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Trump and Saudi Arabia could basically brush off the Khashoggi crisis



Donald Trump
Donald Trump arrives as the sun sets to speak at a campaign rally
in Montana.


  • President Donald Trump is under immense pressure from his own
    party, the Senate, and the media to take action against Saudi
    Arabia over the fate of journalist Jamal
  • But the US and Saudi Arabia have a longstanding alliance
    that’s survived worse crises than this one, and will likely do so
  • A number of half measures could appease congress, while
    keeping the body of the US-Saudi alliance intact. 
  • Unless Saudi Arabia’s impulsive new leader Crown Prince
    Mohammed bin Salman chooses to blow up the alliance against all
    conventional wisdom, both sides will likely brush off Jamal
    Khashoggi’s disappearance. 

President Donald Trump drew jeers from media figures after
praising Montana Senator Greg
Gianforte, who was convicted of body-slamming a reporter
, on
the same day he said Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi was likely dead after visiting
the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Despite the outrage over Trump’s disregard for the press safety
in his own country, and his apparent willingness to accept
excuses from the Saudis
as they draw out a long investigation into
, Trump can probably put the issue to bed with some
slaps on the wrist. 

Trump has already stressed the importance of the US-Saudi
alliance and repeatedly explained that he
doesn’t want to cut arms sales to the country

On this issue he is opposed to many in Congress — Senator Lindsey
Graham, a key figure on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a
Trump ally, already forcefully came out in
favor of curtailing arms sales

A  bipartisan group of 22 Senators also sought to impose
sanctions on key Saudi officials
in response to what’s
increasingly being seen as a murder of a journalist and US
resident on sovereign Saudi property in Turkey.

Trump initially threatened “severe punishment” against the
Saudis if they had killed Khashoggi. But Saudi Arabia’s official
called it an attempt to “undermine” the kingdom, and
said it could lead to further escalation.

(Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s new de
facto leader, the kingdom has proven extremely
sensitive to even light criticism

But don’t be surprised if the punishments offered by the Trump
administration, or even Congress, aren’t that severe.

When it comes time for the US to hold Saudi Arabia accountable
for its human rights record, the punishments are never that

War and oil

are Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 jets from the US. They can’t take
Russian or Chinese bombs. They rely on US


The Trump administration has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia
and embraced Crown Prince Mohammed as a reformer who granted
women the right to drive and cracked down on corruption within
his country.

Furthermore, Trump needs Saudi support for his other ambitions in
the Middle East. Sanctions on Iranian oil come into effect on
November 4, and the US likely can’t afford to cut oil imports
from Saudi Arabia too much while this is happening.

The Trump administration already asked Saudi Arabia to hike oil
production to combat rising prices. It’s unlikely the US will
would cut down on its consumption of 800,000 barrels per day from
the kingdom. 

The US could suspend parts of its military assistance to Saudi
Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia stands
accused of using US weapons for war crimes against

But Trump has repeatedly touted Saudi Arabia’s intention to spend
$110 billion on US arms as a boon to domestic job creation, and
came out early to say he doesn’t want to cut cooperation there.

A new set of sanctions, the option favored by the 22 Senators,
could hit a number of top Saudi officials and cut their access to
US banking and investment. But as an absolute monarchy, Saudi
Arabia can reshuffle its cabinet as needed.

A strong statement

pompeo salman saudi khashoggi
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with the Saudi Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday Oct.
16, 2018. Pompeo also met on Tuesday with Saudi King Salman over
the disappearance and alleged slaying of Saudi writer Jamal
Khashoggi, who vanished two weeks ago during a visit to the Saudi
Consulate in Istanbul.

Millis/Pool via AP

“I think we’ll be making a statement, a very strong
statement,” Trump said after saying that “intelligence coming
from every side” indicated Khashoggi had been

But Trump could potentially send that statement with a
handful of sanctions and cutting back some military cooperation
with Saudi Arabia without blowing up the entire bilateral
relationship, Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism-finance
analyst at the US Department of the Treasury wrote at the New York

Since Khashoggi disappeared, Saudi Arabia has taken a considerable beating on
the world stage
, rolling back the gains of a 2017 public
relations tour by Crown Prince Mohammed. But the US and Saudi
Arabia’s close ties aren’t based on shared values, or its
progress on social reform.

Globally no major economy or group, except perhaps the UN
Human Rights Council, where Saudi Arabia is a member which
has held key leadership roles,
considers Saudi Arabia a humanitarian powerhouse. 

Companies and countries transact with Saudi Arabia because
it is the world’s largest oil exporter with just under 10 million barrels of crude
oil produced per day
, not because it exemplifies liberal
values. Khashoggi’s almost certain death probably won’t change

It’s up to Crown Prince Mohammed if he wants to respond to
any US rebukes harshly, as the kingdom did to Trump’s previous
talk of punishment. But Saudi dependence on US dollars and
weapons limits his options for meaningfully cutting ties without
severe blowback. 

For Trump, a measured public statement, some light
sanctions, and cutting off logistical support, like mid-air
refueling from US tankers for Saudi war planes on their way to
Yemen, may allow him to turn the page on the Khashoggi

Brushing off Khashoggi’s allegedly brutal murder would
actually be in keeping with decades of US policy towards Saudi
Arabia. The kingdom has consistently turned a blind eye to the
oppression of women and the LGBT community, and more recently

a Saudi jet bombing a school bus in Yemen, which killed 40

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