The Khashoggi Murder and US Middle East Strategy in 2019

Every so often an unexpected development leaves a significant imprint on US strategy in the Middle East. The October 2, 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has rattled the already weak foundations of the Trump Administration’s approach to the region. But will there be long-term geopolitical implications from this murder when the dust fully settles?

This event occurred during a leadership crisis in both Washington and Riyadh and highlighted the favoritism that President Donald Trump has clearly shown to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). While media coverage of the murder has somewhat receded, the long-term implications of Khashoggi’s killing continue to tacitly impact US strategy—or lack thereof—in the Middle East.

The Evolving US-Saudi Relationship

US-Saudi relations have long revolved around oil and security, a transactional interaction between a superpower looking to control energy resources and a royal family striving to secure its rule. For decades before the Khashoggi murder, this relationship was tested and survived consequential developments such as the 1973 Saudi oil embargo and the September 2011 attacks on the United States, in which 15 of the 19 participants were Saudi nationals. The US approach toward the Arab Spring––when Washington allowed the Egyptian Mubarak regime to collapse––and the signing of the Iran nuclear deal under President Barack Obama further strained this relationship and left it engulfed in mistrust. The rise of MbS tested the limits of this transactional relationship for the first time, in 2015, when Saudi Arabia launched the war in Yemen without explicit US consent. The Obama White House, looking to retreat from the Middle East, appeared to sanction the rise of an aggressive Saudi foreign policy without the checks that traditionally marked US policy toward Saudi Arabia.

The rise of MbS tested the limits of this transactional relationship for the first time, in 2015, when Saudi Arabia launched the war in Yemen without explicit US consent.

The deep skepticism that the Washington political establishment has gradually developed toward MbS since 2015 did not prevent the young prince from cultivating a special relationship with Trump via his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. This helped MbS to consolidate power at home. However, the period leading up to the Khashoggi murder might have caused irreversible damage to current US-Saudi relations. First, the US political establishment seemingly no longer trusts Saudi intentions or believes that the interests of Washington and Riyadh are necessarily aligned anymore. Neither is the kingdom under MbS considered to be a source of regional stability, which significantly modifies US calculations in the Middle East. In addition, Washington cannot rely on a steady hand in Riyadh that may also make an unpredictable move at home or abroad. Second, and for the first time in the history of this relationship, the United States picked sides in the struggle of power inside the Saudi royal family. Ousting the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, was a clear message from MbS that he is the only interlocutor to define US-Saudi relations. The balance that Washington has long maintained with different branches of the Saudi royal family is arguably now gone and might be difficult to restore. Moreover, the political establishment in Washington also believes that MbS is bypassing the traditional communication channels between the two countries and resorting instead to backdoor discussions with Kushner. The reputation crisis MbS has suffered in Washington might be difficult to reverse in the foreseeable future, a fact that is likely to complicate implementing the core of the Trump Administration’s Middle East policy.

The reputation crisis MbS has suffered in Washington might be difficult to reverse in the foreseeable future, a fact that is likely to complicate implementing the core of the Trump Administration’s Middle East policy.

Beyond the political and personal dimensions, during the last few months Trump has invoked two motivations to give MbS a pass on the Khashoggi murder: global oil prices and the US arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

The American dependence on Saudi oil has decreased by half since the 1990s. According to the US Energy Information Administration, from January to September 2018 the United States imported on average 861,000 barrels of oil daily from Saudi Arabia, or 11 percent of its total oil imports of 7.9 million barrels per day (bpd). This is down from 1.42 million bpd for the same period in 2012 and 1.83 million in 1991. Oil prices fell more than 25 percent since the Khashoggi murder, as Riyadh became predisposed to please Trump and remind him of the benefits of the transactional relationship between the two countries. Trump returned the favor and boasted on Twitter that the reduction in the global oil price is “a big tax cut for America and the world.” However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to contradict Trump’s core argument, noting this week that oil prices did not and will not influence the US administration’s response to the Khashoggi murder.

Pressuring Riyadh to increase its oil output could end up being a setback for energy companies at home because, as of this year, the United States became the world’s largest oil producer. Trump is intentionally or unintentionally empowering Riyadh and Moscow—also a major oil producer and exporter—to jointly dictate the global oil market instead of playing a proactive role that could shield the United States from price fluctuations given the volatility of the global system. Despite the shale oil revolution, the United States continues to rely on Saudi crude oil for ground and air transportation. In addition, by halting progress on the green car industry, Trump might be indirectly extending the US reliance on Saudi oil while expecting Riyadh to cover the cost of imposing US sanctions on Tehran.

It has been abundantly clear that President Trump is overstating the economic benefits of the US arms deals with Saudi Arabia, including claims that the kingdom will buy $110 billion worth of arms and invest $450 billion in other economic sectors.

