Who Will Hold Saudi Feet to the Fire?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It is now clear the Trump administration will not be holding Saudi feet to the fire over the disappearance of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Instead, it’s looking to give them an off-ramp, a route to escape responsibility.

Having waffled between promising “severe punishment” for any official Saudi involvement and speculating about “rogue killers,” President Trump finally revealed his own mind on Tuesday: he compared the international pressure on Riyadh to the allegations of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh ahead of his confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Since we know where Trump stood on Kavanaugh, it is safe to assume he has decided, before the conclusion of investigations in Riyadh and Istanbul, that the Saudi authorities are blameless. 

Any hope that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would play bad cop to the president’s good cop during a brief visit to Riyadh was belied by Pompeo’s grip-and-grin photo-ops with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, followed by a statement endorsing their “serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability.”

This flies in the face of Saudi about-turns over the facts of the case – remember, Prince Mohammed initially claimed Khashoggi had left the consulate in Istanbul shortly after entering it. A revised narrative from Riyadh is that the Washington Post columnist was the victim of a botched interrogation in the consulate.

But if the Trump administration is eager to give the Saudis the benefit of the doubt, there is some reassurance to be had from the continuing pressure being applied from other quarters – an unlikely, but welcome, assortment of politicians, diplomats, human-rights organizations, free-speech activists, journalists, and bloggers. In time, some of them will lose enthusiasm and stamina, but others will likely keep pressing for answers.

Even as Trump was filling out his clean chit for the Saudis, other prominent American leaders – his fellow Republicans among them – were speaking bluntly. The most striking among them was Senator Lindsey Graham, long a dependable Saudi ally in Washington. In an interview with Fox News, Graham directly accused the crown prince, better known by his initials MBS, of complicity in the Khashoggi affair. “This guy is a wrecking ball, he had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey, and to expect me to ignore it, I feel used and abused,” he said.

Other senior senators have called on the president to order an investigation, and some have recommended suspending the sale of arms to the kingdom, but none has gone as far as Graham, who urged Trump to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia,” adding that MBS has “gotta go.”

Almost as striking, business leaders have continued to distance themselves from MBS, by canceling their participation in his Future Investment Initiative conference, an event sometimes described as ‘Davos in the Desert.’

The crown prince has invested a great deal of his personal prestige in the event, which runs from Oct 23-25. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, he promised a major non-oil investment deal will be announced at the FII.

The latest in a roll-call of cancellations have come from HSBC Holdings Plc and Credit Suisse Group AG, who are among the event’s strategic partners, as well as Google. IMF chief Christine Lagarde has deferred a planned trip to Saudi Arabia, which included attending the FII. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is still scheduled to attend, but is under pressure to cancel.

Most of the FII’s media partners, including Bloomberg, have already pulled out. The press's interest in Khashoggi has only deepened with every passing day, not least because he was a journalist. While the Turkish newspapers have used their access to the investigation in Istanbul to report gruesome details of what they allege to be a murder, U.S. counterparts like Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal have pursued the story with reports that link some of the suspects revealed by the Turks to MBS’s personal security detail.

If more details emerge, Trump and the Saudis may find that controversies can no longer be so easily parked in the age of social media.

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.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.