Khashoggi ghost lurks in the shade

(Satellite images suggest Saudi Arabia testing missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons)

Saudi Arabia launched a mammoth National Industrial Development and Logistics Program (NIDLP) Monday focusing on a dozen sectors in the economy including energy, petrochemicals, mining and the automotive industry. The powerful Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid al-Falih claimed that agreements worth a whopping $63 billion would be signed within the ambit of the NIDLP. He singled out big agreements in the defence industries and a major agreement between the Saudi oil behemoth Aramco and the global leader in diversified chemicals headquartered in Riyadh SABIC.

The NIDLP is a flagship of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious Vision 2030, which amongst other things has a target of creating 1.6 million jobs in Saudi Arabia. Al-Falih spoke of Saudi Arabia’s plans of attracting mammoth private investment, domestic and foreign, to the tune of $427 billion through the coming decade aimed at diversifying the economy.

The Saudi regime’s hope is that the NIDLP splash will bury the debris of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and put behind the risk of international censure by packaging the country as an alluring destination for doing business. The Washington Post reported, “The Saudis sent a large delegation to the Swiss Alps (for the Davos summit), including their economy, finance and foreign ministers. The country’s oil giant, Aramco, staged a lavish party Wednesday evening for executives and bankers attending the forum. In various conversations, Western politicians and business executives indicated their unwillingness to turn their back on the kingdom.”

The WaPo gave a catchy title to the report, ‘Saudi Arabia asked the world to forget Khashoggi at Davos. It’s working.’ But the big question is, ‘is it really working?’ And if so, how long it will work? The Swiss Alps would have been too chilly for Khashoggi’s ghost to haunt but that doesn’t mean it has gone away for good. The Khashoggi affair is following Saudi Arabia like a shadow.

Even as the publicity blitzkrieg was going on in Davos, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard announced that she was travelling to Turkey (this week) to head an “independent international inquiry” into the murder of Khashoggi in Istanbul on October 2. The Turkish President Recep Erdogan has ordered that preparations be made for the UN inquiry.

Callamard said she would evaluate the circumstances of the crime, and “the nature and the extent of states’ and individuals’ responsibilities for the killing”. She said, “My findings and recommendations will be reported to the UN Human Rights Council at the June 2019 session.”

Three experts are accompanying her, with forensic expertise amongst other skills. Importantly, she has sought permission for visiting Saudi Arabia, too. This is going to be a high profile enterprise, which will draw a lot of publicity in the West, where Saudi Arabia’s reputation is already seriously damaged.

Curiously, the European Commission sources disclosed – also last week – that it has added Saudi Arabia to an EU draft list of countries that pose a threat to the bloc because of the country’s lackadaisical attitude toward terrorism financing and money laundering. Saudi Arabia is now joining a list of countries that include Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, Afghanistan, etc. The Reuters commented,

“Apart from reputational damage, inclusion in the list complicates financial relations with the EU. The bloc’s banks must carry out additional checks on payments involving entities from listed jurisdictions… The move marks a setback for Riyadh at a time when it has launched a charm offensive to bolster its international reputation in order to encourage foreign investors to participate in a huge transformation plan and improve financial ties for its banks. It also comes amid heightened international pressure after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

It is difficult to believe that two such high-profile campaigns – by the UN and EU – are entirely unrelated to each other. The probability is that they are being orchestrated. Surely, again, an ‘exclusive’ report by Associated Press on Sunday could not have been a coincidence – reporting that according to experts and satellite images, Saudi Arabia “appears to be testing and possibly manufacturing ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear bombs. The report implied that such activities could only have been possible at the personal orders of Crown Prince Salman.

Clearly, the report is based on intelligence inputs from American sources and it highlights that an apparent rocket-engine test stand spotted in the satellite image “closely resembles a design used by China, though it is smaller.” The Texas-based media organization Stratfor, which is often dubbed as CIA-Lite, assessed that “should Saudi Arabia move into a test-launch phase, the United States will be pressured to take action with sanctions,” as it has done with Iran.

Again, the report’s intended audience is the US Congress, which, AP reported, “has grown increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia since the October 2 assassination of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, allegedly carried out by members of Prince Mohammed’s entourage.” To be sure, the prospect of Saudi Arabia having a clandestine nuclear program at this juncture is just what the irate lawmakers who are already agitated over Khashoggi’s killing will want to demand an embargo on military technology to that country.

Now, what is in common between a secret Saudi military base, a high-profile UN special rapportuer, and a diligent European Commission? What emerges is that a multi-pronged campaign is afoot to pressure the Saudi regime and to corner the Crown Prince, in particular. The involvement of the US, EU and the US Congress and intelligence agencies already makes this a formidable campaign. Things may well get rough in the period ahead.

President Trump has so far remained impervious to the campaign. But that can change. Conceivably, Saudis also seem to be preparing for a difficult period ahead in the relations with the US. While the Saudi missile development program can be seen as a counter to Iran, its dynamics also would have another dimension.

The point is, US influence in the Gulf is declining and Washington’s preferences are no longer registering in Riyadh as strongly as it used to in the past. Of course, the Saudi drive for autonomy in national-security decision-making has its limits due to its heavy military dependence on the US, but then, as the AP report flags, American weaponry or military technology is no longer the only game in town – Russia and China are waiting in the wings.

(Saudi Arabia publicly exhibits its nuclear-capable missiles of DF-3 purchased from China)

Indeed, China and Pakistan who are not members of the Missile Technology Control regime can always sell offensive missiles and related technology to Saudi Arabia, as has happened in the past. The growing feeling that the US is no longer dependable as the provider of security, given the storm clouds gathering over the Khashoggi affair and of course the decreasing confidence in Riyadh in the overall US leadership, would significantly influence the Saudi thinking to operate outside the US strategic orbit.