Washington seeks to preserve ‘strategic interests’ with Riyadh despite uproar

The nuanced US response reflects the complicated relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Twin imperatives. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a news conference at the US Department of State in Washington, on October 23. (AFP)
Twin imperatives. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a news conference at the US Department of State in Washington, on October 23. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump and his cabinet secretaries are trying to preserve their country’s alliance with Saudi Arabia while US officials investigate the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and impose sanctions on Saudis.

While Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply criticised Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, they also stressed Saudi Arabia’s importance to the United States as a key ally in the Middle East, a leading opponent of Iran and a major purchaser of US military equipment.

“Our shared strategic interests with Saudi Arabia remain,” Pompeo said at an October 23 news conference at which he announced the United States had barred Saudi suspects in Khashoggi’s death from entering the United States.

“We continue to view as achievable the twin imperatives of protecting America and holding accountable those responsible for the killing of Mr Khashoggi,” Pompeo said.

Trump expressed similar sentiments, calling Saudi Arabia’s initial denial of Khashoggi’s killing “one of the worst [cover-ups] in the history of cover-ups,” but hesitating when asked about the future of the US-Saudi relationship.

“I don’t want to lose all of that [Saudi] investment that’s being made in our country. I don’t want to lose a million jobs. I don’t want to lose a $110 billion in terms of investment,” Trump said, offering an inflated assessment of the value of Saudi purchases of US military equipment.

A US defence industry group, the Aerospace Industry Association (AIA), has, the Reuters news agency reported, circulated talking points titled “Contingency Points on Defence Sales to Saudi Arabia,” which stressed the importance of arms sales to US allies. “When we sell American products to allies and partners, we can ensure our adversaries aren’t able to supplant our political, military or economic ties,” it said.

The chief executives of top US defence contractors — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Raytheon and General Dynamics — sit on AIA’s executive committee.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met on October 22 in Riyadh with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to discuss topics, including Khashoggi’s killing. The two men “addressed combating terrorist financing, implementing Iran sanctions, Saudi economic issues and the investigation,” Treasury Department spokesman Tony Sayegh said.

The Saudi Press Agency said the men “stressed the importance of the Saudi-US strategic partnership” and discussed trade, investment and “joint efforts in the fight against corruption and the financing of terrorism.”

Mnuchin met with Crown Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials even as he withdrew from Saudi Arabia’s annual business conference, the Future Investment Initiative (FII), to protest Khashoggi’s killing.

Turkish officials say Khashoggi, a US-based journalist who criticised Saudi leadership, was killed by a 15-man team inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey. Saudi leaders blamed the death on a “rogue operation” of which Crown Prince Mohammed had no knowledge.

In his first public comments on Khashoggi, the crown prince said October 23 at the FII that the journalist’s death was “a heinous crime that cannot be justified” and that Saudis were cooperating with Turkish investigators “to ascertain the truth in Mr Khashoggi’s case.”

The nuanced US response reflects the complicated relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which Trump has sought to strengthen. Trump sees Saudi Arabia as the only Middle East country powerful enough to counter Iran and as a key to establishing Palestinian-Israeli peace.

“The death of Khashoggi does not outweigh US strategic concerns, which require that we maintain good relations with the Saudi government. We must react accordingly — not as a favour to the Saudis but in our own national interest,” Jim Hanson, a former US Army counterterrorism specialist and a Middle East expert, wrote in a commentary published on the Fox News website. “We must work with and strengthen the burgeoning coalition of our Arab allies to counter the Iranian threat and the Saudis play a vital role in that Arab coalition.”

The US response has been moderate. Although the US State Department said it revoked visas for Saudi agents said to be responsible for Khashoggi’s killing, 18 of the 21 suspects were under arrest in Saudi Arabia and thus unable to travel, the Washington Post reported.

Pompeo said the visa revocations “will not be the last word on this matter from the United States.” The State and Treasury departments are looking into possible sanctions under a US law that allows the president to freeze US assets and restrict international

travel of people who have committed serious human rights violations. The members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent Trump a letter that requires the administration to determine whether Saudi officials violated the sanctions law.

The United States has sent investigators, including CIA Director Gina Haspel, to Saudi Arabia and Turkey to make their own determination about what happened to Khashoggi.

“We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr Khashoggi,” Pompeo said. “We continue to maintain a strong partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Neither the president nor I [are] happy with this situation.”