Foreign Relations & International Law

Saudi Court Intrigue amid Khashoggi Investigation, a Front Heats Up in Yemen, a Terrorist Attack in Tunisia Roils Political Divisions

J. Dana Stuster
Wednesday, October 31, 2018, 8:20 AM

U.S. Takes Limited Action in Response to Khashoggi’s Murder

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U.S. Takes Limited Action in Response to Khashoggi’s Murder

The U.S. State Department canceled the visas of 21 Saudi citizens believed to be involved in the plot to murder Jamal Khashoggi, and is discussing the possibility of sanctions with the Treasury Department, U.S. officials said last week. The visa cancellations are the first substantive punitive measure taken by the United States in response to the murder of Khashoggi, who was a U.S. permanent resident and columnist for the Washington Post. Given that at least 18 of the individuals are under arrest in Saudi Arabia, the move is largely symbolic, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that additional steps may be forthcoming. “These penalties will not be the last word on the matter from the United States,” he said on October 23. “We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, through violence.” Members of Congress have discussed taking additional steps, including halting arms sales or U.S. logistical support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, but no legislative action will be taken while Congress is out of session in the run-up to the midterm elections on November 6.

Other countries have also called for action on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to Khashoggi’s death. German officials have said they will not sell additional weapons to Riyadh under the circumstances, and Austria, which halted arms sales in 2015 in response to the Saudi intervention in Yemen, has called for the European Union as a whole to discontinue sales. But some European leaders have expressed reluctance to jeopardize lucrative arms deals, echoing comments made by President Donald Trump. "I understand the connection with [arms sales and] what's happening in Yemen, but there is no link with Mr. Khashoggi,” French President Emmanuel Macron said, also describing the advocacy for a ban as “pure demagoguery.” Canadian President Justin Trudeau has warned that the penalty for withdrawing from his country’s deal to sell light-armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia would be “in the billions of dollars.” And Spain has said it will continue to do business with Saudi Arabia to protect its shipbuilding industry.

Still, the pressure to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights violations is unprecedented. There are signs that Saudi officials are recognizing that their strategy of deliberately and obviously lying about Khashoggi’s disappearance has backfired. The Saudi government conceded last week that Khashoggi’s death was a planned operation after Turkish intelligence reportedly shared an audio recording of his murder with CIA Director Gina Haspel; Saudi officials maintain, though, that the operation was carried out without the authorization of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The Saudi government has also lifted the travel ban on Khashoggi’s son, Salah, a U.S.-Saudi dual citizen, allowing him to fly to the United States—but not before Salah was compelled to meet with MBS for a photo op.

The crown prince addressed Khashoggi’s death in public remarks for the first time last week, at his much-hyped Future Investment Initiative conference, which took place last week despite many American and European officials and business leaders canceling their appearances. Speaking on a panel with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, MBS called Khashoggi’s death “very painful, for all Saudis.” He said that Saudi investigators are working with Turkish authorities and that the two countries “are cooperating to punish any criminal, any culprit and at the end justice will prevail.”

Saud al-Mojeb, who is leading the Saudi investigation, is in Istanbul this week and met with the chief investigator in Turkey on Monday; Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a press conference that “responsibility of Saudi Arabia is very large here” and stressed that the Saudis should not slow-walk the investigation. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has effectively denied a request from Turkey that the suspects in Khashoggi’s murder be extradited and struck a different tone than MBS. Speaking at a security conference in Bahrain over the weekend, Jubeir called the international outcry “fairly hysterical.”

MBS appeared jovial at the conference, and even concluded his remarks by joking that the press should not “spread rumors” that Hariri, sitting two chairs away on the stage, had been “kidnapped.” The quip suggests that MBS still does not grasp foreign governments’ frustration with the reckless bullying of his governance. Less than a year ago, MBS sparked a political crisis in Lebanon when he held Hariri against his will in Saudi Arabia and forced him to resign under duress. (Hariri withdrew his resignation when he returned to Lebanon after a diplomatic intervention by France, but he has remained on working terms with MBS, who is an important patron of Hariri’s family and political fortunes.) The comment’s direction at the media also felt barbed, given that the conference was occurring under the shadow of a journalist’s murder and in a country with severe limits on free speech and reporting. One of the Saudi government’s first reactions to Khashoggi’s death was to issue a statement reminding Saudi citizens and press that “spreading rumors or fake news that might affect public order and security is considered cybercrime punishable by 5-year imprisonment.” To MBS, this recklessness and authoritarianism is still a punchline.

