Khashoggi: A Canterbury Tale?

“Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

Summary: Saudi responsibility for killing Khashoggi seems to go to the top. Trump seeking to avoid commitment to protect arms sales, Kushner’s “peace deal”, and the oil price with his eye on the 6 November midterms. Turkey the key.

Once again we are grateful to Alastair Newton for the article below. Alastair worked as a professional political analyst in the City of London from 2005 to 2015. Before that he spent 20 years as a career diplomat with the British Diplomatic Service.

On 29 December 1170, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights close to the King of England, Henry II. Accounts from the time tell us that the loyal knights were spurred into action by Henry’s alleged outburst, quoted above, against his former friend-turned-opponent over the rights of the church, following the latter’s excommunication of a number of bishops allied with the King, including the Archbishop of York. Several of those accounts suggest that the knights’ intention was to force Becket to withdraw the excommunications and/or to ‘render’ him to Bures in Normandy where Henry was residing at the time. Becket’s resistance led to his being stabbed to death — with the consequence that the words attributed to Henry have come to signify the sense that a ruler’s wish can be interpreted as a command by her or his subordinates.

As Saudi Arabia’s account of the death of Jamal Khashoggi continues to evolve — even since Arab  Digest’s 18 October posting — perhaps the ‘best’ we can expect to emerge from Riyadh is an implicit acknowledgement that something similar to the Becket saga occurred in Istanbul. Which is not far, in reality, from where we are today given the widespread scepticism (outside Saudi Arabia itself) that the alleged perpetrators would have acted without some sort of encouragement from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Not, I should stress, that I expect to see any of the remorse on the part of MBS over his opponent’s murder which afflicted  Henry, who was banned by the Pope from taking mass until he had paid a hefty penance.

In the case of Mr Khashoggi it seems to me that US President Donald Trump assumes the role which fell to the Pope in the 12th century. But where exactly Mr Trump stands is, on the face of it at least, just as unclear today as it was before Riyadh admitted to Mr Khashoggi’s death. On the one hand, the US President’s immediate, ie 19 October, reaction was that he found the Saudis’ latest explanation credible. However, late on 20 October, he said that he was “not satisfied” with the Saudis’ account, albeit — and importantly — qualifying this with an assertion that it was possible MBS had not known about the killing.

Nevertheless, it would, in my view, be entirely wrong to see Mr Trump’s shifts as accidental and/or chaotic. What we are seeing is classic Trump behaviour, ie swamping the media with the intent of drowning out other — dissenting — voices and sowing the seeds of uncertainty.

On the face of it, the main reason for this is Mr Trump’s determination to protect US arms sales to Saudi Arabia — deals which, it should be underlined, have to be approved by Congress where bipartisan anti-Saudi sentiment is currently running strong. In this, Mr Trump is almost certainly totally sincere. But it may be the least important of three reasons why he is determined to keep Saudi/US relations on as even a keel as possible.

The second most important reason is almost certainly the seeming conviction of Mr Trump’s very influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that MBS, with whom he has cultivated a very close relationship, can deliver the Palestinians in a Middle East peace deal. Writing in the 20 October edition of the Financial Times (subscriber access only), Katrina Manson reflected as follows:

“Mr Kushner developed a personal bond with Prince Mohammed early in the Trump administration and has pinned his hopes on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Saudi help. The Trump administration is also counting on Riyadh to release more oil to the market to make up for punitive sanctions against Iran due on November 5.”

By pointing to a second probable motive, Ms Manson allows me to segue into what I believe to be Mr Trump top consideration in his handling of Mr Khashoggi’s murder, ie the help he needs from Saudi Arabia in pursuit of his Iran agenda.

It is, in my view, very likely that 5 November was the date chosen for a fresh, oil-focused wave of US sanctions against Iran specifically with the 6 November midterms in mind, ie to bolster enthusiasm among Republican supporters to get out and vote in the face of what many commentators see as a potential ‘blue wave’. In addition to a concrete manifestation of delivering on a pre-election pledge, punishing Iran is, after all, popular with much of Mr Trump’s ‘core’ support among the overwhelmingly pro-Israel white evangelicals. However, the downside risk inherent in such an approach lies in the fact that the price of gasoline at the pump is electorally highly sensitive in the US. In consequence, a key element in Mr Trump’s Iran strategy is having Saudi Arabia pump more oil to make up for the reduction in Iranian output on the world market. Julian Borger and Jon Swaine, writing in The Guardian on 21 October, put it as follows:

“Donald Trump has spoken repeatedly about US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, hugely overstating the actual figures. The president also benefits personally by Saudi royals and officials spending freely at his luxury hotel.

But he is reliant on Riyadh for more urgent and consequential reasons.

In three weeks’ time, sweeping US sanctions go into effect on Iran, as the administration seeks to cut off the country’s oil exports. Since walking out of an international nuclear deal with Iran in May, Trump has made crippling the Iranian economy a foreign policy priority, though his officials deny the aim is regime change.

Without a compensating increase in oil supply from other oil suppliers, Saudi Arabia foremost, the sanctions that go into effect on 4 [sic] November will produce a spike in oil prices just ahead of the finely balanced midterm elections.”

With Brent crude already just shy of USD80pb — an increase of around USD10pb since mid-August (albeit USD6.50pb or so lower than a four-year high hit earlier this month) for which he has partly himself to blame — the last thing Mr Trump needs is a Saudi-induced oil spike in retaliation for US sanctions between now and 6 November. And keep in mind that even a credible threat of sanctions could be enough to trigger a market reaction.

Mr Trump’s first objective will therefore be to get through the next fortnight or so without anything happening which could trigger a sharp uptick in the oil price, while following through on his Iran agenda. In this, he will continue to be aided and abetted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (whose world view, pace Russia, is very similar to the President’s). Indeed, Mr Pompeo may have played some part in persuading Riyadh to seek, late last week, a further month to complete its investigations (which are effectively being conducted under the overall control of MBS), ie until the other side of the midterms. Given what is at stake on 6 November, I expect that, het up though they may be over Mr Khashoggi’s death, Republicans in Congress will largely go along with this, all other things being equal.

This being said, Mr Trump’s, to date successful, efforts to play this long could yet be disrupted by Turkey. However, my best guess is that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be willing to go largely along with Riyadh and the White House in return for some calming of relations with the latter in particular. Patrick Wintour, writing in the 20 October edition of The Guardian, put it thus:

“The key response lies with Turkey. The country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, spoke to [Mohammed] bin Salman on Friday night to hear the results of the Saudi investigation and the planned response. Turkey’s own investigations are incomplete. It may yet find [Mr] Khashoggi’s dismembered body, and it may yet be able to prove – possibly via audio – that his death was no accident, but a premeditated assassination. It is hard, however, to prove that [Mohammed] bin Salman ordered [Mr] Khashoggi’s killing. All the relevant agents have been arrested in Saudi Arabia and are hardly likely to be given their day in open court to explain that they were carrying out orders from the very top.”

As for MBS, despite some reports that his father may move against him, I think it very unlikely that the likes of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, calling for the Prince to be removed from his current high office, will get their way. Indeed, putting him effectively in charge of  not only the Khashoggi investigation but also a proposed restructuring of the country’s intelligence service suggests that, if anything, King Salman is doubling down on his most favoured son.

In other words, if, as many experts believe, Mr Khashoggi would not have been murdered without at least a Henry-esque steer from MBS, it seems that, if there is a penance to be paid, it is most likely to come in the form of increased wariness among the investor community, which already had reservations, over the Crown Prince’s ambitious economic reform agenda. And how much damage this would do in the medium-term to his credibility domestically remains a big unknown.

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