Words and things, mostly words.
The ongoing morbid comedy following in the wake of the apparent assassination of Jamal Khashoggi just continues to get more and more ridiculous. While it’s easy to speculate as to why Saudi Arabia would think they could just murder someone in their embassy so brazenly, it’s still one of those incidents that is just so blatant that it’s still jarring to contemplate. Given how adamantly that President Trump has defended the KSA, even as the official line went from outright denial to “rogue killers” to a potential forthcoming announcement that the murder was an “interrogation gone wrong.” As long as the United States doesn’t care what Saudi Arabia does, very little can be done.
The details of the murder make it pretty clear that the notion it was the result of a botched interrogation is utterly ridiculous. As more details come out, they paint a horrifying picture of what happened; according to one source, the murder took 7 minutes and Khashoggi was alive while being dismembered. Even better is the fact that, apparently, the embassy in which this took place was bugged and Turkish intelligence have audio recordings of the murder. Currently, it seems like new information is leaked every time the KSA reaffirms their denial of involvement in Khashoggi’s “disappearance.”
KSA has been in the headlines a lot over the past few years, with the massive PR campaign to make the Crown Prince seem appealing to the western world — as a young ‘progressive’ — and touting the Vision 2030 project. More recently, the attention has been the negative sort: reports of the government locking wealthy citizens in a Ritz-Carlton to shake them down for money (and / or kill them), diplomatic rows with Canada over a banal Twitter post expressing support for jailed female activists, the ongoing war in Yemen, and now this. Not that the KSA had a sterling image to begin with, but the brazen manner in which they are acting feels different.
The United States, other governments and businesses will all continue to do business with Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely that any significant change comes from this situation; a few politicians will make some empassioned statements, kick up some dirt, perhaps make a token attempt at levying sanctions — only to be shutdown by the establishment machinery — wherein they say “hey, I tried” and move on to the next thing. Turkey seems to be playing hardball, however, so it remains to be seen how far they will push the issue as well.
In the very long-term, I don’t think ardent support of the KSA is going to pay off like so many think. The kingdom is obviously very wealthy, but recent actions make it seem like their vast fortune is becoming more and more finite, and that there are serious concerns regarding the economics of the future. A government that is shaking down wealthy citizens, withdrawing students from expensive foreign university programs and jailing economists for issuing pessimistic analyses is not one that strikes me as fiscally sound. The United States is largely defending the KSA in this matter because of the promise of hundreds of billions of dollars in prospective trade.
This, also, is dubious. The 110 billion dollar military equipment deal President Trump likes to tout is worthless, there is no deal, there is a piece of paper that indicates an intention to spend that amount. The plan to launch a trillion dollar Aramco IPO went nowhere, and it’s not clear exactly what KSA’s financial future will be in a world that is rapidly having to face the effects of climate change. They still have ungodly sums of money now, and to say the country is broke would be absurd; there is clearly concern within the country, even if its rulers would silence anyone the least bit negative on the subject.