Riyadh, Arab allies threaten retaliation, but is their bark worse than their bite?
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Nearly two weeks after the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia – aided by its Arab allies – unleashed a PR offensive against threatened US economic sanctions. But does the threat have bite or is it just bluster?
When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known by his initials, MBS – visited Britain and the US earlier this year, the pre-trip barrage of billboards, media interviews and pro-Saudi news coverage was so intense, wags promptly dubbed the young heir to the Saudi throne, “the prince of PR”.
But in the stunned days following the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi PR machinery was noticeably slow off the blocks as accusations of Riyadh’s responsibility for the dissident journalist’s suspected murder began to mount.
That changed by Monday, October 15, when the oil-rich Gulf kingdom launched a concerted pushback following a weekend that saw the riyal fall to a two-year low and a growing list of top CEOs pulling out of an upcoming Saudi investment conference nicknamed “Davos in the Desert”.
The opening salvos were fired on the front pages of Saudi English-language newspapers, with Monday’s edition of the "Saudi Gazette" proclaiming, “Enough is Enough” with a banner headline followed by the subhead, “Kingdom rejects threats to undermine it, vows to respond with tougher action.” The “Arab News” daily echoed the tough line, promising, “Saudi Arabia will not be bullied: Arab, Muslim countries stand by Kingdom against false allegations and intimidation.”
The headlines followed a statement released Sunday that noted, “The Kingdom appreciates the brothers’ stand in the face of the campaign of false allegations and falsehoods.”
The term “Arab brothers” is frequently derided across a region riddled by diplomatic spats and betrayals – including a failure to put up a muscular, united front on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the chronic lack of unity within the 22-member Arab League.
But with pressure growing in Congress for a strong US response to the Khashoggi disappearance, the Saudi PR machinery sputtered back into action this week with a volley of statements and threats by the kingdom’s Arab allies responding with a collective fraternal force.
Bahrain’s foreign minister called for a boycott of Uber after the ride-sharing company’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, pulled out of Davos in the Desert. Kuwait’s deputy prime minister, meanwhile, released a statement rejecting “the campaign against Saudi Arabia” and supporting the kingdom “in facing all those who wished to harm its sovereignty”.
‘Stockholm syndrome is real’
But perhaps the biggest eyebrow-raiser came from Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, whose office released a statement expressing his solidarity with the Gulf kingdom. “The campaigns against” Saudi Arabia, the statement noted, constituted “an unacceptable call to drag the region towards further negative developments”.
The statement – coming nearly a year after Hariri’s bizarre detention in Saudi Arabia, where the Lebanese prime minister was reportedly roughed up before being forced to issue an extraordinary resignation-by-television address – drew a flurry of snide remarks on Twitter.
“Stockholm syndrome is real,” tweeted The Economist’s Middle East correspondent, while a research fellow at the Washington, DC-based Forum for Regional Thinking noted that, “Because starving and bombing Yemen, kidnapping and slapping Hariri, then forcing him to quit, was great for regional stability.”
In a Washington Post column written shortly after Hariri was detained in Riyadh in November 2017, Khashoggi warned that “Saudi Arabia is creating a total mess in Lebanon” and noted: “It will be impossible to elect a new prime minister in Lebanon unless Hariri is returned.”
Khashoggi was right. It took a diplomatic intervention by French President Emmanuel Macron to convince the Saudis to release Hariri, following which the May 2018 Lebanese general elections proceeded without any major incidents.
It was the sort of criticism for which, Khashoggi’s friends say, the Saudi dissident paid with his life. The respected commentator, who was living in voluntary exile in the US, never emerged from an appointment to pick up an official document at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month.
Turkish officials and many Middle East experts believe Saudi Arabia is responsible for Khashoggi’s suspected killing, an accusation Riyadh denies.
The familiar ‘rogue killers’ explanation
Nearly two weeks after Khashoggi’s disappearance, Saudi Arabia’s ageing monarch, King Salman, for the first time publicly entered the fray with personal phone calls to US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Trump said the Saudi monarch “denied any knowledge” of what happened to Khashoggi, adding that, “it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. I mean, who knows? We're going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon, but his was a flat denial."
