(Adds comment from Institute for Gulf Affairs director Ali al-Ahmed)
(CNSNews.com) – The United States is ramping up pressure on Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of a prominent writer, with President Trump “demanding” information and pledging to “get to the bottom of it,” while the U.S. Senate initiates a process that could lead to sanctions on senior Saudi officials.
National Security Advisor John Bolton, White House senior advisor Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all spoken since Tuesday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pressing him for answers about the fate of Jamal Khashoggi.
The wrangle could impact relations with a key but frequently troubling Mideast ally, a kingdom whose rivalry with Iran aligns closely to the Trump administration’s priority of isolating the Tehran regime, but whose human rights and religious freedom records remain among the world’s worst.
The former newspaper editor had been living in the U.S. for the past year, having fled Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on purported corruption. A former advisor to members of the ruling family, his writings – including columns for the Washington Post – had become strongly critical of the government’s policies.
Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, apparently to obtain documents for a planned marriage. His Turkish fiancée Hatice Cengiz, who waited outside, says he never emerged from the building.
Cengiz says he first visited the consulate on September 28 without incident, and was then given an appointment to return on October 2. Citing unnamed security sources, Turkish media say a group of Saudi officials flew into Istanbul on several charter flights on October 2, entered the consulate while Khashoggi was inside, and flew out hours later.
Turkish officials have claimed he was murdered inside the building – a charge strenuously denied by Saudi Arabia. Saudi media outlets are alleging a conspiracy of slander by enemies supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood – to whom Khashoggi was sympathetic – and Qatar.
Further muddying the waters is the fact that Turkey’s Islamist government – also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood – has not been averse to using slander and innuendo in relation to its foes. Turkey has a press freedom record almost as bad as that of Saudi Arabia. (They are in 157th and 169th place respectively out of 180 countries in the latest Reporters Without Frontiers world press freedom index.)
Trump disclosed Wednesday that Cengiz had appealed in writing to him and First Lady Melania Trump, and that they have invited her to the White House.
“It’s a very serious situation for us and for this White House,” Trump told reporters, describing the allegations as “a terrible thing.”
“Deeply troubled to hear reports about Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” Vice President Mike Pence tweeted earlier. “If true, this is a tragic day. Violence against journalists across the globe is a threat to freedom of the press & human rights. The free world deserves answers.”
‘Business as usual’
Pressure is also coming from Congress, where senators from both parties have triggered a process that could result in sanctions against senior Saudis – much as two Turkish government ministers were targeted in August over the treatment of American pastor Andrew Brunson.
The 2016 Global Magnitsky Act provides for punitive measures against human rights abusers and corrupt actors globally.
Under it, the president is required to comply within 120 days with a written request by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to determine whether a foreign official should be sanctioned for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross rights violations.
On Wednesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) wrote to Trump, initiating a Global Magnitsky Act determination in the case of Khashoggi.
“Our expectation is that in making your determination you will consider any relevant information, including with respect to the highest ranking officials in the government of Saudi Arabia,” they wrote.
The letter was also signed by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee dealing with foreign policy, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), together with 18 other senators, nine from each party.
Graham said earlier if there was truth to the allegations of Saudi government wrongdoing “it would be devastating to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a longstanding critic of arms sales to the kingdom, said Wednesday he plans to introduce a new measure targeting military cooperation.
“This week, I intend to introduce another measure to cut all funding, training, advising, and any other coordination to and with the military of Saudi Arabia until the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is returned alive,” he tweeted.
Paul last year introduced a resolution aimed at preventing the transfer of some defense items to the kingdom, citing its controversial airstrike campaign in Yemen. The effort was voted down in a 47-53 vote which pitted Paul against most of his Republican colleagues.
Ali Alyami, director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia voiced skepticism Wednesday that the Khashoggi incident – should the allegations be confirmed – will have a lasting impact on U.S.-Saudi relations.
“If the U.S. government and media reactions after 9/11 can be used as precedence, this too will pass and business will continue as usual,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s record on fueling radical ideology has long drawn criticism, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. Fifteen of the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers were Saudis.
Asked about the likely effect on anti-government opposition at home, Alyami said any fallout would probably occur once King Salman is no longer in power and able to protect his son and heir.
“Crown Prince Mohammed has disgraced and alienated powerful princes, many of whom consider Khashoggi a friend and pro their family,” he said.
“He incarcerated and forced powerful businessmen to pay billions of dollars to bail his failed economic reforms,” Alyami charged. “He also added some of the religious establishment’s power to his office. All of this will be used to unite his opponents against him when his father is no longer around to shield him.”
“Increasing oppression means increasing opposition,” said the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, Ali al-Ahmed, predicting that a “new wave” of defections would occur in the days ahead.
Ahmed said U.S. support for the Saudi monarchy has been “strong and steady for decades” and he believed that would not change.
“This however may mean trying to find a new ‘Saudi prince’ who is willing to toe the line,” he said. Ahmed said the crown prince’s “power has gotten to his head and he thinks he is invincible. He is truly a mad king.”