PHOTO BY: Tejinder Singh
Pompeo at Briefing

Addressing journalists in the State Department briefing room today (October 23), US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo announced the US will revoke visas of Saudis found responsible for the death of Khashoggi, adding, "We've got people working all across the world" to learn what really happened.



Washington, DC – It is hard to think of a more pointless tragedy than the Saudi murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Killing a decent man for making legitimate criticisms and justifiable calls for reform has wasted a meaningful life for no apparent reason and has done immense harm to US and Saudi relations in the process. It has deeply compromised US faith in Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the worst possible way, and it threatens to divide the US and Saudi Arabia at time when both nations need to improve their strategic cooperation to bring stability to the Gulf region and deal with Iran.

At this point, there is no way to avoid a long and painful effort to determine all the facts surrounding Khashoggi’s death and establish the level of responsibility for all of the Saudis involved. Anything approaching a cover-up will simply create a climate of suspicion and distrust that will last for years. It is one thing to try to ignore some of the details in a failed operation against a violent terrorist or a hostile intelligence operative, but there is no way to make people forget what must be one of the most stupid and cruel intelligence blunders on record.

Two Nations That Need Each Other

At the same time, the United States and Saudi Arabia are not strategic partners by accident. Saudi development and stability are critical to the flow of petroleum exports from Saudi Arabia and from the entire Gulf – a flow of exports that is critical to the health of the global economy and to Asian states like Japan and South Korea that are some of America’s most critical trading partners. These Saudi petroleum exports will become even more critical in a few weeks’ time when new US sanctions on Iran’s petroleum exports kick in and added Saudi production becomes even more important.

Saudi military development is critical to deterring Iran and limiting its military adventures. The security of all the Arab Gulf states, not just Saudi Arabia, depends on the level and effectiveness of Saudi-US military cooperation. It is far from clear that a hardline approach is the only way to deal with Iran, but if both the US and Saudi Arabia remain committed to such an approach they need to be ready to cooperate.

It is equally true that Saudi Arabia needs outside help in economic and social reform. Saudi Arabia’s current plans are almost certainly overambitious, but Saudi Arabia desperately does need to create massive numbers of jobs and diversify its economy, and cannot evolve peacefully and in a stable way without US investment and help. Similarly, the US cannot fight extremism and terrorism in the region without a stable Saudi Arabia and Saudi cooperation.

What to Do Next: A Saudi Commitment to Reform

Some of the current tragedy will have to play out on its own. The facts will either continue to surface at their own pace, or they will be buried in ways that leave lasting tension and distrust. Erdogan will play the Khashoggi card as best he can and will do so despite both his status as the world’s least convincing human rights advocate and his clear motive for exploiting the situation as much as possible. And, it is easy to argue that the Saudi regime will be getting what it has earned.

The Saudi Foreign Minister has at least made a start, however, by describing Khashoggi’s death as murder, and by saying that, “We are determined to find out all the facts and we are determined to punish those who are responsible for this murder. The individuals who did this did this outside the scope of their authority…There obviously was a tremendous mistake made, and what compounded the mistake was the attempt to try to cover up…Even the senior leadership of our intelligence service was not aware of this,” he said, calling it a “rogue operation”.

It may be impossible to prove that the Crown Prince was not involved, but heads of state have made such mistakes before and in the West. It also is at least something that both King Salman and the crown prince did call Khashoggi’s son, Salah, on Sunday to express their condolences over his death. Formal compensation and formal acknowledgement of his fiancée would at least help.

One key step that could accomplish a great deal more than focusing on the ultimate responsibility for Khashoggi’s death would be for Saudi Arabia to act on its own and announce a new approach to dealing with peaceful dissent. Saudi Arabia could announce greater freedom of the press and halt the arbitrary arrest of peaceful voices and demonstrations for reform. The Kingdom did far better with a lower-key approach to security and tolerating dissidents in the past, and it is difficult to see how the Kingdom can now champion reform from the top without letting reformers speak for themselves.

As for Saudi intelligence, security, counterterrorism, and law enforcement – the Kingdom could publicly make it clear that it will not carry out any similar attempts to suppress the voices of legitimate reform, free key prisoners, and agree that it would provide immediate transparency as to the cause and circumstance of any future cases of detentions and arrests. Some intelligence and counterterrorism activity must be kept classified, but the key to such efforts is to never label or treat anyone as a terrorist who is not actually violent or extreme.

