The disappearance and possible death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi sends another chilling message about the state of the Middle East today. His reported death is tragic, but it also highlights the degree of absolute impunity now running across the wider region, including from a state that is arguably the closest regional ally of Europe and the West. Saudi Arabia has strongly denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, but his failure to emerge from the country’s consulate in Istanbul has left fingers pointed directly at the country. Turkish government sources claim they have evidence proving that its Saudi counterpart killed the journalist.
In many respects Saudi Arabia’s alleged behaviour is representative of the wider, sharply deteriorating adherence to international norms right across the region, and even globally given the recent arrest of the Chinese head of Interpol by Beijing and Russia’s alleged targeting of its citizens in the United Kingdom. Khashoggi’s alleged murder, if proven to be orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, would not even represent the kingdom’s most overt violation of these standards over recent years, with the nature of the war in Yemen deserving of far greater attention. But, given the intimate proximity of relations between European states and Saudi Arabia, the brazenness of this latest alleged event is now forcing European governments further onto the back foot given widening domestic unease over perceived unconditional relations with Gulf states.
Despite this, Europeans are likely to continue to prioritise perceived strategic and economic interests with Saudi Arabia. But the country’s behaviour is increasingly exposing the hollowness of the notion that hugging it close is the best approach. The US administration has refused to exert any pressure on Riyadh over recent months, although even Donald Trump is now demanding answers over Khashoggi’s fate. If Europeans fail to now strongly press Riyadh to take greater responsibility for its actions they risk encouraging it towards even more dangerous policy choices.
European governments should – as a minimum – be demanding that Saudi Arabia accept an independent investigation into Khashoggi’s fate. And they should do so in unison, rather than in the piecemeal fashion which consistently leaves them exposed to retribution from Riyadh. As part of this Europeans should not rubberstamp a non-impartial investigation led by the Saudis themselves, as Riyadh and Ankara are apparently proposing. Such a process may be more focused on finding a face-saving route out of the crisis than on determining what really happened. If Riyadh really believes its own strong denials of culpability it should have nothing to fear from an independent investigation. But the Khashoggi case is also a window into a wider issue and Europeans need to accompany this approach with renewed pressure on their close ally in Riyadh to roll back wider counterproductive regional policies. This would not be dissimilar from the way in which Europeans rightly and consistently press other countries, such as Iran, to stop their aggressive regional policies.
Europeans have not been blind to the problematic nature of some Saudi policies, but their preferred response has been to try and whisper moderating influence into Saudi ears
The current Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), has enjoyed enormous international support since 2015 when his father became king. Western governments view MBS as the vehicle for a smooth generational transfer of power, as well as the author of an urgently needed reform programme which enjoys strong domestic support. His reforms have focused on advancing much-needed economic diversification to reduce dependence on oil revenues, as well as on a degree of social liberalisation. Fearing a Saudi failure to effectively manage internal challenges, European governments have largely championed this domestic agenda.
But from the very outset it has been clear that this vision is accompanied by a firm authoritarian streak, with MBS simultaneously closing down space for domestic dissent. This has involved targeting those who would nominally appear to be best placed to be the engine of the stated reform agenda, including by imprisoning members of the private business community and female activists leading the charge for greater women’s rights. Khashoggi’s disappearance fits squarely within this pattern. A long-time supporter of the Saudi royal system and former adviser to a senior prince, Khashoggi emerged as a prominent, albeit still measured, international critic of MBS after going into exile in June 2017. His enforced disappearance and possible murder in Turkey would, if proven to have been organised by Saudi Arabia, further highlight the lengths to which the kingdom will go to stamp out dissent.
The domestic reform push accompanies an equally fierce aggressive foreign policy aimed at confronting perceived regional foes. There are many disruptive actors across the Middle East today and Saudi Arabia is right to point to the actions of Iran and others as key drivers of instability. But it is also clear that its own policies are playing a significant role exacerbating regional polarisation and conflict.
The clearest example of this is the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has legitimate security concerns given the presence of the Iranian-backed Houthis on its southern border. But the kingdom’s military policies have driven state collapse and fuelled the world’s largest ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. Elsewhere, the ongoing Saudi- and United Arab Emirates-led blockade of Qatar has incapacitated the Gulf Cooperation Council, which was previously one of the region’s few functioning inter-state bodies. Riyadh is also alleged to have taken the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, hostage in 2017 and forced him to resign – a step he later rescinded – because of its belief that the Lebanese government is effectively under Iranian control.
Put together, these incidents add up to a catalogue of policies that have only served to dangerously increase regional discord, even if the Saudis do have some legitimate concerns. This situation should be raising increasingly urgent concern among European decision-makers accustomed to viewing Saudi Arabia as a key ally and bedrock of regional stability. The country’s domestic and regional hyper-aggressiveness should force European policymakers to answer questions about the palatability of its policies. But this should also call into question the fundamental premise that MBS is ushering in deeper stability, both at home and across the region. His policies are also undermining his own reform push with an increasing number of businesses, particularly over recent days, refusing to invest in Saudi Arabia in this climate. While Europeans have not been blind to the challenging nature of some Saudi policies, their preferred response has been to try and whisper moderating influence into Saudi ears in a bid to quietly shift the country’s behaviour. This is in large part out of fear that any more pronounced stand would rupture relations, including in the important economic sphere. In so much as Europeans have sought to advance more constructive Saudi policies this strategy is plainly failing.
To this backdrop the obvious retort is that Europeans are unable to play a decisive role in moderating Saudi behaviour so long as the US administration effectively green-lights Saudi actions. It does appear that unconditional US support for Saudi Arabia, which is largely based on a shared antipathy towards Iran, has fuelled the kingdom’s worst impulses. Observers also point to the examples of Germany and Canada, from which Riyadh cut ties – with associated economic punishment – in response to limited criticism they had made. Berlin’s relations with Riyadh were only recently restored after the former relaxed a tightening on arms sales it had made due to Saudi involvement in the Yemen war.
But Saudi Arabia does still care about the broader legitimising cover that Europeans can provide. A firm and shared European demand for a transparent investigation into Khashoggi’s whereabouts, and an appropriately strong response to its results, could still play a role in shaping the country’s behaviour. Here it is imperative that the UK and France, which are closest to Saudi Arabia, present a united front with European partners. The fact that even Trump is asking questions about this latest episode provides a limited window to press for a change of course in Riyadh. This is urgently needed given the risk of wider implosion in the region.
Saudi Arabia remains a critical player for those seeking sustainable solutions to the Middle East’s deep challenges, and Europe needs to step up its own efforts to find solutions to the multiple regional conflicts. It is also undeniably true that the unprecedented domestic economic reform agenda ushered in by MBS holds important promise. But Khashoggi’s reported death should force an overdue accounting that says business cannot go on as normal if Riyadh’s policies prove so harmful to the shared stated goal of stabilising the Middle East.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.