It is undoubtedly one of the toughest foreign policy challenges the West has faced recently. How to balance moral outrage in the light of the disappearance and presumed killing of the self-exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi with cold political realities and calculations.
The circumstances of the disappearance and presumed killing may not be fully known, the in-depth investigation yet to begin, but what is at stake cannot be higher for the West and for the region.
On Tuesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet demanded that Saudi Arabia and Turkey reveal all that they know about the case.
She said the diplomatic inviolability of the consulate and the diplomatic immunity of officials should be waived during the investigation.
The Khashoggi family in Saudi Arabia issued a statement calling for an “independent and impartial international commission”.
Washington and major European capitals are in contact to coordinate a joint statement when the picture is clearer.
They have to act delicately and in secret more than in public. Any move will have consequences.
It is particularly tough for the US administration. US President Donald Trump prioritised relations with Riyadh and he is under mounting pressure to act after a bipartisan group of senators triggered global Magnitsky Act sanctions procedures last week.
Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was the man behind the bipartisan letter invoking a 2016 law to order a human rights investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance and presumed killing.
The Magnitsky legislation forces Trump to determine whether any country or individual responsible for the writer’s disappearance should be held accountable.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, another Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued for accountability if it proves true that Saudi operatives “went medieval” on Khashoggi.
“I believe the Trump administration will do something. The president has said that,” Rubio said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.
“But, if he doesn’t, Congress will. That I can tell you with 100 per cent certainty. With almost full unanimity, across the board, Republicans and Democrats, there will be a very strong congressional response,” Senator Rubio said.
Another Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jeff Flake was even more assertive. On ABC’s This Week, he expressed outrage. “I do think that arms sales will be affected,” also emphasising that US support for the war in Yemen could also be at risk.
“The arms sales have already been held for some time. The defence contractor that’s most interested in the most current [deal] was in my office two weeks ago before this happened, and I said, ‘Look, do not push this. If it came to a vote today in the Senate, it would fail,” he said.
Lindsey Graham, a prominent Republican senator, promised “hell to pay” if the allegations are true.
For Trump, any US reactions should avoid hindering a nearly $110 billion defence deal that he proudly pointed at privately and in the media as a great achievement. He called it “the largest order ever made” and said it would support 450,000 jobs domestically.
“That’s a tremendous order for our companies. It’s a tremendous order, really from an economic development standpoint,” he said.
However, the arms deal still must overcome opposition within the Senate, where Bob Menendez (New Jersey), the top-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, has put a hold on the transaction.
Trump has suggested “rogue killers” could be behind the disappearance and presumed killing of Mr Khashoggi in Turkey 2 October.
Speaking to reporters after a phone call with King Salman, he said the Saudi leader had firmly denied knowing what had happened to Khashoggi.
On Saturday, shortly after vowing to hand out a “severe punishment” as a response to the incident, Trump said he wants to preserve the $110 billion arms deal as Russia and China would rush in to sell their own armaments, potentially costing domestic jobs.
“It’s the best equipment in the world but if they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or they’re going to buy it from China or they’re going to buy it from other countries.”
“Russia and China wanted it very badly,” Trump said.
“In terms of the order of $110 billion — think of that, $110 billion — all they’re going to do is give it to other countries and I think that would be very foolish of our country,” he added.
Trump said other measures can be implemented as punishment.
“There are other things that we can do that would be very severe,” he said, adding that he would be meeting with his foreign policy and national security advisers to discuss the options.
The signs are Trump will do very little in this regard, leaving Congress to take the lead. If Democrats were to retake the House in November’s midterm elections, it is very plausible that they will act more decisively in the months ahead.
And if Trump is hesitant to give up the arm deals over Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and presumed killing, Europe is not forthcoming either.
The European Union has joined calls for a transparent investigation.
EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini briefed reporters after a meeting of the 28 foreign ministers.
“There was full consensus around the table on the fact that we expect transparency, we expect full clarity from investigations to be done by the Saudi authorities, together and in full co-operation with the Turkish authorities,” she said.
Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement emphasising that they were treating the case with “the utmost seriousness”.
The foreign ministers of the three countries demanded an investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance and called for a “detailed response” from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
“There needs to be a credible investigation to establish the truth about what happened, and — if relevant — to identify those bearing responsibility for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, and ensure that they are held to account,” the foreign ministers said in the joint statement.
However, one major element was missing from the joint statement that is the mention of potential actions the countries might take.
The three major European countries have not gone beyond casual remarks.
The economic factors are easy to see.
The total goods exports from the UK to Saudi Arabia in 2017 were worth about £4.2 billion, an increase of 120 per cent compared with 10 years earlier.
And in the first six months of 2017, Britain sold Riyadh military equipment worth about $1.4 billion, with thousands of British jobs dependent on the sales.
France is the second biggest exporter after Britain, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt came under attack from Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, who criticised the UK’s response to Khashoggi’s disappearance and presumed killing.
The Labour MP said there had been “nothing but pusillanimous mutterings” from Hunt over the disappearance.
“They’re playing catch-up with Donald Trump when it comes to condemnation of this and actually taking action and being prepared to stand firm,” she said.
While US pressure on Trump has been bipartisan, in Europe, calls for accountability have mostly come from opposition parties.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said the Khashoggi case and German exports to Riyadh were “two unrelated things”.
Nonetheless, several high-profile speakers and sponsors have pulled out of the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh later this month.
The withdrawals from the event, dubbed “Davos in the Desert”, including Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motor Company, Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of Uber, Lynn Forester de Rothschild, CEO of EL Rothschild, Arianna Huffington, founder of Thrive Global, Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock Inc, Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim and Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group who also halted talks over a $1bn Saudi investment in Virgin space firms, and suspended directorships in two tourism projects.
Branson said in a statement, “what has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government.”
“We have asked for more information from the authorities in Saudi and to clarify their position in relation to Mr Khashoggi,” he added.
Also, various media firms have pulled out from the event, including The New York Times who pulled out as a media sponsor, The Financial Times, Bloomberg and CNN.
The Economist editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes will not participate and neither will Andrew Ross Sorkin, a CNBC anchor and New York Times business journalist, and Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner of The Los Angeles Times.
The conference organisers removed all the names of attendees from its Website as the number of cancellations grew.
The cruel irony is that with the story unfolding, and the difficulty to hide the truth, the Khashoggi case might prove to be a game changer in Saudi relations with the West.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A game changer