The US should not try to impose such steps, or expect Saudi Arabia to become a mirror image of the US, but these are key steps the Saudi government can take on its own. If it does, the US should accept them for what they are: the best memorial Khashoggi could have.

Ending the Boycott of Qatar and Restoring Efforts to Create an Effective Gulf Cooperation Council

This would also be an excellent time for the US and Kuwait to work with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar to put an end to the absurd boycott of Qatar. This boycott has done a great deal to aid Iran and extremism, and has virtually halted any progress toward cooperation and military effectiveness within the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Gulf. This does not mean Saudi Arabia and the UAE conceding to Qatar. Qatar has already done much to deal with the legitimate complaints about its tolerance of real extremists but it does need do more. Al Jazeera would lose nothing by giving time to its real journalists and less time to panelists and biased propaganda segments.

One key step would be to find a GCC-wide compromise on an issue that Khashoggi faced against and again in recent years: treating the entire Muslim Brotherhood as if it was a terrorist or extremist organization. What is needed is a mutual agreement that will define real terrorists and extremists and only treat them as terrorists and extremists. Peaceful advocates of given variations of Islamic politics and governance should be treated as such, and these peaceful advocated should be given both security and the freedom to speak.

Equally important, the GCC desperately needs military reform. Progress has been needed for years in increasing interoperability, standardization, common facilities, and the integration of key systems like air defense, missile defense, maritime surveillance, etc. Here, many of the concepts advocated by the late King Abdullah have needed to be implemented from the very start of the GCC.

It would be far better for all the members of the GCC –and for other Arab states – if Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and other Gulf states could use this moment to work with USCENTCOM and NATO to make the GCC a real alliance rather than simply end the boycott with some new set of face-saving gestures.

Rethinking the US Approach to Arms Sales and Burden Sharing

The US reaction to Khashoggi also flags a different kind of need for change. Like President Obama before him, President Trump has been singularly badly advised about the value of US arms to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states, and the role of Arab states in burden sharing. He has also focused on the values of arms sales as is they were real estate, rather than their value to the common defense and cost in terms of other aspects of Gulf and Saudi stability.

If anything, most Arab Gulf states need to cut their defense spending and focus on job creation, social services, and economic development to create the wealth and social stability that are key weapons against the threats of extremism and terrorism.

The US asks NATO countries to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, and spent something like 3.6 percent of its own GDP on defense in 2017. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that Saudi Arabia spent 11.3 percent of its GDP on defense, Oman spent 12.08 percent, Iraq spent 10 percent, Kuwait spent 4.8 percent, and Bahrain spent 4.3 percent. The UAE and Qatar do not provide meaningful spending data, but US experts feel the UAE is spending some 10 percent and Qatar at least 7 percent.

(See Anthony H. Cordesman and Nicholas Harrington, Iran: Military Spending, Modernization, and the Shifting Military Balance in the Gulf, September 4, 2018,CSIS-Burke Chair.)

Gulf countries do need to have strong forces to deal with Iran and extremism, but most are already spending too much. They need to use this extra money to meet key civil needs, and they need to allocate their funds in ways where they achieve major benefits from cooperation rather than waste money on uncoordinated national efforts and showpiece projects.

President Trump is all too correct in flagging the need for strong regional strategic partners. He had been singularly badly advised, however, in focusing on the volume of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states rather than the need for stability, to cut back military spending, and to focusing on buying the right arms and setting the right priorities like THAAD and missile defense. As the attached fact sheet shows, even the sales request to Congress have only totaled some $25.9 billion since he came to office, but the previous totals under Obama have raised the recent totals to over $100 billion, which is simply too much.

It is far better to fight counterterrorism and avoid insurgency by ensuring that money is used to buy social stability and civil benefits than to spend excessively on military forces in ways that encourage it. The test of success in US arms sales is that they enhance security and deterrence, and help limit escalation, not their dollar value. The key benefits come from creating more stable and effective strategic partners, not from taking as much of their money as possible. The cost to the US of its recent wars also show that the real cost-benefits come from avoiding such wars if at all possible.

