The slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi wrote passionately about ending the brutal war in Yemen. In one column for the Washington Post he called on Saudi Arabia to “use its clout and leverage within Western circles” to resolve the conflict.
Never could he have imagined that he himself would become the leverage in attempts to end the war.
US President Donald Trump seems reluctant to connect Mohammed bin Salman to the journalist’s death, appearing to take little note of what sources say is a CIA assessment that the powerful Saudi Crown Prince ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
Trump has distanced himself from the case as much as he can, refusing to listen to audio evidence shedding light on how Khashoggi was killed last month at a Saudi consulate in Turkey. Saudi officials now admit a premeditated murder happened on its diplomatic premises, though it denies the Crown Prince was involved.
Despite the CIA assessment, Trump has repeatedly explained the Saudi-US relationship is simply too important to risk.
But Trump isn’t the only world leader who wants to avoid a direct clash with bin Salman and rock a strategic relationship that comes with the perks of intelligence sharing, lucrative arms deals and a stable supply of oil. And it wouldn’t be the first time the world has turned a blind eye to human rights violations by the kingdom to preserve these creature comforts in a restive region.
Instead, Western nations are responding to Saudi aggression by addressing the war in Yemen, ratcheting up pressure on the Crown Prince to enter a ceasefire agreement that will put an end to the three-year conflict.
The war in Yemen, between the US-backed Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis, has created the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster, according to the UN. Much of the damage has come from Saudi coalition air power, and UN experts say its bombing of civilians are potential war crimes. The Saudis, who have denied allegations of war crimes, have the greatest power to end the conflict, above any other actor in the war.
There are plenty of members of Congress in the US who don’t agree with Trump’s lax response to the Khashoggi killing. A bipartisan group of Senators has introduced draft legislation to impose tougher sanctions on Saudi Arabia that target arms sales to the kingdom and bans the US practice of refueling of Saudi planes in the Yemen war.
“This legislation is an important way to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for various acts in Yemen as well as the death of Jamal Khashoggi,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said last week.
On Sunday, Republican Senator Jeff Flake accused the Trump administration of dragging its feet on the Khashoggi case in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” In the same breath, he brought up the Saudi role in Yemen as another example of how the kingdom’s and US’ values do not align.
“It looks more and more like the truth is that the Crown Prince was involved, that he likely ordered it,” Flake said of the Khashoggi killing.
“So, to just deflect and say it’s a spectacular ally, when, in fact, some of the bloom has been coming off that rose for a while, particularly given the war in Yemen. So, there are things that we’re going to have to confront here soon. And I hope we do it based on the truth, not in something that we simply want to see because we have a lot invested in the relationship with the Crown Prince now.”
Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, said that Khashoggi’s murder coincided with a growing willingness to address the Yemen war, particularly as hunger worsens in the country and ahead of a possible announcement at the end of the month that Yemen is officially in famine.
“There was growing unease and pressure from governments, civil society groups and others to do more to end this conflict. Everybody realized that the responsibility of a famine would shift to them too,” Hiltermann said.
“But people are always looking for opportunities, there’s always an opportunity in a crisis. Even when someone gets murdered in a horrific way, there’s political capital to be made.”
Yemen resolution picks up steam
Western nations have pounced on Riyadh’s rare moment of vulnerability to push for progress on Yemen, an easier cause to sell politically at home than tussling with the powerful Crown Prince.
The UK was expected to table a long-awaited draft UN resolution on Yemen during a meeting of the Security Council in New York on Monday.
A week ago, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt visited Riyadh, where he met with bin Salman and presented him with the draft text that sources said provoked anger.
Two sources told CNN the Crown Prince “threw a fit” over the resolution. Two other sources described his reaction less dramatically, but didn’t deny he was at the very least annoyed.
Another source told CNN that Hunt went to bin Salman and essentially said: “This is what Western powers think, and this is what you need to do. What is your plan to stop this?”
Hunt’s trip followed discussions with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, suggesting the Western allies are on the same page on the resolution.
And it seems the plan has already had some success; the Saudis have now agreed to facilitate Houthi negotiators’ travel to Sweden for talks.
In a small first gesture, the US earlier this month halted its practice of refueling Saudi coalition jets operating in Yemen. Around the same time, Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis also called on participants in the conflict to agree to a ceasefire.
But the concern is that the renewed vigor for action on Yemen – however desperately welcomed it may be – has come at the cost of disclosing the full truth on Khashoggi.
The response to Khashoggi’s killing has been soft, or has at least avoided direct targets at the Crown Prince, in what has become a particularly dark and dangerous time for journalists in many parts of the world.
The Trump administration announced sanctions against 17 Saudi government officials on Thursday last week – the Crown Prince obviously not among them – on the same day Saudi prosecutors formally charged 11 people over Khashoggi’s killing, five of whom will face the death penalty. Both sides had apparently hoped their responses would be the end of the Khashoggi affair.
Germany says it plans to ban 18 Saudis from entering the country, while Canada is also mulling sanctions.
Turkey has been the most aggressive player against the Saudis, drip-feeding intelligence that has forced Riyadh to address at least some aspects of Khashoggi’s killing. But even Ankara has been careful about explicitly naming names, and as a country that cracks down on journalists so aggressively, it’s difficult to believe it has the cleanest of motives.
When asked if he thought bin Salman had ordered Khashoggi’s killing, Trump said, “Well, will anybody really know?” in an interview with “Fox News Sunday.”
He might be right, and if the truth of what happened to Khashoggi is never fully disclosed, there is only hope that his death did something for the people of war-torn Yemen.
CNN’s Michelle Kosinski contributed to this report.