The “rogue killers path”, tweeted Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay, might provide Erdogan an “exit ramp” that “would allow him to walk away looking good and it does not undermine the Turkish economy”.
Erdogan, too, might consider “rogue killers” path re: #Khashoggi. Ideally, he does not want a rupture with Saudis. This “exit ramp” would allow him walk away looking good and it does not undermine the Turkish economy. Could even predict Saudis helping Turkey’s economy after that https://t.co/MAqhd59wiESoner Cagaptay (@SonerCagaptay) October 15, 2018
But it’s also a textbook explanation provided by autocrats to obfuscate the dark acts sometimes committed by their regimes, and it’s unlikely to sway public opinion in the United States or Europe. Nor is it likely to ease pressure on US and European authorities to take action against Saudi Arabia if a credible account of what really happened to Khashoggi is not forthcoming.
“It will be complicated for the US and the Europeans not to respond at all. There are already strong reactions from several US senators calling for sanctions against Saudi Arabia,” noted Camille Lons of the European Council on Foreign Relations in an interview with FRANCE 24.
The Shiite threat from the East
The threat of US sanctions sparked a pugnacious column by Turki Aldakhil, a close associate of MBS and general manager of the kingdom’s state-controlled Al Arabiya news network. Claiming that Riyadh was discussing more than 30 potential ways of responding, Aldakhil warned that the potential retaliation presented “catastrophic scenarios that would hit the US economy much harder than Saudi Arabia’s economic climate”.
If the US imposes sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Aldakhil noted that Russia and China were “ready to fulfill Riyadh’s military needs” and that the new Moscow-Riyadh nexus “will lead to a [Saudi] closeness to Iran and maybe even a reconciliation with it”.
Most regional experts, however, were not impressed by the threats. “Even if there may be threats of replacing US arms deals by increased purchases from Russia and China, their weapons systems are not up to US levels. They will never totally replace US arms sales,” noted Lons.
Aldhakhil’s warnings that Saudi Arabia would be forced to mend fences with its archenemy, Iran, had even less credibility. “Iran is considered by the Saudis as their main security threat,” explained Lons. “But in terms of a threat, it is less about direct war [between the two countries] than about the biggest fear of the Saudi royal family, which is linked to internal regime stability.”
Saudi Arabia has long discriminated against its Shiites, which constitutes around 10 to 15 percent of the total population and mostly live in the oil-rich Eastern Province. The ruling House of Saud tends to view its Shiite population as a fifth column for Iran, a claim that has been amplified since MBS launched a military campaign against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. “Saudi Arabia has often used Iran as the archenemy to create cohesion around the regime. It’s very deeply entrenched in the Saudi feeling of stability and security,” explained Lons.
The extent of Riyadh’s opposition to the Obama administration’s signing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal underscored the Sunni Wahhabi kingdom’s fears that its Shiite nemesis could forge ties with Washington.
Business as usual?
Many analysts believe threats that Saudi Arabia could simply decrease its oil production, triggering an increase in prices, could prove far more complicated in reality. “The Saudi economy remains heavily dependent on oil and its economic structures are not that strong,” said Lons. “The US remains the kingdom’s main ally and the Saudis do not have the leverage they pretend to have in this regard.”
In the case of Riyadh’s Arab allies, the threat is even less significant. “The Saudis are so important in the region, they don’t need the alliance,” Lons said.
The Arab brotherhood display of solidarity, then, was merely aimed at demonstrating that Saudi Arabia is not isolated on the international stage.
The biggest threat could arise internally, from within the ruling House of Saud. But given the opaque nature of Saudi power circles, few analysts are willing to go on record to forecast how the dice might roll inside the kingdom.
MBS appears to be popular in Saudi Arabia, particularly among young Saudis. But with his crackdown on corruption – which saw dozens of leading Saudi businessmen detained in the luxury Ritz Carlton last year and forced to pay massive fines – MBS has likely made enemies in top business and power circles. The extent of the dissent in the tightly controlled kingdom is hard to gauge, however.
Riyadh obviously hopes that the furor surrounding the Khashoggi case will diminish with time and the kingdom will go back to business as usual. But the raft of international headlines following the disappearance of the Saudi dissident is not likely to be good for business for the Gulf kingdom.