Though MBS stressed the importance of proceeding with his economic reforms at the conference last week, Khashoggi’s death has interfered with those plans. Bloomberg noted that most of the attendees of the Future Investment Initiative forum were Saudis, and that more Chinese and Russian investors were present this year while American and European businesses stayed home. Some analysts have suggested that businesses dropped out of the conference for show and would be back to invest later, but others have noted that MBS’ reputation for impulsive and unpredictable policies had been deterring the investment he’s been courting long before Khashoggi disappeared. Michael Hirsh, writing in Foreign Policy, noted that foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia declined by 80 percent from 2016 to 2017. “Khashoggi’s killing at the hands of Mohammed bin Salman’s security forces—which the Saudis are now confessing was premeditated—has only brought international attention to a problem that close observers of Saudi Arabia had been aware of for more than a year,” Hirsh wrote. “The crown prince was making bad decisions and scaring a lot of influential and wealthy people away.” Karen Young, an insightful observer of the Saudi economy, argued in a recent piece for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog that this could have unfortunate consequences for the Saudi youth that stood to benefit from a more diverse Saudi economy, and that economic instability in the kingdom could spread, with the country’s skyrocketing sovereign debt as a conduit to foreign markets. With his credibility as a reformer in doubt, MBS is relying now more than ever on “checkbook diplomacy” to retain support from his regional allies and foreign countries eager to sell arms to Riyadh, Mohamad Bazzi wrote in the New York Times on Monday. “Since Prince Mohammed’s rise to power, the Saudis have pursued a more aggressive and militarized foreign policy, but they have also fallen back on a tactic honed over decades—wielding their oil wealth to buy loyalty in the Arab world and beyond,” he wrote.

The Saudi royal court is notoriously opaque, but there have been signs of fresh intrigue in the past week. King Salman has reportedly rallied to the defense of his son and hand-picked successor, even as close allies have expressed their concern about his continued rule. “People who think there’s going to be any change in the succession are wrong,” Prince Turki al-Faisal told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius last week. Prince Turki said that the backlash to Khashoggi’s death had actually strengthened MBS’ position. But even before this past month, MBS had reportedly been concerned about threats from rivals. Western officials have suggested to the Post that he could accept an arrangement to share power with another royal to placate critics. One option for that role would be Khalid bin Faisal, the former mayor of Mecca and a son of King Faisal, who governed in the 1960s and 1970s. Another would be Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, King Salman’s brother, who has reportedly been floated by some members of the royal family for some sort of stewardship role. Prince Ahmed has been living in self-imposed exile in England since being passed over for the role of crown prince; in September, in a clip posted online, he made a rare public appearance to address to a crowd of protesters in London, saying that policies including the war in Yemen are the fault of the current Saudi leadership but not the royal family as a whole. On Tuesday, rumors were circulating online that Prince Ahmed had unexpectedly returned to Riyadh from London.

Fighting Escalates Near Hodeidah, Yemen

As international attention has focused on MBS’ possible role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, Saudi Arabia and its allies have ramped up pressure on the Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah, Yemen. The Saudi-backed pro-government coalition has made seizing Hodeidah its focus for months, but each advance has been paused amid outcry from humanitarian and human rights organizations warning that disruption of the port’s operations could tip Yemen into a famine. A recent dispatch in the New York Times documented the grueling stalemate, in which Houthi and coalition forces shell each other daily without shifting the front. “Under intense international pressure, the coalition promised Western officials they would not fight in the city or the port, and would instead seek to encircle it,” the Times’ Declan Walsh wrote. “Now both sides are dug into positions on the city’s fringes, exchanging fire but gaining little territory. A secondary front extends for about 80 miles to the south, parallel to the coalition-controlled coastal highway, where the fight takes place in remote villages and small towns, as both sides try to cut off each other’s supply lines.”

A coalition airstrike struck a vegetable-packing facility in a market south of Hodeidah on October 25, killing at least 21 civilians according to the United Nations. It is just the latest in a long series of seemingly indiscriminate airstrikes by the Saudi coalition that have also targeted weddings, funerals, and in September, a school bus. After that strike, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to criticism of U.S. logistical support to the Saudi air campaign in a memo in which he stated that the Saudis and Emiratis are “undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians.” That statement immediately received criticism from members of Congress and human rights groups, and appears even more credulous in light of the Saudi reaction to Khashoggi’s murder. “It no longer looks like an accident, just like Khashoggi was not an accident,” Oxford University’s Elisabeth Kendall told the Washington Post.

Coalition forces have sent reinforcements to Hodeidah over the past month, and last Wednesday fighting escalated as Houthis shelled coalition targets and Emirati attack helicopters attacked Houthi positions along an inland supply route. Saudi state media has reported that coalition forces have now advanced to the edge of the city.

