Maghreb states back Riyadh as it weathers crisis

A distracted or weakened Saudi presence on the world stage could translate into economic losses and political instability for North Africa.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Clear stand. French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) speaks during a news conference with his Tunisian counterpart Khemaies Jhinaoui in Tunis, on October 22. (Reuters)
Clear stand. French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) speaks during a news conference with his Tunisian counterpart Khemaies Jhinaoui in Tunis, on October 22. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Maghrebi countries condemned the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi but said they stood by Saudi Arabia because of possible adverse political and economic implications from a destabilised Riyadh.

The death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was last seen October 2 entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, triggered an international crisis and threatened strong ties between Riyadh and Washington and other Western allies.

Saudi Arabia, which said Khashoggi died during a brawl in the consulate, has detained 18 people and dismissed five senior government officials as part of an investigation into the case. Saudi Attorney General Saud al-Mojeb said on October 25 that, based on the initial findings of Turkish-Saudi investigation, Khashoggi’s killing might have been premeditated.

In North Africa, Tunisia and Mauritania issued statements in support of Saudi Arabia. Tunisia said it opposed attempts to “take advantage of the killing to undermine (Saudi Arabia’s) position and role in the region and the world and its stability and security.”

Besides Turkey, a seemingly emboldened Iran has been taking aim at Saudi Arabia against the background of the Khashoggi case.

“That Saudi authorities have taken the initiative to arrest suspects and fire senior security and intelligence officials is evidence of their responsiveness to the demands of the world… and their eagerness to clarify the full truth,” said Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui in a statement. “We are fully confident that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be able to overcome this crisis.”

Mauritania’s Foreign Ministry said: “Mauritania praises the decisions taken by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to shed the light on the truth and support a transparent investigation” into the Khashoggi case.

“Because of the historic and strong brotherly relations with Saudi Arabia, Mauritania is closely monitoring the rapid developments surrounding the case.”

No official statements were issued by Morocco or Algeria but comments by analysts and media figures indicated that much of the public was siding with Saudi Arabia. Algerian political writer Faysal Metaoui warned the crisis could reduce oil prices, embolden Turkey to play a larger geopolitical role in the region and give renewed strength to the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates.

“Behind the Khashoggi case, a ferocious struggle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia is unfolding over the strategic leadership of the region,” said Metaoui.

“Saudi Arabia has branded the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation since 2014. It does not want Turkey to deepen its ties with the Brotherhood’s organisations in Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, [the Palestinian territories], Lebanon, Sudan and Algeria,” he said.

There is also wariness in the Maghreb of possible economic effects of the crisis. Analysts said a distracted or weakened Saudi presence on the world stage could translate into economic losses and political instability for North Africa.

Algeria, in particular, said it has much at stake. If Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, is weakened and yields to US pressure to lower oil prices, Algeria would face economic losses, driving social and political instability ahead of presidential elections next April.

Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania also stand to lose because significant financial aid from Saudi Arabia could dry up if it is forced to cope with slumping oil prices.

Morocco has received more than $4 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies since 2013. Mauritania and Tunisia receive considerable aid and investment money from Riyadh and other Gulf states.

In addition, political experts said they were wary that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to disparage the Saudi state over Khashoggi’s death could embolden the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliates in the Maghreb, which have affinities with Turkey.

Islamists in the Maghreb view Erdogan as an Islamist leadership model and admire his unrelenting anti-US and anti-Israeli narrative.

Turkey has led the charge against Saudi Arabia, leaking information related to the Khashoggi case with the presumed purpose of exerting pressure on Riyadh and provoking sharp reactions from Washington.

Erdogan, addressing the crisis on October 24, said Turkey would not allow those responsible for Khashoggi’s death to evade justice. Meanwhile, additional leaks in the Turkish media put further pressure on Saudi Arabia to clarify details of the writer’s death.

Regarding a potential shake-up in oil prices, Metaoui said: “If it were to be weakened by the consequences of the Khashoggi case, Saudi Arabia will be forced to yield to the dictates on oil from (US President Donald) Trump and reach arrangements with Turkey despite its financial and energetic power.”

Oil prices fell to a 6-week low on October 24 after Saudi Arabia said it would make up for an expected shortage when US sanctions against Iran’s petroleum exports go into effect in early November.

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