The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has placed Western governments on the ropes. The regime has recognized it although diverting attention, trying – unsuccessfully, of course – to make us believe that this unfortunate incident had nothing to do with them, that these things happen under interrogations and it is better to let the air and time run.
But no, the first one does not run. The case is hitting US policy in a very remarkable way in the middle of their midterm elections. Donald Trump, consummate master in managing both agenda and times, has been seriously compromised since his relationship with the crown prince is especially good. The first official trip abroad of his mandate was to Riyadh back in May 2017.
The reasons why Trump embraced the Saudis are obvious to anyone who knows the tensions in that area. If you want to punish Iran, you only have to approach Saudi Arabia. And vice versa. Trump arrived mischievous with the ayatollahs and since then things have gotten worse.
Trump’s love affair with the Saudis is a courtship of convenience not without risk. The Saudi regime is a relentless theocracy denounced countless of times for its systematic abuse of human rights. Prince Mohamed Bin Salman wants to convey a friendlier and modern image, but that has not removed him from committing the usual excesses of the House of Saud.
Not only is internal dissent beyond consideration, but it also has entered into a devastating war in Yemen and has even kidnapped Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was arrested in Riyadh against his will a year ago. The opening is, as we see, very relative and nothing changes the nature of an oppressive regime and that subsists by the large oil reserves of the country. Salman knows how to play his cards, that’s why neither the United States nor the European Union have made him accountable for this. They assume that this is a dictatorship and for everything else they look the other way.
The Kashoggi thing is, however, something different. It has been said in recent days that it is only one life in front of the thousands that are lost daily in the Saudi bombing of Yemen. It’s true, but the Yemeni dead are neither residents of the United States nor do they write in the Washington Post. That and nothing else is what has sparked international attention on this issue. Had Kashoggi never written in the Post, nobody would talk about him, but he did it and that changes everything. In the West we tend to look at our navel and worry exclusively about what happens in it. Kashoggi was in our navel.
At this point Trump had no choice but to give an explanation. And he did, but reluctantly. He came to say that Kashoggi was not a US citizen and that the incident happened in Turkey. All strictly true, but not less than the fact that the journalist was a legal resident in the United States or that his children do have the citizenship. Two reasons more than enough so that in the middle of the campaign has erupted a scandal of large dimensions from which the president cannot get away without some bruises.
Thus the implications of the case escalate to the geopolitical plane. The question, therefore, would be to know if the White House will be forced to alter relations with Saudi Arabia or, on the contrary, we face the classic Western hypocrisy that says something with its mouth while doing different with its hands.
It is a tricky question because since he came to power Trump has made the world see in a somewhat explicit way, that relations with Saudi Arabia are very close, that it is the natural ally in the Arab world and nothing will make them change. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, maintains a very close personal relationship with Prince Bin Salman. The painful history of Khashoggi is a torpedo on one of the strategic pillars of his administration.
It has left an open hole through which discontent is straining the new order. Erdogan has been leaking the most gruesome details of the assassination to the international press for a month in order to put public opinion on his side and against the allies of Saudi Arabia. The Turkish leader has patiently waited for his chance after the summer uprisings and this issue has been served on a platter.
The message has been understood and that is what is being discussed right now. The Saudi regime enjoys absolute impunity. They can put down an uncomfortable journalist in another country, dismember him and take his remains from there in a suitcase without anyone bothering you. It can also unleash terror in Yemen without being told anything, or put the Lebanese Government in check causing a political crisis of the first magnitude.
For a president like Donald Trump who says he has everything under control, this is a particularly unpleasant episode, even more so now, with the price of oil climbing and relations with Iran completely broken. All that remains is for the storm to subside, which will sooner rather than later. But the dead thrown into the sea always return to the shore, so it is foreseeable that the ghost of Kashoggi will persecute Trump until the end of his administration and ends up binding him hand and foot in the Middle East.
- En español: Trump y el fantasma de Khashoggi
* Traducción: Rainer Hernández Tió