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Saudi mystery tests U.S. relationship

October 12, 2018

As the mystery continues to swirl around missing Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, what’s already become clear is how much is at stake for Saudi Arabia’s young leader and a foreign policy that’s testing the boundaries of his coveted relationship with the U.S.

Donald Trump’s presidency has emboldened Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to take risks abroad and clamp down on dissent at home, including the incarceration of fellow royals and millionaires at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh as well as the activists criticizing his leadership.

But the kingdom is now facing the kind of pressure from Washington rarely seen over its economic boycott of fellow U.S. ally Qatar or the war on Yemen that’s led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Saudi government has said it had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance at its consulate in Istanbul. American lawmakers, though, pushed Trump to raise the issue with the Saudis.

More than 20 Republican and Democratic senators instructed Trump to order an investigation under legislation that authorizes imposition of sanctions for perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross human rights violations.

Trump said on “Fox & Friends” Thursday the United States is being “very tough” as it looks into the case, adding “we have investigators over there and we’re working with Turkey” and with Saudi Arabia.

“We want to find out what happened,” Trump said. “He went in, and it doesn’t look like he came out. It certainly doesn’t look like he’s around.”

The president did not provide details on a U.S. investigation.

The rapid turn of events signals how, for the first time since Prince Mohammed consolidated his power two years ago, senators from Trump’s own party are threatening Riyadh with serious economic and political pressure.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a longtime critic of the Saudi government, has said he’ll try to force a vote in the Senate blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said it would be time for the U.S. to rethink its relationship with Saudi Arabia if it turned out Khashoggi was lured to his death by the Saudis.

Trump expressed reservations about withholding arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Speaking with “Fox News @ Night” Wednesday night, Trump warned such a move “would be hurting us.”

“We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country,” Trump said. “We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before.”

Support for Saudi Arabia in the U.S. Senate is “the lowest ever,” said Republican Senator Bob Corker, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee. The controversy over Khashoggi threats to “drop it off a cliff,” he told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

The question is whether the affair becomes a larger tipping point for the de facto Saudi ruler, if not a rupture in his bond with the U.S.

One side of Prince Mohammed is the leader trying to transform an ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom. The other is a 33-year-old who some western diplomats say is increasingly becoming a loose cannon and upending the country’s role as a predictable partner.

The unwavering support that Trump has extended to Prince Mohammed may not last if the prince doesn’t explain what happened to Khashoggi — irrespective of who or what was behind his disappearance, said Kamran Bokhari, senior lecturer on Middle Eastern geopolitics at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute.

The longer it persists, the harder it gets for the Saudis to ignore what’s being ascribed as a major blunder.

“If Khashoggi is not released and if this situation turns ugly and the rumors of his death are true, it will really undermine the ability of Washington to continue doing business with Riyadh,” Bokhari said. Among all the foreign policy crises that have rocked Saudi Arabia under Prince Salman, Khashoggi’s case could be the most “black-and-white moral issue,” he added.

The one undisputed fact is that Khashoggi, 59, was seen walking into the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2 and wasn’t seen leaving it.

Turkish officials have said he was murdered inside the building, which the Saudis have vehemently denied. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told them to provide evidence that Khashoggi left of his own free will, a claim backed by Prince Mohammed in an interview with Bloomberg News last week.

In the latest twist, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence services intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture Khashoggi, a columnist for the newspaper. It cited a person familiar with the communications, which were intercepted before he vanished.

Trump said he was “very concerned” over Khashoggi’s disappearance, albeit stopping short of criticizing the Saudis. It followed his comments on Oct. 2 that the Saudi king wouldn’t last two weeks without U.S. support as he increased pressure on the Gulf ally to curb rising oil prices and pay more for military protection.

The alliance has been mainly cozy, though. Trump visited Riyadh on his first overseas trip and has lavished praise on the crown prince. He welcomed him to the White House in March.

Since rising to power, the prince has deployed his military to Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is struggling to defeat Shiite rebels after more than three and a half years of brutal fighting. His move to impose an embargo on Qatar helped deepen divisions in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council.

If the prince’s government is implicated in Khashoggi’s disappearance, then there’s a risk of further antagonism with Turkey.

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