The Yemen Crisis

Finally, it is clear from Khashoggi’s entire life that he must have understood the tragedy in Yemen all too well, and cared deeply about the human tragedy there. It is far from clear what solution exists to ending the fighting between the Saudi-UAE-led coalition and the Houthi-led coalition that opposes them, or to bringing broader stability to the tensions and fighting between North and South, Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its opposition, ISIS, and Yemen’s other warring factions. A new Saudi humanitarian drive to aid the Yemeni people could help, however, and a new drive for peace might help even more. Nothing can bring Khashoggi back, but every action that serves the causes he lived for is at least a real tribute.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – 155mm M109A6 Paladin Medium Self-Propelled Howitzer System

WASHINGTON, Apr. 5, 2018 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to Saudi Arabia of 155mm M109A5/A6 Medium Self-Propelled Howitzer structures for conversion to M109A6 Paladin Howitzer systems for an estimated cost of $1.31 billion. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale today.

Saudi Arabia – TOW 2B (BGM-71F-Series) Missiles

WASHINGTON, Mar. 22, 2018 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to Saudi Arabia of TOW 2B (BGM-71F-Series) missiles for an estimated cost of $670 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale today.

Saudi Arabia – Royal Saudi Land Forces Ordnance Corps Foreign Military Sales Order (FMSO) II Case

WASHINGTON, Mar. 22, 2018 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to Saudi Arabia of a Royal Saudi Land Forces Ordnance Corps Foreign Military Sales Order (FMSO) II Case for an estimated cost of $300 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale today.

Saudi Arabia – Continuation of Maintenance Support Services (MSS)

WASHINGTON, Mar. 22, 2018 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to Saudi Arabia of equipment and services for the continuation of the Maintenance Support Services (MSS) contract that supports the Royal Saudi Land Forces Aviation Command for an estimated cost of $106.8 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale today.

Saudi Arabia – Continuation of Missile System Support Services

WASHINGTON, JAN. 17, 2018 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to Saudi Arabia of continuation of missile system support services for an estimated cost of $500 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale today.

Saudi Arabia – Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and Related Support, Equipment and Services

WASHINGTON, Oct 6, 2017 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Government of Saudi Arabia for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and related support, equipment and services for an estimated cost of $15 billion. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale today.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – AN/TPQ-53(V) Radar Systems and Related Support

WASHINGTON, Jun. 5, 2017 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for AN/TPQ-53(V) radar systems and related support. The estimated cost is $662 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale today.

Saudi Arabia – Blanket Order Training

WASHINGTON, Jun. 5, 2017 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a blanket order training program for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) and other Saudi forces. The estimated cost is $750 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale on June 2, 2017.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – Navy Blanket Order Training

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2017 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a Navy blanket order training program. The estimated cost is $250 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale on May 22, 2017.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – 74K Persistent Threat Detection System (PTDS) Aerostats

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 2017 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for 74K Persistent Threat Detection System (PTDS) Aerostats and related equipment, support, and training. The estimated cost is $525 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale today.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – CH-47F Chinook Cargo Helicopters

WASHINGTON, Dec. 8, 2016 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for CH-47F Chinook Cargo Helicopters and related equipment, training, and support. The estimated cost is $3.51 billion. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale on December 7, 2016.

August 2016

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – M1A2S Saudi Abrams Main Battle Tanks and M88Al/A2 Heavy Equipment Recovery Combat Utility Lift Evacuation System (HERCULES) Armored Recovery Vehicles (ARV)

WASHINGTON, Aug 9, 2016 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for M1A2S Saudi Abrams Main Battle Tanks and M88Al/A2 Heavy Equipment Recovery Combat Utility Lift Evacuation System (HERCULES) Armored Recovery Vehicles (ARV), equipment, training, and support. The estimated cost is $1.15 billion. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale on August 8, 2016.

February 2016

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – Support Services

WASHINGTON, Feb. 18, 2016 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for support services. The estimated cost is $200 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale on February 17, 2016.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia-MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS) Block 1B Baseline 2 Kits

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2016 – The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS) Block 1B Baseline 2 Kits, equipment, training, and logistics support. The estimated cost is $154.9 million. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale on February 10, 2016.

Source: Defense Security Assistance Agency, “Major Arms Sales,” accessed 22 October 2018

This article originally appeared on CSIS.org and is published here with permission.

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