Having won back control of the House of Representatives after eight years, Democrats seem determined to take a closer look into President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. “The White House needs to take us seriously, and if they don’t, we are going to make sure they take us seriously,” said Eliot L. Engel, Democrat representative for New York and incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Wednesday. “I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt…But if not, I intend to use every prerogative that I have to ensure oversight.”
Democrats are expected to take up key posts in the foreign relations and national security committees in the House, enabling them to investigate a wide range of issues including US ties with Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. The relations have recently entered a critical phase over the killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Democratic lawmakers have been among the most vocal critics of the young prince, for his alleged complicity in the Khashoggi murder and his controversial war in Yemen. Now with Democrats in charge of the House, it will be even harder for Washington and Riyadh to conduct business as usual.
Saudi leaders have probably sensed the potential comeuppance, but regardless of US midterm elections results, MBS seems to have decided to put his strategic eggs, so to speak, in more than just the West’s basket.
Confused at the unexpected backlash over the Khashoggi disappearance, MBS called, on 10 October, to consult Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, only to receive a harsh message from him and US national security advisor John Bolton demanding that he find out what’s happened and come clean on the issue.
“He was really shocked that there was such a big reaction to it,” according to insider accounts. “He feels betrayed by the West. He said he would look elsewhere and he will never forget how people turned against him before evidence was produced.”
He has already started looking East, to Russia and China.
A few days later, on 13 October, Trump warned Riyadh of “severe punishment” if it was found to be behind the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. In response to Trump’s threats of sanctions, Turki Aldakhil, general manager of state-run Al Arabiya news network and a close associate of the Saudi royal court, retorted in an op-ed that Washington would only be “stabbing itself” if it took punitive action against Riyadh.
Aldakhil specified a number of over “30 potential measures” Saudis could adopt in retaliation. US penalties “would lead to Saudi Arabia’s failure to commit to producing 7.5 million barrels,” he argued. “If the price of oil reaching $80 angered President Trump, no one should rule out the price jumping to $100, or $200, or even double that figure.”
Oil wasn’t Riyadh’s only weapon though, Aldakhil continued.
“Imposing any type of sanctions on Saudi Arabia by the West will cause the kingdom to resort to other options…and that Russia and China are ready to fulfil Riyadh’s military needs among others. No one can deny that repercussions of these sanctions will include a Russian military base in Tabuk, northwest of Saudi Arabia, in the heated four corners of Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Iraq.”
The opinion editorial was unequivocally meant to deter systematic punitive measures.
It was no surprise, then, that at the Future Investment Initiative conference – nicknamed “Davos in the desert” – from 23-25 October, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund – officially known as Public Investment Fund (PIF) – agreed to join Russia-China Investment Fund with a contribution of $500 million, raising its total capital to $2.5 billion. Russia and China also stepped forward to fill the void by dispatching more delegates to the conference after around 40 high-profile figures from the United States and Europe withdrew in protest over the Khashoggi murder.
During a speech at the event, head of Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriyev expressed strong support for Crown Prince Bin Salman’s economic and social reforms despite the Khashoggi scandal, describing his “Vision 2030” development initiative as “truly historic”.
Not unexpectedly, Moscow announced later on that it had no reasons to doubt the official Saudi narrative that the royal family was not culpable in the killing of Khashoggi. “No one should have any reasons not to believe them,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on 26 October.
China, eager to expand trade and military ties with Saudi Arabia, also sees the Khashoggi affair as an opportunity. It was Saudi’s largest trading partner with over $42 billion in bilateral trade in 2017, while the two sides signed a raft of deals worth $65 billion in various sectors ranging from energy to space technology. To challenge the global hegemony of the US dollar, Beijing also seeks to make Riyadh trade crude in its national currency, renminbi yuan.
In a rare public criticism of Washington’s most important Arab ally, US Defence Secretary James Mattis told a security conference in Manama, Bahrain, that Saudi behaviour destabilised the entire Middle East at a time when the region “needs it most”. In a similar vein, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States needed a “handful more weeks” before it could collect sufficient evidence and enforce sanctions against Saudi persons responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. These penalties will likely be cosmetic though.
The Khashoggi affair has already cost Saudi Arabia a great deal, particularly in terms of damaging its global image. Now with Democrats in control of the House and able to scrutinise – if not check and balance – Washington’s relations with Riyadh, Saudis might further feel compelled to inch towards strategic damage control and diversify their alliances.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.