On October 2nd 2018, Saudi Arabian born and American based journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate-General in Istanbul to acquire documents related to the future plans of marrying his fiancée. He didn’t come out. The realisation that Khashoggi had been murdered by the Saudi regime shocked the world and highlighted the lengths that young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman would go to in order to quell dissent of one of the most authoritarian governments in the world. Condemnation from both state and non-state groups was swift and widespread, with the consensus being that the incident was tragic, deplorable and most importantly would not go unpunished.
Amidst the initial outrage and subsequent reprimands, it can be certain that one country was secretly relishing the negative attention and damaging impacts that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia received: Iran. The two nations battling for regional hegemony have been locked in a constant struggle over who can exert the most power and influence in the Middle East, with geopolitical events constantly tipping the balance between the countries. There are several reasons why the death of Jamal has played favourably into the hands of Iran.
The first factor has been the damage that the murder has had on Saudi-United States ties. Although the Trump Administration did not go as far as some in Congress would have liked in terms of punishing the Saudi regime by deciding to impose economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials for their role in the killing rather than halting arms sales or placing sanctions on the Riyadh government as a whole, the mood in Washington has considerably soured on the bilateral relationship. Remarks such as “this should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia" by Democrat Senator Chris Murphy and “there will be hell to pay” by Republican Lindsay Graham show that this issue has received bi-partisan support.
This is especially significant for Iran regarding a monumental issue: the desire by Saudi Arabia to obtain nuclear weapons through the US. Negotiations have been underway this year through the Energy Department and the State Department for the United States to sell designs for nuclear plants to Saudi Arabia which could potentially be used to create nuclear weapons. However, due to the nature of nuclear accords, the US Congress has the ability to block any deals with the kingdom which will now be more than likely due to the Jamal incident. Representative Brad Sherman summarised this notion with “A country that can’t be trusted with a bone saw shouldn’t be trusted with nuclear weapons”. This would represent a momentous advantage to Iran whose own nuclear ambitions have been thwarted.
The assassination has also impacted the overall business environment in Saudi Arabia which desperately requires foreign investment in order to achieve Crown Prince bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan to reduce Saudi's dependence on oil by diversifying its economy. Following the Khashoggi incident, a number of VIP executives such as JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim withdrew from the Future Investment Initiative which is hosted by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia to attract capital and investment in the context of Vision 2030.
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, also stated that he was suspending his advisory role for two Saudi Vision 2030-related schemes. Germany, Denmark and Finland all halted current and future arms exports to Saudi Arabia which has increased the pressure on other nations, especially within the EU, to do the same. For Saudi Arabia to prevail over Iran in the future, it requires a strong, robust and diverse economy which has been severely wounded due to the Jamal murder. The weakening of the Saudi economy is ultimately Iran’s relative gain.
Finally, the extensive coverage of the Khashoggi assassination had led to intense attention on other activities by the Saudi government which have drawn international criticism, notably the ongoing conflict in Yemen but also the increasing crackdown on activists in Saudi Arabia, the kidnapping of the Lebanese PM Hariri in 2017 and the detention of 20 people in the Ritz-Carlton in 2017. The conflict in Yemen, regarded as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the United Nations, has been made worse for innocent civilians by Saudi Arabia’s actions including its air strikes which have killed thousands as well as its sea, land and air blockade that have caused a chronic food shortage.
Calls to cease military support of the Saudi led coalition in Yemen have become more popular, with the US Senate passing a resolution to attempt to end US military support. Although Iran is not completely innocent in this civil war with its support of the Houthi rebels, it is currently winning the propaganda battle and will stand to gain significantly if Saudi Arabia reduces its presence and contribution in Yemen as a result of international pressure.
It is a sad irony that in the quest to stifle criticism of the Saudi government, the officially sanctioned extrajudicial killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi attracted substantial condemnation from the international community and empowered Saudi Arabia’s regional antagonist to further resist Saudi hegemony.
Nicholas Burkett is a Research Assistant at Lowy Institute and is currently based in Sydney.