and enter into a self-imposed exile. On October 2, Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, with gruesome reports claiming he had been dismembered with a bone saw while still alive. And while a long list of Western private companies and government officials have pulled out of an upcoming Riyadh business summit to protest Khashoggi’s murder, President Trump has been reluctant to criticize the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, and has accepted the Saudi explanation that Khashoggi was accidentally killed in a fistfight as “credible.” Meanwhile, President Trump continues to tout Saudi Arabia as a key ally, as well as his (perhaps inflated) $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom.

This situation may bolster criticism of President Trump, accusing him of submitting to the Saudis and siding with autocracy over the free press. While this criticism may be valid, this story goes beyond the President’s usual and all-too-frequent missteps. First of all, if the West shuns investment into the Saudi economy to a sufficient degree it may cause the kingdom to simply seek the investment of Chinese businesses because China has no qualms about how political dissidents are treated. China is chomping at the bit to increase investment abroad and expand its businesses in its quest to become the foremost economic power. Potential Saudi countermeasures such as trading oil in yuan instead of the US dollar would have profound effects on the US economy and would grant China a substantial economic boost.

Furthermore, Saudi cooperation is key in the War on Terror as it maintains a large amount of regional influence. A destabilization of this partnership would certainly make our military ventures in the Middle East more costly and difficult. In addition, Saudi Arabia remains the best check on Iran, a nation with well-established anti-US interests, a desire to expand its influence in the region, and an ever-growing relationship with China. In this case, the lesser of two evils most definitely applies. In short, with the current state of global affairs, President Trump seems to have good reason for not wanting to jeopardize the US-Saudi relationship.

The solution, therefore, is to reduce US dependence on Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s economy is predicated on oil, and Mohammad bin Salman knows this as he has recently proposed a plan to modernize and diversify the Saudi economy by 2030. Aggressively pushing a domestic renewable energy agenda would eliminate one of our main dependencies on the kingdom, as it is currently the second biggest supplier of oil to the US. Doing so would make it much less costly to sanction Saudi Arabia for the killing of a US permanent resident, as Saudi economic retaliation would not have such a great effect. Likewise, as Saudi Arabia owns the US’s largest oil refinery, pushing renewable energy would apply a great deal of economic pressure to the kingdom even without sanctions.

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi represents a growing cockiness among the Saudi royal family, the testing of a theory that they can get away mostly unharmed because of the necessary role they play in the global economy. As this situation plays out, this theory has unfortunately been mostly true. The Trump administration must reduce the economic influence the kingdom has in the US by switching to renewable energy. Furthermore, the administration must back away from the vehemently pro-Saudi rhetoric pushed by individuals such as Jared Kushner in order to give other Gulf states the room to push back against Saudi regional dominance. Khashoggi’s death should be a watershed moment, a chance to truly evaluate our end goal with a nation that spits in the face of human rights. It should result in action that allows us to properly respond to such violations—without fear, without reservation.

Max Magid