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Why Western bluster over Khashoggi will go nowhere

Published in today: US President Donald Trump has led global anger over the presumed murder of Saudi Arabian, US resident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Istanbul Saudi consulate by threatening sanctions. The Saudis have replied they will retaliate more strongly.

But, as with so much of President Trump’s bluster, it is unclear how much of his threat is real and what his scope is for punishing the Saudi regime.

Khashoggi’s disappearance and believed murder has certainly alarmed many globally who believed that the oil-rich kingdom was headed for reform under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But the Prince is a traditional autocratic ruler who might like to be loved but assumes he must be feared.

Unfortunately for Khashoggi, while Prince Mohammed’s most serious threat comes from his country’s Islamists, the Prince may believe he can afford little leeway with critics of any stripe. Saudi Arabia’s overwhelming majority are not just pious Muslims but almost exclusively fundamentalist Salafiyya — those who model their lives on the first three generations of 6th century Muslims.

Saudi Arabia’s Salafi Muslims widely view with contempt and anger the often debauched lives of the extended royal family and the country’s close diplomatic, economic and strategic links with the West, particularly the United States. An appeal to such puritanism helps explain why Prince Mohammed placed so many royal family members under house arrest, although securing his own ascension to his ailing father’s throne was also critical to this act.

On one hand, the Prince has made some liberal “love me” gestures, with opening theatres and allowing women to drive being among those better publicised. But Saudi Arabia remains, if nothing else, an absolute monarchy, and its secret police and proxy-war in Yemen, among many other measures, attest to its intolerance of opposition. It is a deeply anti-democratic country that is ruled under a strict, sometimes brutal, interpretation of Shariah.

So, in one sense, no one should be surprised that one of its home-grown critics met a likely gruesome fate. And, in reality, there is little anyone can do about it.

In an increasingly unstable world in which the “rules-based order”, such as it existed, has been thrown out the window, Saudi Arabia is a strategically critical actor on the world stage. Saudi Arabia offers the only regional balance to the growing influence of Iran, and this has become especially important as Turkey moves further away from the West and closer to Russia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia also remains the world’s key oil-exporting country, at 18% of the world’s total output. As such, it retains a dominant influence in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and largely sets global oil production volumes.

In the final analysis, the world — or at least the West — may be horrified at the believed murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi. But the West still needs Saudi oil, and it still needs a consistent ally in the Middle East.

But, most importantly, should the Saudi royal family fall to a populist revolt, a Saudi-less Arabia, with strategic positioning and massive oil wealth, would be a driver for similar regional religious revolutions, not to mention global Salafi jihadism on a scale that Osama bin Laden could only have dreamt of.

The US has a long history of supporting unpalatable dictators who remain strategically on side. Franklin Roosevelt once said of such a dictator, he “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”.

As a letter to The Washington Post earlier this year noted, that quote has been “the soundtrack of our foreign policy for a century”. Someone might remind President Trump of that.