Even if Saudi Arabia is behind Jamal Khashoggi's murder, experts say sanctions against Riyadh could backfire

Mark Wilson/Getty ImagesPresident Donald Trump met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington in March, and their ties have strengthened since.
  • Saudi Arabia is reportedly preparing to admit that Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and prominent Saudi critic who disappeared on October 2, was killed as a result of a botched interrogation effort.
  • The move would mark a shifting response from the Royal Court, which previously asserted – without proof – that Khashoggi had left the Saudi Consulate. Depending on the facts that emerge, any negative action Saudi Arabia may have taken could trigger retaliation from the US in the form of sanctions.
  • But experts say slapping sanctions on Riyadh could be an difficult option for the Trump administration, “given the size of the economic ties between Washington and Riyadh.”
  • Sanctions on Riyadh could ultimately backfire, as the Kingdom holds major clout in the global economy, as well as vested interests in the US economy.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly preparing to admit that Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and prominent Saudi critic, was killed as a result of a botched interrogation effort after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2 and disappeared.

The potential admission would mark a shifting response from the Royal Court, which previously asserted – without proof – that Khashoggi had left the Saudi Consulate. Depending on the facts that emerge, any negative action Saudi Arabia may have taken could trigger retaliation from the US in the form of sanctions.

An unnamed source inside the Turkish attorney general’s office who was cited by Aljazeera on Monday claimed that Turkish authorities “found evidence that supports” a belief that Khashoggi was killed there. It was not immediately clear what that purported evidence may have been.

Previous reports indicated that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi from his home in Virginia to Saudi Arabia for questioning.

Saudi officials have repeatedly denied any involvement in the 59-year-old’s disappearance.

US President Donald Trump said he spoke to Mohammed bin Salman, who “flatly denied” any knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance. Trump floated alternative theories, including suggesting without evidence that “rogue killers” may have targeted Khashoggi.

But US officials and some international voices, are growing more concerned over Riyadh’s lack of transparency in the matter, and have called on Trump to impose sanctions on anyone found to be responsible for harming Khashoggi, even if it was the Saudi leadership.

Trump has pledged “severe punishment” if the US concludes that Saudi agents killed Khashoggi, and told reporters there would be “very powerful” repercussions.

But experts say slapping sanctions on Riyadh may be an especially difficult option for the Trump administration.

Washington and Riyadh have grown very close

Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute Rodger Shanahan told Business Insider that discussions in Washington over sanctioning Saudi officials is challenging “given the size of the economic ties between Washington and Riyadh.”

Several US companies have secured billions of dollars worth in deals with Saudi Arabia over the last year which could become a complicated matter in the event the Saudis are found to have done harm to Khashoggi. And Prince Mohammed has cultivated a strong bond with Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and reportedly even bragged at one point about having Kushner “in his pocket.

Beyond the US economy, Riyadh holds major clout globally. The Kingdom is the main swing producer of oil, giving it enormous power to potentially drive up prices and hurt the world’s economy. It is also the second-largest purchaser of arms in the world after India. Riyadh accounts for nearly half of all UK arms exports, according to Shanahan, and is also America’s top weapons buyer.

Saudi Arabia also serves as a strategic Middle East ally for the US. Shanahan says while there has already been major “reputational damage” to the Saudi royal court, he added: “Washington is in a bit of a bind as they see the main game currently as trying to push back on Iran, and Saudi Arabia is key to that.”

While Shanahan says the “sensitive” plot to kidnap and interrogate Khashoggi would have been an order that “only the most senior” Saudi officials, like the Crown Prince, could approve of, imposing sanctions on top-tier Saudi figures may be too big of a risk.

“If sanctions were imposed, it is likely that they would apply to individuals closely connected with Khashoggi’s disappearance in order to send a message without putting economic connections at undue risk,” Shanahan.

“The Trump Administration seem far less concerned with human rights as a determinant of foreign policy than the Obama Administration for instance, but there will need to be some price to be paid by Riyadh.”

Saudi Arabia is refusing to back down

Mohammed bin salmanNicolas Asfouri – Pool/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia has made clear that it won’t be happy with any punitive measures, threatening to “respond with greater action” should economic sanctions be imposed.

“The Kingdom’s economy has an influential and vital role in the global economy and that the Kingdom’s economy is affected only by the impact of the global economy,” Saudi’s press agency warned over the weekend, implying that any moves made by the US would result in a lose-lose situation for everyone.

Turki Aldakhil, the general manager of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel, wrote in an op-ed Sunday that Saudi Arabia is ready to impose dozens of counter measures “without flinching.”

“If Washington imposes sanctions on Riyadh, it will stab its own economy to death, even though it thinks that it is stabbing only Riyadh,” he wrote.

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