Mysterious Disappearance of Saudi Journalist Could Endanger U.S.-Saudi Relationship

Intelligence

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015. (Photo Credit: State Department)

Next week in Washington, DC, the National Press Club will host the first Gulf International Conference, the first of what the think tank Gulf International Forum hopes to be an annual event. When a friend of mine broadcast an announcement of the event, he stated that the forum, an almost two-year-old think tank linked to the government of Qatar, had hoped to have Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a participant.

Barring a miracle, he won’t be appearing.

Did Jamal Khashoggi’s criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cost him his life?

On October 2, Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and recent Washington Post columnist who has been in “self-imposed exile” in the U.S., entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, supposedly to obtain papers that he needed to marry his fiancee. If the (heavily edited and selective) surveillance tapes provided by the Turkish government are to be believed, he never came out…but a team of 15 Saudis arrived in Turkey and departed on two private jets the same day.

In March, Khashoggi told Al Jazeera television that he left Saudi Arabia because he didn’t “want to be arrested,” due to his sharp criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who prefers to be called MBS. Friends and allies of Khashoggi, as well as the Turkish government, are charging that he was murdered and dismembered inside the consulate on the orders of MBS himself.

a bipartisan group of u.s. senators is calling for an investigation

U.S. intelligence officials are telling reporters, and Senators the same story. After a Wednesday afternoon briefing, a bipartisan group—Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ranking Member Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)—sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting an investigation of Saudi Arabia under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The investigation would cover “the highest members of the regime,” including MBS.

The Magnitsky Act is the law that led to the infamous “Trump Tower” meeting in June 2016 when Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was expected to deliver damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Instead, she used her time to argue against the law, which was originally passed to target Russian oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin.

The letter obliges the president to open this investigation. If Saudi Arabia is found to have killed Khashoggi, it could lead to the imposition of personal sanctions against MBS and his closest associates. This would be a blow to the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which is vitally important to our interests in the region.

Khashoggi’s murder spells the end of Mohammed bin Salman’s charm offensive

For his part, MBS predictably claims Saudi Arabia is not behind Khashoggi’s disappearance, and has pledged to allow Turkish investigators to search the consulate. He really has little other choice. Khashoggi was (or is) one of the regime’s harshest critics. His criticism stings so much because he has been close to the Saudi royal family for so long. His disappearance in such a manner puts MBS and the Saudi government in a tough spot.

Mohammed bin Salman has been working hard to portray himself as a modern reformer. As the new face of Saudia Arabia, he was supposed to soften the kingdom’s image. The sight of women driving cars in Riyadh was certainly something that took many by surprise, but this incident, if proven true, would be a major setback for the MBS charm offensive.

Qatar could be the smokescreen for Khashoggi’s disappearance

I suspect Saudi Arabia’s disagreements with Qatar may be part of the issue here. Last year, many members of the Gulf Cooperation Council severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, home to a major U.S. airbase, over supposed Qatari support for terrorism and its softening of relations with Iran. Kuwait has been trying to resolve the issue diplomatically, and Qatar’s military chief of staff attended the GCC Supreme Military Committee meeting in Kuwait last month.

If MBS did indeed have Khashoggi killed, I predict he will try to justify his actions by charging that the journalist was acting as an agent of Qatar. Khashoggi frequently aired his criticisms on Al Jazeera, owned by the Qatari government, and he was to appear at a forum hosted by the Qatar-aligned Gulf International Forum. That’s flimsy evidence itself, but MBS will build it into a larger case I’m sure.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Turkey has edited their surveillance tapes in such a manner as to make it look as though Khashoggi died at the hands of a Saudi assassination squad when in fact Turkey itself is responsible for his disappearance.

But the leaks of intelligence intercepts are making that possibility seem quite remote.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

More in Intelligence