Interview with Middle East expert Guido Steinberg

No one wants conflict with Saudi Arabia

Even though the case of the disappeared Saudi journalist Khashoggi weighs heavily, no government is prepared to risk open conflict with the Saudis. Meanwhile, the concerns of dissidents who have fled their authoritarian countries of origin to the West are growing. By Diana Hodali

Mr. Steinberg, everyone is awaiting clarification from Saudi Arabia in the case of the missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Donald Trump has publicly sided with the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Saudi Arabia says it will now launch an investigation – but what can we expect from that?

Guido Steinberg: It’s in the interest of the Saudi Arabian and the U.S. government not to damage their relationship. For that reason, it’s clear that the Trump administration is trying to avoid having to take any measures against the Saudis. I don’t believe that a Saudi Arabian investigation will bring the truth to light. President Trump has already indicated a possible route for Riyadh, when he speculated over whether Saudi Arabian intelligence agents might be responsible for the abduction or murder of Khashoggi, without the knowledge of the government.

But then why is it so difficult for western politics to issue firmer demands for an explanation in the case of the missing Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi?

Steinberg: Few governments want an open conflict with the Saudis. Just think of the conflict with Canada, when Saudi Arabia effectively broke off relations and imposed sanctions over a banal Tweet.  Germany normalised relations with Saudi Arabia shortly before the Khashoggi case, which means the government has no interest in any fresh escalation. The U.S. is a much more important player in this context. Here, we’re dealing with a government that’s been fostering particularly close ties with Saudi Arabia since early 2017. Then there’s Turkey, which doesn’t want to fall out with Saudi Arabia either. That’s why all relevant information is being leaked, but the government has stopped short of apportioning any blame.

Does the close relationship between Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman give Saudi Arabia carte blanche to do as it likes?

Steinberg: Riyadh did at least believe it would get away with the abduction or even a murder. That Saudi Arabia counted on the protection of the U.S. government was already evident during the 2017 Qatar crisis. But now, the Crown Prince may have overstepped the mark, because the U.S. Congress has been pressing for responses for days now.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (photo: picture-alliance)
Dissidents abroad are afraid: under Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the pressure on Saudi opposition members and regime critics in exile has increased. "There’s an increasing number of authoritarian states conducting themselves in an increasingly authoritarian manner," says Middle East expert Steinberg. "Accordingly, there are also more exiles who flee these nations and come to the western world. This induces dictators to search for their opponents abroad and engage them there"

So how can we expect other nations to react now?

Steinberg: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are the most important actors in this conflict. If all three have no interest in an escalation, then they also have no interest in an explanation. That could also hinder other countries from expressing themselves firmly. The Europeans, for example, will think long and hard about whether to respond with sanctions such as the expulsion of diplomats, if the U.S. doesn’t do that.

In the Skripal case, the Americans and their allies acted together. In my opinion, that’s an understandable and in such cases appropriate reaction. Only, if the Americans aren’t on board, this won’t result in the Saudis changing their behaviour. And that’s the problem that can arise for the Europeans and other allies: that they take measures that damage on their relationship with Saudi Arabia without achieving the desired effect – namely to motivate the Saudis to refrain from doing something similar in future.

Turkey is a member of NATO – the alleged murder took place there. Is the case likely to impact in any way on dealings with NATO partner countries?

Steinberg: I think it will have an impact. Turkey is an important NATO member and a political murder in the heart of a NATO country should in my view also be unanimously sanctioned by all NATO members. However the problem is that so far, Turkey hasn’t demanded any such unanimous response. Then the question arises over what sanctions can achieve. In particular then, when the strongest NATO member state, the United States, also doesn’t want such a response.

So what form could sanctions take – in the case of Germany, shouldn’t one also be thinking about halting weapons exports, if Saudi Arabia turns out to be responsible?

Steinberg: Arrangements could be made to expel diplomats, for example. Such a move would need to be highly targeted – in other words affecting members of the security authorities first and foremost. Then there’s the possibility of punishing the heads of those authorities involved in this case. Other measures are unrealistic.

Protesters in Washington demand answers regarding the suspected murder of missing Saudi journalist Khashoggi (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Public outrage and demands for clarification: according to media reports, the Turkish authorities assume that Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a 15-man special commando from Saudi Arabia. They are also said to be in possession of compromising audio and video recordings. The Saudis, on the other hand, affirm their innocence. No one has seen the reform-oriented journalist Khashoggi since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October

Many Arab dissidents and also critical journalists have had to leave their home nations and seek protection in other countries. What does this case now mean for you, when you see that there will quite possibly be no consequences to fear from the international community?

Steinberg: The fear felt by many exiles is now considerable. I think we can describe it as a trend. There are more authoritarian states and states that are become even more authoritarian, such as Saudi Arabia for example. These nations are deploying all possible means to gain control of critics and dissidents abroad. They do this in ways we’re now familiar with, right through to assassination attempts. For the nations that take these critics in, this means a growing danger of such attacks.

We’ve been seeing that in recent years in Turkey, which is also persecuting opposition members in Europe. Critics of these governments have been very worried for some time. Saudis, Egyptians but also Syrians living abroad will be following these events in Istanbul very closely and looking for ways to protect themselves. In the end, the responsibility must be assumed by the countries they live in. This is a reason why I would support sanctions if it turns out the Saudis are responsible. They must be sanctions that will persuade the Saudis not to do something like that again, in a NATO country at least.

Mohammad bin Salman has for a long time tried to present himself as a reformer, but in actual fact he has had his critics persecuted, locked up and also executed.

Steinberg: There has indeed been a kind of authoritarian turnabout in Saudi Arabian politics since 2015. But I don’t think we should hold a solely negative view of Mohammad bin Salman. He’s an economic and social reformer. But in the same way that perhaps Ataturk or Resa Pahlavi were – authoritarian reformers who believed that they could only change their societies if they maintained a firm grip on all areas of life. He wants reforms that’ll bring the nation into the 21st century, but a 21st century in line with the Chinese model, not the liberal western model.

If it turns out that Saudi Arabia is behind this, can the Crown Prince come through with his respectability intact?

Steinberg: His reputation has been tarnished and his economic reforms will suffer for that. Few will invest in Saudi Arabia. But I don’t think there’s any threat to his rule – he’s eliminated all competitors.

I’d like to go back to the issue of critics’ security. Should the West start thinking about ways to better protect dissidents and critics in future?

Steinberg: Yes, I think so. There’s an increasing number of authoritarian states conducting themselves in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Accordingly, there are also more exiles who flee these nations and come to the western world. This induces dictators to search for their opponents abroad and engage them there. If you look at this trend like this, then receiving countries must provide them with greater protection, for moral reasons but also for practical political reasons.

This is not a new phenomenon. In the past too, eastern European dissidents, Iranians, Syrians and Libyans were persecuted here in Europe. But I think the phenomenon has grown in importance in recent years. Our security authorities must provide greater and better protection. This can only succeed if they know as much as possible about the nations and their diplomatic missions that present a danger.

I believe that our political sphere must respond by bolstering the organisational units within our security authorities concerned with counter-espionage. They were wantonly neglected after the end of the Cold War, but they’ve been needed with increasing frequency for years.

Interview conducted by Diana Hodali

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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