US-SAUDI RELATIONS STRAINED BY KHASHOGGI DEATH AND WAR IN YEMEN

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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. [Some] 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. [Meanwhile], a bipartisan group of US 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. (CNN)

Pivot towards opposing Saudi Arabia in Yemen

While debates are still ongoing with regard to who is ultimately to blame for Khashoggi’s murder, a number of media sources have said that the murder has made Saudi Arabia’s Western allies “uncomfortable” and “uneasy”, including US legislators. This was evident in the recent moves by a few US Senators (both Republican and Democrat) to oppose Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen.

Yemen is currently facing a massive humanitarian crisis – reportedly the worst in the world at present – due to the war. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, more than 57,000 people (including combatants) have died as a result of the complex conflict since January 2016. Approximately 75 percent of Yemen’s population (more than 22 million people) are in need of humanitarian aid, and cholera has infected more than 1.1 million. Saudi Arabia’s leading role in the coalition of Arab states fighting the Houthi rebels (who are supported by Iran) is a key reason why the conflict has dragged on as long as it has, and the US has been supporting them with military supplies and training.

Some US legislators have called for a “total prohibition on arms sales to Saudi Arabia that could be used for offensive purposes” (Washington Post), while others opposed a $300 million weapons sale to Bahrain (who is part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen). The latter effort was blocked by the Senate, but it is expected that Democrats will push further on the Yemen issue when they assume the majority in the House in January next year (won in the recent mid-term elections).

Update on the Khashoggi case

In the meantime, many are waiting and watching to see how the Trump administration officially responds to developments in the Khashoggi case. On Thursday 15 November, the US announced the imposition of sanctions on 17 Saudis who have been implicated in the killing. However, there are calls for the US to sanction or ‘punish’ the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (the leading role player in the country), directly.  

For weeks, Saudi Arabia denied any responsibility for the disappearance of the Saudi journalist who had been living in the US. Later, they admitted that Khashoggi had died at their embassy in Turkey but insisted that the death was accidental. Still later, the Saudis acknowledged that a number of their officials were behind the killing. However, they are still denying that the Crown Prince had anything to do with it.

US president Donald Trump reported that Mohammed bin Salman had told him personally that he was not involved in the murder, but the president also said that it is possible that no one will really know what happened and what the truth is. The CIA reportedly concluded that bin Salman was ultimately responsible, but the State Department said that there were no final conclusions as yet.

A recent report by Aljazeera points to new shifts among the Saudi royals, who may be planning to prevent the Crown Prince from ascending to the throne when his father dies, due to the international outrage caused by the Khashoggi case. The line of succession, however, is not likely to change while the king is still alive.

A rock and a hard place

For the Trump administration, the diplomatic challenges cause by the Khashoggi case have placed them “between a rock and a hard place”. On one hand, the US will be wanting to maintain a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, both for economic reasons and for the purposes of having a strong regional ally that can oppose Iran. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has long been guilty of vast human rights abuses that go against democratic principles that the US holds dear.

Mike Pence, the US vice-president, said that Khashoggi’s murderers will be held accountable and that his death was “an affront to a free and independent press”. However, he also said that the US wants to maintain a “strong and historic partnership with Saudi Arabia”.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

The Khashoggi case has shone a spotlight on what can happen when impunity goes unchecked. Howard LaFranchi wrote the following in the Christian Science Monitor: “The Saudis may have believed they had a ‘blank check from the Trump administration’ to pursue actions like the silencing of regime critics such as Khashoggi, says Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington. If they did, it is at least in part because they saw other authoritarian leaders – from regional players Turkey and Egypt to global powers Russia and China – silencing their critics and stamping out dissent with impunity, he adds. ‘None of those leaders have been held accountable for their acts’ – by the US, the West, or the international community, Cook says – ‘so why should the Saudis in this environment think they should have to act any differently?’”

It is a spiritual principle that freedom without accountability often leads to evil without accountability. People are prone to evil behaviour when others are seen to get away with the same evils, and one evil decision left unchecked generally leads to another. Jeremiah recorded the Lord’s words about this: “They are not valiant for the truth on the earth. For they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know Me,’ says the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:3b).

For US political leaders wrestling with a response to the Khashoggi case, these concerns would probably not rank as highly as issues of economics and geopolitical balances. However, it is hoped that the response of the US will play a role in holding Saudi Arabia to account.

PRAY

  • For US lawmakers as they consider their relationship with Saudi Arabia going forward
  • For Saudi Arabians to recognise evil at work in their nation
  • For Christians to have opportunities to sow seeds of the Gospel in Saudi Arabia

 

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