Moreover, it has been abundantly clear that President Trump is overstating the economic benefits of the US arms deals with Saudi Arabia, including claims that the kingdom will buy $110 billion worth of arms and invest $450 billion in other economic sectors. Saudi Arabia accounted for 18 percent of total US arms sales ($9 billion) between 2013 and 2017 and remains the number one weapons buyer from the United States; however, these numbers are expected to decline in 2019. Before the Khashoggi murder, Riyadh had followed up only on $14.5 billion of purchases from the $110 billion pledges made to Trump during his visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. On November 28, and after two years of discussions, the US State Department confirmed that Saudi Arabia signed a letter of offer and acceptance, worth $15 billion, to acquire the THAAD missile system from Lockheed Martin. Major US defense contractors are expressing concern that it might be increasingly difficult to pass these arms deals in Congress, given the mounting pressure on the White House to alter its policy toward Saudi Arabia. According to the latest estimates, US private defense contractors make up less than 0.5 percent of the total US labor force, and these job opportunities are not dependent on a US arms deal to Saudi Arabia.

Impact on Regional Alliances

The Trump Administration’s approach in the past two years has been to reverse the US rapprochement with Iran, which started under the Obama Administration, and to rekindle relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia as the bedrock of an alliance against Tehran. However, achieving this goal was hindered—ironically—by actions taken by both Trump and MbS. The US president has weakened his alliances, and subsequently the international pressure on the Iranian regime, by provoking trade wars with the European Union and China. Relations between Washington and Moscow are also frozen in large part due to the US investigation into potential collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in the 2016 presidential election. This complicates the Trump Administration’s original plan to have Moscow restrain Tehran in Syria. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s protracted war in Yemen has also allowed Iran to expand its foothold in that war torn country.

Despite their strong relationship, the Trump Administration and the Saudi leadership do not share the same vision of regional alliances. Last March, MbS reportedly described Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil” along with Iran and hardline Islamist groups. The Khashoggi murder might make it more difficult for Trump to balance his relations with both Riyadh and Ankara.

In what was potentially an attempt to appease Turkey’s demand for an international investigation into the Khashoggi murder, Trump was inclined to pull out the card of withdrawing US troops from Syria. Ankara has since shifted attention away from the Khashoggi investigation and is focused on striking a deal with Trump on Syria. Indeed, the Khashoggi affair triggered a rapprochement between Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which was reinforced after Ankara released the American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson as an electoral boost for Trump on the eve of the US midterm elections. Riyadh’s interest in Syria has significantly decreased in the past few months as Saudi authorities shifted priorities since the Khashoggi murder, thus leaving a US Middle East policy—already in disarray—with limited options in Syria. If Erdoğan does not get what he wants from a looming US withdrawal from Syria, he would most likely revive the public discussions over the Khashoggi investigation.

If Erdoğan does not get what he wants from a looming US withdrawal from Syria, he would most likely revive the public discussions over the Khashoggi investigation.  

Moreover, in addition to the Israeli elections scheduled for April, the Khashoggi murder has shelved the already stalled US plan to advance negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Neither Trump nor MbS want to be seen as striking a deal on a key regional issue. With pressure mounting in Congress, Trump has been distancing himself publicly from the Saudi crown prince. Further, the last thing a weakened MbS needs right now is to give the impression of selling short the Palestinian cause. The White House is hence unable to deliver on its purported signature regional initiative, which was meant to cement an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran.

US Middle East Strategy in 2019

The US president’s hasty decision on Syria last December was one of the unintended consequences of the Khashoggi murder as it reopened the communication line between Trump and Erdoğan. These two issues—the withdrawal from Syria and the Khashoggi affair—are expected to cast a cloud over Washington’s Middle East strategy in 2019, rendering it even more ineffective and incoherent. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton embarked on a trip to the Middle East to pick up the pieces of a fractured US strategy, but their efforts lacked clarity for what might come next. This ambiguity is expected to continue in 2019 as Trump’s foreign policy will be largely shaped by his political woes at home.

The Khashoggi murder had two components: a criminal investigation that incriminates key Saudi officials, and a political dimension that was meant to set a political price for MbS to pay to stay in power. Both these tracks have entered murky territory in recent weeks, as the Trump Administration is struggling to persuade both Riyadh and the US Congress to accept a transparent Saudi investigation that relieves MbS from any wrongdoing but ensnares his key aides. The debate that surfaced last October and November regarding a Saudi acceptance of ending the war in Yemen, resolve the dispute with Qatar, and relax measures taken against Saudi dissidents does not seem to be on the table anymore. Riyadh has merely frozen the war in Yemen and the crisis with Qatar while increasing arrests of Saudi citizens and initiating a cosmetic government shake-up instead of expanding the royal family’s powers beyond MbS. US General Anthony Zinni, tasked with helping to resolve the Gulf crisis, resigned this week and hopes of a breakthrough in Yemen are gradually fading. The free pass Trump is giving to MbS, coupled with Washington’s inability to walk back Trump’s Syria withdrawal decision, will likely haunt US Middle East strategy in 2019.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here