Richard Haas, a distinguished former American diplomat and now President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written an important opinion piece for the Financial Times which begins by saying “To most objective observers it must surely appear that the Saudi government murdered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul. But it is possible that we may never have absolute proof of the involvement of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS as he is widely known. This is in no small part because there is nothing under way that remotely resembles a professional and impartial investigation. The notion that the Saudis can be trusted to carry out such an inquiry would be laughable, but for the gruesome circumstances.” I think that is a full and fair summary of the situation as we understand it today ~ Mr Khashoggi is, almost certainly dead, almost certainly murdered by a Saudi ‘hit squad’ in Istanbul and it is highly unlikely that the truth will out … not easily, in any event, not, especially, if the Saudis can contain the issue.
“Less clear,” Dr Haas says “is why the crown prince would have ordered such an action even if one concludes he believed he could get away with it. It may have stemmed from his unhappiness with a journalist who regularly criticised the regime for insufficient reform. He may have sought to make an example of him to send a message to other would-be critics. There is also the view that the alleged killing may have stemmed from political infighting, as Mr Khashoggi was thought to be tied to elements of the royal family who lost out when MbS jumped the queue and consolidated present and future power in his own hands.” I tend towards the last option, domestic political infighting as the crown prince tries to consolidate his power and neutralize any real and potential opposition. It is, it seems to me, a fairly normal practice when tyrants take over, and has been for a few thousand years of recorded history, and it also seems to me that the large Saudi royal family might harbour plenty of ambitious people who have reason to want to displace Mohammed bin Salman.
The nub of the issue for Richard Haas is: what to do? He argues, and I agree fully, that “The most important question now facing the US and other governments is how to respond.” But, he says, unable to resist a shot at the US president, “So far President Donald Trump appears determined to let the Saudis and the crown prince off the hook. This is entirely consistent with his foreign policy of standing by strongmen and accepting their word — be it Vladimir Putin’s assurances that Russia never interfered in the 2016 US presidential election or Kim Jong Un’s promise he will rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons. If Ronald Reagan stood for the maxim “trust but verify”, Mr Trump embodies “trust and look away”.” My guess is that Canada would love to strike back at the Saudi Arabian crown prince for his “furious” attack on Canada late this summer, but it is not clear that the formerly US led but now, effectively, leaderless West knows what to do.
Dr Haas explains that “The president claims the US must stand by MbS because his country is an important and valuable ally that buys significant amounts of arms, is helpful in Syria and in the fight against terrorism, and is a partner versus Iran. Saudi Arabia still produces about one out of every 10 barrels of oil in the world. Its investments are large and important to a number of businesses and projects … [and while] … This is all true, but it overlooks the fact that the impulsive and reckless crown prince often does things that harm or fail to help US interests … [for example] … The war in Yemen, arguably Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam, is a humanitarian and strategic disaster. MbS’s effort to destabilise Qatar has weakened a country that is home to the principal US military base in the region. There was also the bizarre kidnapping and detention of Lebanon’s prime minister in 2017. And the Saudis failed to bring Israelis and Palestinians together … [and, he adds] … the fate of Mr Khashoggi will make it much more difficult to line up international support to pressure Iran. Riyadh will appear to many to be at least as much of a problem as Tehran. MbS may be something of a reformer, but he is also an autocrat. The only reform acceptable to him is that which he controls and directs. Sadly, recent events could make it more difficult for him to carry out the reform his country so clearly needs.” Notwithstanding that it is rich and a big supporter of the American arms industry, as Richard Haas makes clear, Saudi Arabia is a detriment to the West.
“The choices facing the US and other governments,” Dr Haas says, “are not easy. They are the latest example of the foreign policy predicament of having to deal with flawed leaders of important countries. Principle and interests inevitably collide, as they often did during the cold war and when it came to dealing with the Shah’s Iran in the 1970s.” It is, I think, more complicated than in the 1970s … I have explained before that the situation in the region is horridly complex and that there are four powers, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, vying for dominance. Three of the four have claims based on socio-economic and even military power but Saudi Arabia’s claim is based, mainly, on two facts: a) it is the ‘custodian’ of the Holy Places (mecca and Medina) and b) it is home to an especially backwards form of traditional Islam. I think we can see that this whole situation is, in some measure, a Turkish ‘attack’ on Saudi Arabia; Turkey almost certainly has some ‘actionable intelligence,’ as they say in the thrillers, and it is spinning it out to embarrass the Saudis and sow dissension in the ranks of Saudi Arabia remaining friends, trading partners and neighbours. That is something that the Globe and Mail‘s senior international correspondent Mark MacKinnon raised in an insightful article just the other day about “a quiet, long-running contest between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over which country – and which ideology – should lead the Sunni Muslim world.“
As predicted, a few days ago, the Saudis, according to a report in the Globe and Mail, “said on Friday that journalist Jamal Khashoggi died in a fight inside its Istanbul consulate and said it had fired two senior officials over the incident, giving an account that U.S. President Donald Trump said was credible.” Of course, we should assume that the reports is a cover-up and we should understand why Donald J Trump finds it credible. The Saudis are probably on the right track with President Trump, as others have mentioned before, there is a perception amongst some world leaders that President Trump’s “primary long-term concern is the profitability of his own enterprises, a goal that he prioritizes over the advancement of U.S. national interests.” If that’s the case, then what to do?
Richard Haas has a six point prescription:
- First, he says, “it would be wise to distinguish between Saudi Arabia and MbS. This would argue for holding off anything that smacks of an unconditional embrace of MbS. There should be no invites to the White House or Downing Street;”
- Next, he argues that it should not be ‘business as usual,’ rather “Chief executives, shareholders and workers should reconsider partnering with the government in Riyadh as long as MbS is in charge;”
- Third, he proposes that “The Trump administration or, failing that, the US Congress should place constraints on the use of American-supplied military equipment and intelligence. This is long overdue in the case of the misguided war in Yemen, but better late than never” ~ perhaps Prime Minister Trudeau should think about this, perhaps all 700-900+ LAV-6s being built for Saudi Arabia should go to the Canadian Army, where we know that they will not be used against us or our vital interests;
- Then, Dr Haas says, “governments should publicly press for an independent and unconstrained investigation of what happened in Istanbul. We should not be distracted by any Saudi attempt to scapegoat the “rogue elements” the government may well claim to be responsible;” and
- “Last,” he says, “it could prove counter-productive and risky to call for the departure of the crown prince, who enjoys broad popularity at home. The alternative to him is not clear. Broad instability would serve the interests of no one” … [but, he adds] … “MbS has placed his own future in jeopardy, and other members of the royal family will come to understand that US and western support for him cannot be taken for granted. It is up to the Saudis to sort out their succession. It would be ironic if an action apparently carried out to strengthen his control over his country had just the opposite effect. But it is possible all the same.“
There is one more specific thing that the Government of Canada should, I would argue must do: reduce Canadian dependence on Saudi oil by reversing the incredibly stupid and short-sighted decision, by Prime Minister Trudeau, to sabotage the Energy East pipeline ~ a decisions he made for purely partisan political reasons, to curry favour with the old-time Liberal thug (then) Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre ~ and help Trans Canada Pipelines to push it through to Atlantic Canada so that more Canadians can buy Canadian gas, refined in Canada, rather than subsidizing Mohammed bin Salman’s rogue regime. But that, I am pretty sure, will require a new Canadian government, one with adult leadership.