Why haven’t Western sanctions been applied to Saudi Arabia yet? The oil-rich kingdom has admitted that dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. It blames a “rogue operation” on the killing, which seems unlikely given that members of the 15-man hit squad that killed and dismembered Khashoggi were linked to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s security detail.
Even if it was a case of over-eager underlings trying to curry favour with their boss (“Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”) that doesn’t excuse things. Given the resources deployed and the seniority of agents who took part, the Saudi security apparatus must have been involved at the highest levels. The Crown Prince has absolute control over the military-security apparatus in Saudi Arabia, so he was either aware of the operation or he is dangerously inept.
So, why no sanctions? It appears US President Donald Trump is willing to accept Riyadh’s version of events. Other Western countries, including Canada (which was recently embroiled in a Twitter spat with Saudi Arabia over the detainment of human rights activists), are just as unable to countenance sanctions. If reports from the United Nations that the Saudi-led coalition may be perpetrating war crimes in Yemen didn’t sway them, why would the murder of a journalist in an embassy in Turkey tip them over the edge?
Are Western countries simply too dependent on Saudi oil? At a time when the price of oil is going up, would sanctions even be effective? Given how central Saudi Arabia is to the global oil market, many doubt it would be possible to isolate the kingdom economically.
Western countries are also clearly worried about cancelling contracts with Saudi Arabia (including multi-billion dollar arms contracts) because of the economic impact at home. Bluntly put: they don’t want jobs to be lost over this, they don’t want to lose access to the Saudi market, and they don’t want Saudi investment to dry up at precisely the moment when Riyadh is trying to diversify the country away from oil.
Saudi Arabia is also a vital strategic partner in a volatile region. The Khashoggi murder threatens the Saudi détente with Israel, it jeopardises US strategy towards Iran, it could make longstanding counterterrorism cooperation more complicated, and it could undermine regional stability.
Is the occasional gruesome murder of a dissident something we just have to learn to live with? Should we just accept it when Russian agents deploy a deadly nerve agent on foreign soil (resulting in “collateral damage” in the form of the death of a British citizen). Or when the Chinese government “disappears” the President of Interpol, Meng Hongwei? Is this just part of geopolitics?
Is the West too afraid of Saudi Arabia to impose sanctions? Are there more effective ways of addressing the issue? Or is this just good, old-fashioned geopolitics? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!