In the two weeks since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into his country’s consulate in Istanbul for what he expected to be a short bureaucratic appointment, his suspected murder has forced Saudi Arabia’s allies in the United States and Europe to confront Riyadh’s acts of capricious violence for seemingly the first time. With Turkish officials saying they have proof Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, the Saudi government is now seemingly preparing to admit the Washington Post columnist’s death was the result of an “interrogation that went wrong.”
The question for Saudi Arabia’s friends in Europe, most prominently British prime minister Theresa May, French president Emmanuel Macron, and German chancellor Angela Merkel, is simple. Will they sweep Khashoggi’s death under the rug, as with so many other lives lost to Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman’s aggressive policies? Or will they stand up to an ally whose behaviour has made a mockery of European norms of human rights?
None of these leaders has a promising track record on this front. Theresa May has continually held up Saudi Arabia as a vital trade partner against the backdrop of Brexit. Emmanuel Macron himself rescued Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri from an apparent kidnapping orchestrated by bin Salman. Angela Merkel, for her part, has overseen the doubling of German arms exports to Saudi Arabia. None of these three has deigned to challenge Saudi King Salman or his son since their ascension, be it on the Yemeni humanitarian catastrophe or the illegal blockade of Qatar which Saudi officials have passed off as a fight against “terrorism.”
Now, finally, Khashoggi’s death may force European policymakers to recognize – as their American counterparts have begrudgingly done – the dangers posed by Saudi behaviour throughout the Middle East under bin Salman’s personal direction. The war in Yemen has already led to over 16,000 civilian deaths and over two million displaced persons, with over 22 million people in need of assistance and the Saudi air force repeatedly blamed for bombing civilian targets. According to media reports from earlier this year, it many have only been the personal intervention of former American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that prevented the diplomatic blockade of Qatar from becoming yet another full-blown military invasion of a neighbouring country.
The failure of Washington, Brussels, and the European capitals to confront Saudi Arabia’s past transgressions may have fed bin Salman’s willingness to have a dissident, even one as prominent and well-connected as Jamal Khashoggi, murdered on foreign soil. After UN experts produced a report saying Saudi Arabia was suspected of war crimes in Yemen, there was no real criticism from Riyadh’s main arms suppliers on either side of the Atlantic. Even European attempts to mediate the intra-GCC dispute between the Saudis and their Qatari neighbours have been at pains not to assign blame in a crisis clearly manufactured by the Saudi-led bloc.
In the United States, where President Donald Trump seems more focused on those arms sales than on the implications of a foreign government murdering a US resident, Congressional lawmakers are resorting to other means of imposing diplomatic costs on Saudi Arabia. A bipartisan coalition of senators has resolved to impose sanctions on any Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance by triggering the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the US to sanction any individuals around the world who have been alleged to have committed human rights abuses.
Trump has 120 days to respond to the request made by senators. In a scenario where the Saudis admit to Khashoggi’s death, sanctions may become inevitable if both Democratic and Republican lawmakers pressure the White House in unison. Even without sanctions, the American business world has already begun to distance itself from the Saudis. The attendance list to the Kingdom’s “Davos in the Desert“ is beginning to look barren, as major chief executives including Uber’s Dhara Khosrowshahi, JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, and Viacom’s Bob Bakish drop out.
Europe has been slower in its response. Thus far, Emmanuel Macron has simply described the events as “very serious” while claiming “Saudi Arabia is not a major client for France.” In Germany, Angela Merkel’s spokesman went no further than to call on Riyadh to “participate fully” in determining what happened to Khashoggi. It could be that European leaders fear the potential for Saudi retribution. Riyadh’s decision to expel Canada’s ambassador and sever investment ties, all in response to mild criticism of the Saudi human rights record, may have left officials in the European capitals concerned over their lucrative weapons contracts with the Kingdom.
The economic stakes are indeed substantial. After President Macron defended French weapons manufacturers’ contracts with Saudi Arabia last spring, news emerged that France’s arms sales to the region actually doubled from 2016 to 2017. UK sales of arms to Saudi Arabia officially surpassed £1.1 billion in the same year, although reports from the Guardian indicate London’s sales to Riyadh may even be higher. Berlin violated its own ban on arms sales to any parties involved in the Yemen conflict when it sold four artillery positioning systems to the Saudi government.
If weapons sales are preventing Member States from speaking out against Saudi transgressions, it is the European Union’s moral and political prerogative to exercise its own voice and seek accountability for Khashoggi’s disappearance. Thus far, Federica Mogherini has gone no further than calling for a “full investigation” and expressing her hope for “transparency and full clarity on what happened.” The Commission and the European Parliament can both go further, issuing strong condemnations that demonstrate a common European front against Saudi violations of international norms.
Europe’s unwillingness to speak out has already emboldened Muhammad bin Salman to persecute his critics at home (and in Turkey) and attack his neighbours in Yemen and Qatar. Until that changes, Jamal Khashoggi may very well be far from the last life bin Salman’s decisions ultimately take.