On October 2, Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known critic of the government of Saudi Arabia, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork he needed to get married. He never walked out. Since then, Washington’s foreign-policy establishment has begun turning against Mohammed bin Salman, the brash, ambitious crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Within days, Turkish officials leaked details of Khashoggi’s alleged grisly murder by a team of 15 Saudi operatives. The Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a columnist, reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had collected intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan, approved by bin Salman, to lure the journalist back to the kingdom from his home in Virginia and detain him. As the international outcry grew, the Trump administration—whose foreign policy has largely shrugged at the protection of human rights—refrained from pressuring the Saudis, until Wednesday, when the White House said that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and National-Security Adviser John Bolton had called bin Salman to discuss Khashoggi’s disappearance.
But the most intense pressure on the Saudis is likely to come from Congress, where both Democrats and Republicans have criticized Saudi policies that promote Islamic extremism and connections to terrorism, especially after the September 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi members of al-Qaeda. Since Saudi Arabia launched a war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen in 2015, a growing number of lawmakers have been concerned about the civilian death toll and have tried to curtail U.S. military assistance to the Saudis and their allies.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of 22 senators sent a letter to President Donald Trump, which will force the administration to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance. The letter invoked a law, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, that allows Congress to order an investigation by the executive branch into human-rights violations—including torture, abduction, and extrajudicial killing—“against an individual exercising freedom of expression.” The lawmakers called on Trump to impose sanctions on “any foreign person responsible for such a violation related to Mr. Khashoggi,” including “the highest ranking officials in the Government of Saudi Arabia.” The law gives Trump 120 days to conduct an investigation, identify the culprits, and determine whether sanctions are justified.
It’s unlikely that the Trump administration would blame the crown prince for Khashoggi’s fate, which would trigger sanctions against the most senior Saudi royals. But by invoking the Magnitsky Act, senators are sending a signal to Trump and Saudi leaders that they will not let this matter go. The letter was orchestrated by Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the committee’s ranking member. Before sending it to Trump, Corker reportedly examined classified U.S. intelligence files on Khashoggi’s case, and said he had determined that the Turkish narrative was relatively reliable. “We need to take some type of action,” he said, “and there are some things we can do congressionally.” In an interview with CNN on Thursday, he went even further, saying: “My instincts say that there’s no question the Saudi government did this, and my instincts say that they murdered him.”
This isn’t the first time that Corker has sought to use his leverage as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to pressure the Saudis. In June 2017, he put a hold on U.S. weapons sales to all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council until Saudi Arabia and two of its allies, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, settled their conflict with Qatar over its muscular foreign policy and relationship with Iran, the kingdom’s regional rival. Eight months after the crisis started, and with no sign of the Saudis backing down, Corker relented and lifted his hold, saying the arms deals were needed to help Washington fight terrorism.
Other lawmakers who have been supportive of the Saudis are also taking a hard line on Khashoggi’s case. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a Trump ally, said that if the Saudis were found responsible for the journalist’s death, there would be “hell to pay.” He added, “If this man was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community.”
Bin Salman is not used to this kind of criticism from U.S. officials. In June 2017, the octogenarian King Salman ousted his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, a favorite of the U.S. security and intelligence establishment, as crown prince and elevated his then-32-year-old son as first in line to the throne. The younger Salman’s ascendance marked a newly emboldened foreign policy, and an invigorated regional competition with Iran. Bin Salman was already a favorite of the Trump administration, and he had struck up a friendship and alliance with Kushner. The pair convinced Trump to make Saudi Arabia the first stop on his maiden foreign trip, which began with a grandiose welcome in Riyadh. Trump and his top advisers made explicit support for the kingdom—and constant criticism of Iran as the biggest source of instability in the Middle East—a key feature of their foreign policy.
Even if the Magnitsky Act investigation does not lead to sanctions, Congress could make the Saudis pay a price for Khashoggi’s disappearance by restricting U.S. military assistance for the Yemen war. Members of Congress are already angry with the Trump administration for minimizing their concerns about civilian casualties and the United States being implicated in potential war crimes. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are taking “demonstrable actions” to avoid harming civilians and making a “good faith” effort to reach a political settlement to end the Yemen war. Without the administration’s assurance every six months, the Pentagon cannot continue providing military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of seven senators, likely emboldened by the Khashoggi crisis, wrote to Pompeo, questioning his decision to certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are doing enough to prevent civilian casualties in Yemen, where some estimates put the death toll at 50,000. Menendez is blocking the administration from moving ahead with a multibillion-dollar deal to sell more than 120,000 missiles and other munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
If Congress succeeds in forcing a rupture in the Saudi-U.S. alliance, it could move the kingdom closer to Russia, which signed a deal with Riyadh to sell it missile-defense technology. That deal seemed to signal to Washington that the Saudis would be willing to move away from their near-total reliance on U.S. weapons systems. Indeed, after the deal’s announcement, the State Department expedited approval for the Saudis to buy a $15 billion anti-ballistic-missile system from Lockheed Martin. But those negotiations have stalled, and the Saudis recently missed a September 30 deadline to buy the Lockheed Martin system at a 20 percent discount. (The Saudis are also still negotiating with Russia on details of that weapons deal.)
For Trump, weapons deals remain at the core of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. During his trip to Riyadh in May 2017, Trump announced with great fanfare a series of arms sales to the kingdom that would total nearly $110 billion over 10 years. But many of the weapons that the Saudis plan to buy had already been approved by the Obama administration. In an interview on Fox News late Wednesday—after senators sent their letter calling for the Magnitsky Act investigation into Khashoggi’s case—Trump was asked what he thought of congressional efforts to punish Saudi Arabia by limiting arms sales. “I think that would be hurting us,” Trump said. “We have jobs. We have a lot of things happening in this country.”
Khashoggi’s disappearance, and calls for accountability from Congress, could alter the U.S.-Saudi alliance. And criticism of the kingdom will only intensify if Democrats win control of one or both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections.