Mattis and Von Der Leyen Pile Pressure on Saudi Arabia

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Saudi contingent at the Manama Dialogue, the annual security conference held in Bahrain’s capital over the weekend, knew to expect lots of questions about Jamal Khashoggi. From Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to researchers from Saudi think-tanks, they had their answers ready. Al-Jubeir dismissed as “fairly hysterical” the attention drawn by the murder of the Washington Post columnist in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. In private conversations, other delegates from the kingdom used stronger language, accusing the Western media of conspiring against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of being a cat’s paw for his ally (and Saudi bete noire) Qatar.

Al-Jubeir said the world should wait for the conclusion of the official investigations, in Riyadh and in Istanbul, before condemning his government. Other Saudi delegates expressed confidence that the inquiries would exonerate Prince Mohammed, better known by his initials MBS, and predicted that, by then, the world will have moved on to other stories. Several pointed to the headline-grabbing pipe-bomb plot in the U.S. as a sign that the process had already begun.

The world – or at least the part of it that was represented at the conference – seemed to have other ideas. In his keynote speech, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis preempted arguments that Khashoggi’s murder was a merely criminal matter, arguing that it “undermines regional stability.” The Saudi delegates who had dismissed President Donald Trump’s warnings of a stern punishment as political posturing for domestic consumption couldn’t easily ignore the words of a former military man, speaking to an audience of military men.

Mattis’s point was reinforced later that morning by German Foreign Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who cited the columnist’s murder in the context of the need for a balance between security and freedom: “Therefore, concerning the killing of Jamal Khashoggi: the circumstances must be fully investigated and brought to light, regardless of considerable political consequences. It is a question of human dignity, but also a question of credibility and an opportunity for trust and transparency. These values are the pillars a common future has to be built upon.”

By framing the need for justice as essential to the stability of the Middle East, and to the preservation of trust between allies, Mattis and von der Leyen elevated the Khashoggi affair beyond politics, and Saudi-Turkish rivalry. Even if the case recedes from the front pages, they implied, it will gnaw away at the relationships that keep the region safe.

Mattis didn’t discuss what action the U.S. might take if it’s unsatisfied with the investigations. But after Al-Jubeir dismissed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to suspend arms sales to the kingdom as irrelevant (since Saudi Arabia hasn’t been buying arms from Germany recently), von der Leyen warned there could be more to come. “There is a wider range [of actions] we are debating,” she said.

By the end of the conference, the Khashoggi affair was replaced by a fresh tragedy – the terrorist attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Mattis and von der Leyen had ensured that this would give the Saudis no relief.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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