US bars 16 over Khashoggi killings

The US has issued sanctions on 16 connected with Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in a move designed to counter assertions by Congress that the Trump administration is not serious about dealing with human rights violations, especially those pertaining to Saudi Arabia.

Background

Human rights in Saudi Arabia are subject to Wahhabi law enforced under the absolute command of the Royal Family, The House of Sa’ud. The regime is consistently ranked among the worst by Freedom House’s annual survey of civil and political rights. 

Jamal Khashoggi was one of the Arab world’s most prominent journalists and commentators, living in self-imposed exile in the United States. Mr. Khashoggi was part of the Saudi elite, close to members of the royal family. Khashoggi was a prominent vocal critic of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). On 2 October, he disappeared in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul and was subsequently shown to have been killed at the hands of Saudi security officers.

Analysis

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has barred entry to 16 Saudi nationals over their role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Designating the individuals under “cases where the Secretary of State has credible information that officials of foreign governments have been involved in significant corruption or gross violations of human rights,” the Trump administration takes a position where they tacitly place blame upon the Saudi government. Those barred include Saud al-Qahtani, a former close advisor of MBS and Maher Mutreb, the supposed leader of the group that killed the renowned journalist. The Saudi government has denied playing a part in the killing, placing blame on agents who were out of their control.

The sanctions come at a time when the Trump administration has faced increased pressure from Congress over its response to the Khashoggi killing. The Democrat-controlled House has repeatedly taken a stance antithetical to the position of the Trump administration since gaining command after the 2018 midterms. The move is designed to satisfy any recourse taken by the House to paint the White House as weak on issues of foreign policy, especially relating to the Saudi regime. The ability to point to recent sanctions allows the White House to sidestep accusations of complacency. However, the move comes many months after the infraction and is likely to be perceived as a moot point by Mr. Trump’s political rivals. In addition, it potentially allows the Trump administration to point to its sanctions while taking the narrative of the Saudi government of rogue agents, thereby painting its own narrative of a tough position on human rights violations.

Assessment

Our assessment is that the sanctions placed on 16 Saudi nationals are part of a move by the Trump administration to portray itself as tough on human rights violations. We believe that despite this move, the Trump administration is unlikely to be seen as such in the House given the timing of the sanctions. We believe that the latest move allows Saudi Arabia to officially continue to distance itself from the perpetrators, feeding into the narrative that the operations were carried out by agents beyond its control.