Khashoggi's death another test for Saudi-US relations

Over the last two weeks, Trump has at times spoken of punishing Saudi Arabia but appears reluctant to jeopardise economic and security ties.

RIYADH - Six days after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, US President Donald Trump tried to play down the crisis, saying "hopefully that will sort itself out".

It did not, and on Oct. 10, amid a growing outcry, Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton pressed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to identify who was responsible for Khashoggi's disappearance or death.

Trump then seemed to give Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt, suggesting "rogue killers" may have been to blame and criticizing a growing view that this was a case of state murder.

He then changed his tone again late this week, raising the prospect of sanctions against Riyadh.

But when Saudi Arabia finally admitted on Saturday that Khashoggi was dead, saying he was killed in a fight inside the consulate, Trump said the official explanation was "credible" - but many Republican and Democratic lawmakers responded with anger and disbelief.

Over the last two weeks, Trump has at times spoken of punishing Saudi Arabia but appeared reluctant to follow through against a close economic and security ally in the Middle East, a key player in ensuring the stability of global oil markets, and a major customer of arms deals that he says are "tremendous".

Long-time ally

Saudi Arabia has long been a major US ally in the region, but their diplomatic friendship has not always been a smooth one.

Their partnership was sealed during a historic meeting between king Abdel Aziz bin Saud and president Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the cruiser USS Quincy in the Suez Canal on February 14, 1945.

The agreement saw the US guarantee military protection for the kingdom in return for privileged access to oil reserves, which were discovered in enormous quantities in the 1930s. The Kingdom has been a key US ally since.

But the September 11, 2001 attacks against the US represented the most significant setback ever for bilateral relations between the two countries -- 15 of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi nationals. Saudi Arabia denounced the attacks, but was accused of quietly financing Islamic extremism.

Riyadh did not take part in strikes against Afghanistan in late 2001, or participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, although the US used Saudi territory for air operations against Saddam Hussein.

In 2011, Riyadh supported the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and did not hide its anger after US president Barack Obama in September 2013 backed away from carrying out air strikes against the regime.

In October that year, Saudi Arabia refused to take a seat at the UN Security Council, to protest against multilateral and US inaction over the Syrian crisis. The 2015 nuclear agreement with rival regional power Iran -- signed by the US and other world powers -- further undermined relations with the Obama administration.

Consequently Saudi leaders warmly welcomed President Donald Trump's arrival.

In May 2017, Trump was received with pomp in the Kingdom for his first overseas presidential visit.

The US president called for the isolation of Iran, to counter the Shiite power's growing influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has long condemned Iran's arming of Huthi rebels in Yemen, where since March 2015 Riyadh has intervened to support the government.

In May of this year Riyadh stood firmly behind Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement signed under the Obama administration.

The US and Saudi Arabia also announced huge contracts exceeding $380 billion, including $110 billion for the sale of US arms to Riyadh to counter Tehran and Islamist radicals.

Trump also gave Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman an effusive welcome during his visit to the White House in March, hailing a "great friendship".

"Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation and they are going to give the United States some of that wealth hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world," said Trump.

Warm welcome

But Saudi Arabia's handling of Khashoggi's murder threatens to cool the improved relations that both sides had seen as mutually beneficial.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. The Washington Post contributor had been critical of the crown prince and lived in self-imposed exile in the US from 2017.

Turkish officials accused Saudi Arabia of a state-sponsored killing.

On October 20, Riyadh admitted that Khashoggi was killed inside the embassy, that he died during a "brawl" and that those responsible would be held accountable.

Trump endorsed the explanation as credible and "an important first step", saying the US had not yet completed its own review of the case. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia's version of events drew scepticism from some top US lawmakers.

"Trump's dug himself into a hole," said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to both Democratic and Republican administrations. "He will have to take some kind of action."

Behind the scenes, Trump's aides had scrambled to craft a response, especially as the bipartisan outcry in the Washington establishment grew.

When news of Khashoggi's disappearance first broke, aides made clear to White House chief of staff John Kelly that the case was not going away, two senior White House officials said.

Kushner, who had cultivated a close personal relationship with the crown prince, urged Trump to act with caution to avoid upsetting a critical strategic and economic relationship, a senior administration official said.

Kushner was heavily involved in making Saudi Arabia Trump's first stop on his maiden international trip as president last year.

As grim allegations emerged from Turkey about Khashoggi's death and the Saudis stuck to their denials, Trump felt pressure from congressional Democrats and some of his own Republicans.

US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican close to Trump, accused Bin Salman of ordering Khashoggi's murder and called him a "wrecking ball" jeopardizing relations with the United States.

When Riyadh came out with its official version of what happened inside the consulate, Graham quickly tweeted he was "skeptical of the new Saudi narrative".

'Not a US citizen'

Trump sought to justify his muted response by pointing out the incident occurred in Turkey and that Khashoggi, a US resident and columnist for the Washington Post, was "not a United States citizen".

Critics accused Trump of trying to give the Saudis diplomatic cover and buy time for them to get their story straight, something the White House denied.

At the same time, Peter Navarro, Trump's White House trade chief and architect of his 'Buy American' policy to ease restrictions on foreign arms sales, was stressing the importance of Saudi weapons deals and the implications for US jobs, another administration official said.

Trump repeatedly touts the $110 billion in weapons deals he announced during his visit to Saudi Arabia last year, insisting around 500,000 US jobs were at stake. 

Some Trump aides also raised doubts about the veracity of the Turkish government's leaks of what it says happened to Khashoggi.

But as the days dragged on and evidence of Khashoggi's death mounted, Trump's view began to shift, White House officials said.

He ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to drop what he was doing and fly to Riyadh for talks at mid-week, and was then briefed by him at the White House on Thursday.

One senior White House official said Pompeo told the Saudi royals that "you need to give us some legitimate information soon, people aren't just going to let it drag on."

Speaking to reporters during a trip to Arizona on Friday, Trump said he was ready to "listen to what Congress has to say" about actions to be taken in the Khashoggi case, yet also made clear he wanted to continue to protect defense contracts, and US jobs dependent on them.

Congress has already triggered a mechanism for the US Treasury Department to consider human rights sanctions against Saudi Arabia and some lawmakers have vowed to block further arms sales to Riyadh, a move that Trump is likely to oppose.