The CIA’s conclusion that the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was at the explicit order of the Saudi crown prince is bound to have a profound and destabilising impact on the US-Saudi bilateral relationship. The Washington Post columnist and a critic of the Saudi royal family was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month and his body was dismembered. Faced with worldwide outrage over the gruesome assassination, Riyadh is only tying itself up in knots, changing the narratives by the hour. First, it was outright denial followed by a convoluted reasoning that it could have been a botched up operation by some individual intelligence officials. The Saudi public prosecutor has acknowledged, for the first time, that the hit team of Saudi agents were supposed to kidnap Khashoggi and bring him back alive but ended up murdering their target. There is a strong circumstantial evidence that the murder was carried out by a hit team and it was well known in diplomatic circles that Khashoggi’s critical writings, particularly on Saudi’s war in Yemen, had caused embarrassment to the the ultra-conservative regime. There is a growing demand in the US to suspend all military sales and cooperation with Saudi Arabia until a credible international investigation into the killing is completed. Finland, Denmark and Germany have already halted all future sales of arms and military equipment to the Saudi government. It is possible that Riyadh may make certain concessions to its American ally in return for its continued support.
One of the concessions could be that it may scale back the war in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar. Such moves would allow Saudi Arabia to retain high level of strategic support that it has from the White House. Last month, the US increased its calls for a ceasefire in Yemen where Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition that supports the Yemeni government. Trump administration could pressure Riyadh to get a ceasefire in Yemen while withholding American arms and intelligence assistance for the fighting there. The US has long relied on Riyadh to counter Iran in the Middle East and to combat terrorism in the region. It has also counted on Saudi Arabia to restrain oil prices and to purchase US-made weapons. Saudi Arabia is OPEC’s biggest oil producer and the top buyer of U.S. weaponry. The Khashoggi crisis poses toughest challenge for Washington as it is resetting its priorities in the region. The White House is certainly not looking for partners that are champions of human rights and press freedom but for those who can help in furthering its strategic objectives. The latest crisis has triggered a power struggle within the Saudi royal family.