The presumed execution of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey has seriously rattled U.S.- Saudi relations and led to the discussion of sanctions in the U.S. Congress. Even so, the complex relationship between the two countries, and especially the joint effort to contain and weaken Iran, tilt against a significant economic response from the Trump Administration.
The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and suspicions that he was murdered by Saudi Arabia in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, has created a new crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations. The relationship has always had its ups and downs, mbut a combination of shared interests and close relationships between leaders has managed to ensure that the bad periods were relatively short and did not result in any serious rupture of political, military, or economic relations. All of the facts are not yet available in this case, and therefore the level of political pressure on the Trump administration to take action is not yet clear. A first step in a possible U.S. reaction has been set in motion by a letter from Congress to the administration under the Magnitsky Act. This triggers a 120-day period for the administration to conduct an investigation. The Magnitsky Act provides for sanctions against non-U.S. persons who are responsible for extra-judicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally-recognized human rights. France, Germany, and the UK have also called for a credible investigation into the journalist’s disappearance. The Turkish government may also release more information on the disappearance and apparent murder.
Again, Washington and Riyadh have had significant crises before – the most serious being the September 11 terrorist attacks where the vast majority of the attackers were Saudi citizens. Administrations, Congress, and human rights groups have also criticized Saudi government policies involving the treatment of women, capital punishment, and the treatment of religious minorities in the kingdom. More recently, the Saudi government has come under criticism for its execution of the war in Yemen. None of these issues has resulted in an extended break in relations or significant changes in political, military, or economic ties between the two countries. Largely differences have been addressed in private through diplomacy, aided by long-standing relations between senior political figures.
While this issue is getting significant play at the moment, there are a number of reasons that not much will change in U.S.- Saudi relations. First, both the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family share an interest in confronting and containing Iran. This is too high on the policy agenda for each government, and in the United States, the support for confronting Iran is bipartisan. Washington would not want to punish a key ally who is aiding this policy priority with money, arms, and intelligence support. Second, the United States counts on Riyadh to be a global swing producer, able (if not always willing) to increase production to support U.S. policy goals – such as constraining Iranian oil export options.
Third, Saudi and U.S. military-industrial ties are significant, and politically important to both sides. While the $110 billion in new U.S. arms exports to Saudi Arabia is overstated, Saudi Arabia needs ongoing shipments of U.S. weapons, munitions, and spares. Similarly, U.S. producers need exports to help reduce unit costs and therefore stay competitive for Pentagon contracts. While Saudi Arabia has the money to switch buyers, it is so heavily invested in a U.S. equipment-dominated military, that is could not shift without a significant disruption in capability. While years ago Riyadh could weather such a disruption, it is now in the middle of a hot war in Yemen against Iranian-backed proxies. While this could give Washington leverage over Saudi behavior, the involvement of Tehran limits maneuver for both the U.S. administration and Congress – each of which wants to hurt Iran more than Riyadh, regardless of the killing of a single Saudi citizen. There will be further political back and forth over this issue in the coming weeks, but it is doubtful that the Trump administration will choose to punish Saudi Arabia in any meaningful or lasting way.