LONDON—When news broke this year that the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had come into contact with the deadly nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury, the United Kingdom acted fast.
Within a week, Prime Minister Theresa May had pointed a finger at Moscow, triggering a coordinated response against Russia’s “unlawful use of force” with the largest expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from Britain since the Cold War. London’s allies followed suit, and sanctions eventually followed.
But when reports emerged this month of another attack—Saudi Arabia’s suspected abduction and murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul—the response was markedly different. Words of condemnation were replaced with expressions of concern, and threats of reprisals swapped with calls for patience. Implicit in this more muted response was concern for what would be at stake if the U.K. were to confront its Gulf ally, with whom it shares a strategic intelligence partnership, as well as billions of pounds in trade.
Still, as evidence mounts over Saudi Arabia’s official role in Khashoggi’s death, the U.K. has been forced to address it. Last week, Britain’s International Trade Secretary Liam Fox joined the long list of high-profile attendees to drop out of the Saudis’ so-called Davos in the Desert investment conference—a move that coincided with the announcement that the U.K., along with France, Germany, and the Netherlands, would be suspending all political visits to the kingdom. Following Saudi Arabia’s statement Friday that Khashoggi was killed in a “rogue operation,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Monday that Saudi Arabia’s admission “does not amount to a credible explanation,” and called on the Saudi government to provide “urgent” clarification about exactly what happened to Khashoggi.