Saudis 'Haven't Actually Paid A Large Price' For Khashoggi Killing

Sep 28, 2019
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Wednesday marks a year since Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The idea that Saudi operatives would plot to kill a man, a U.S. journalist, inside their own consulate shocked the world, as did the gruesome details that emerged. Mr. Khashoggi was a critic of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is suspected of involvement at the killing. NPR's Jackie Northam looks at whether he and his kingdom have paid a price.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Exactly three weeks after the death of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia held its second annual International Investment Conference. The glittering event, dubbed Davos in the desert, was meant to showcase business opportunities in the kingdom. A year earlier, it had brought in some of the biggest names in international banking and investment. But not this time.

KRISTIAN COATES ULRICHSEN: A lot of people - a lot of foreign investors stayed away.

NORTHAM: Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Middle East specialist at Rice University's Baker Institute. He says dozens of investors and government officials quickly dropped out of the conference after Khashoggi's killing. That was when there were daily revelations about Saudi hit squads and dismemberment. But now those horrors have faded, and Ulrichsen says Saudi Arabia still has so much oil wealth it's irresistible for many investors.

ULRICHSEN: They started to come back over the past few months. So it's an initial outcry. And then quietly, a few began to go back into Saudi Arabia, tempted by the promise of contracts that Mohammed Salman is trying to pursue.

NORTHAM: But Jean-Francois Seznec with the Middle East Institute says many investments are being delayed, in large part out of concern over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The crown prince is widely suspected in Khashoggi's killing, despite his repeated denials. Seznec says the prince's autocratic tendencies, such as detaining hundreds of wealthy Saudis at the Ritz Carlton hotel for several months, had already worried foreign investors. Seznec says the Khashoggi killing reinforced those concerns.

JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC: The fact that now the country is a one-man show, you know, means that you're at the mercy of pleasing this one person. And if you are going to put many millions of dollars in investment and a lot of management time and so on, you don't want to be at the mercy of one person. That's too dangerous.

NORTHAM: That's on the business side. There's also been a political toll. At a G20 meeting earlier this year, pictures showed the crown prince isolated from world leaders, except Russia's Vladimir Putin, who gave him a hearty handshake. Saudi Arabia has lost arms sales from Germany, Denmark and Finland. The U.S. Congress's efforts to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia increased after Khashoggi's death. The crown prince still has one key supporter - President Trump, who has even cast doubt on the CIA's assessment that the crown prince played a role in Khashoggi's death.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They have nothing definitive. And the fact is maybe he did, maybe he didn't.

NORTHAM: Ben Freeman, the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the non-partisan Center for International Policy, says Trump is effectively allowing Saudi Arabia to get away with Khashoggi's killing.

BEN FREEMAN: The Saudis haven't actually paid a large price for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And sure, we can look at what Congress has done in terms of legislation that they've been working on related to arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But at the end of the day, Trump has vetoed every single bill that would have hurt the Saudis in this regard.

NORTHAM: But the Rice Institute's Ulrichsen believes ultimately, Saudi Arabia will pay a price.

ULRICHSEN: And I think for the first time in recent history, there's no bipartisan support in Congress or in the U.S. political spectrum for Saudi Arabia. And that's going to be a concern because Trump won't be there forever to protect the crown prince.

NORTHAM: Still, Ulrichsen believes the crown prince will become king because he still has the blessing of his father, King Salman, despite what the rest of the world thinks.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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