Bloomberg reported on Monday that U.S. officials are putting increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia to wind down its war in Yemen and end its diplomatic feud with Qatar. On Tuesday evening, Pompeo issued a statement calling on all parties to the conflict to cease hostilities and resume peace talks by the end of November. "The time is now for the cessation of hostilities, including missile and UAV strikes from Houthi-controlled areas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates," the statement reads. "Subsequently, Coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen." The State Department statement follows remarks from Secretary of Defense James Mattis over the weekend, in which urged the parties to the Yemen war to negotiate a settlement. “All wars must eventually end, and the tragedy of Yemen worsens by the day. Enough time has been spent on the subordinate issues. Now is the time to move forward on stopping this war,” he said, adding that the Houthis “will not find the better time” to work with U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths.

With Saudi Arabia interested in taking steps to ease the heat from Khashoggi’s death, it may be having an effect. MBS made uncharacteristically positive comments about the strength of Qatar’s economy at the investment conference last week. But even if MBS can be nudged toward settling his disastrous intervention in Yemen, it is unlikely to happen before this next phase of the war—which the Saudis will press to gain negotiating leverage, to compel the Houthis to the table, or in the misguided hope that a complete victory is possible. “A war-induced plunge in the value of Yemen’s currency last month has hastened a steep economic collapse,” further exacerbating Yemenis’ already limited access to food, Walsh wrote in the Times. “The United Nations humanitarian coordinator, Lise Grande, warns that 14 million Yemenis risk starvation in the coming months.”

Attack in Tunisia Stokes Political Divisions

A suicide bomber detonated an explosive backpack in Tunis on Monday, the first significant attack in Tunisia’s capital since a string of attacks on tourist sites three years ago. The bombing appeared to target police officers—10 were wounded in the attack, as well as five civilians. Little is known about the attacker, who was an unemployed college graduate from a small coastal town, but Tunisian security officials have suggested she may have had contact with family members who joined the Islamic State. “We thought we had eliminated terrorism but we hope that terrorism will not bring us down, especially with the bad political climate in Tunisia now,” President Beji Caid Essebsi said Monday.

That “bad political climate” stems from an ongoing dispute between the leaders of Nidaa Tounes, and the party’s coalition partner, Ennahda. The coalition was formed in 2013 and 2014 to establish consensus governance and tamp down political violence that threatened to collapse the country’s nascent democracy; the mediators for the deal won a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts and political competition was contained for three critical years. But for the past year, tensions have been escalating between Essebsi and his prime minister, Youssef Chahed, whom Essebsi has tried to muster the votes to dismiss. Both have been jockeying for control of the fractured secular party, Nidaa Tounes; Ennahda, the political Islamist party, initially backed Essebsi, but has since said it would oppose sacking Chahed. That prompted Essebsi to break off the coalition on September 24.

Brookings’ Sharan Grewal and Shadi Hamid argue that may be for the best. The coalition government prevented either party from acting as a strong opposition. “With over 80 percent of the parliament in the ruling coalition, there has been no real opposition to exert a check on the government. Accordingly, the ruling coalition has passed a series of problematic laws criticized by domestic and international civil society organizations for backsliding on human rights,” they wrote recently for Foreign Policy. The parties have merged together into a mushy political middle, which Grewal and Hamid say could be contributing to growing apathy towards the democratic system.

However, it’s unclear whether ending the coalition will foster constructive debate. Michael B. Ayari, senior analyst for International Crisis Group, notes that the feud between Essebsi and Chahed has created a deadlock in the country’s politics that has prevented it from staffing up important offices and adequately addressing a national economic crisis. Disbanding the coalition, followed now by a terrorist attack, could make things worse. “The end of the consensus announced by Essebsi appears to have removed political safeguards against excessive polarisation,” he wrote. “Among ordinary people I spoke to, it was striking to see that many viewed yesterday's attack as expected, almost an outgrowth of the political crisis. Nahda's detractors interpreted it as a warning shot from the Islamist party. Nahda’s supporters viewed it as a false flag operation perpetrated by security forces and the radical secularist camp to justify a new crackdown on Islamists. Finally, members of the security forces and their backers are seizing on the attack as an opportunity to revive a draft ‘law for the protection of armed forces’ … The attack is encouraging the authoritarian drift that has been increasingly in the air for the past year, and indeed may incentivise jihadist groups, which had every reason to be demoralised after the setbacks they suffered in recent years, to carry out further attacks to exploit political divisions.”

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and an instructor at the Naval War College. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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