Key US senator says he will 'sanction the hell' out of Saudi over Khashoggi
US Senator Lindsey Graham has blamed the Saudi crown prince for the murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and said that he is “going to sanction the hell out Saudi Arabia” during a TV appearance on Tuesday morning.
Graham’s comments on the 'Fox and Friends' show - which US President Trump is known to watch avidly - came hours after reports emerged that the Saudi government plans to admit that Khashoggi was killed after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
Saudi Arabia, if you are listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself
- US Senator Lindsey Graham
Sources have cautioned that the report is still being prepared and could change, and may conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance of the Saudi leadership, or carried out by an incompetent intelligence official.
But the admission itself would mark a stark reversal from earlier statements by Saudi officials who have strongly denied any involvement in his disappearance, and has already set off US politicians on both sides of the aisle who have been outspoken about the case.
Representative Gerry Connolly, a Democrat in whose northern Virginia district Khashoggi has been living, told Middle East Eye on Tuesday morning, in light of the overnight revelations, that "all options, including punitive sanctions, must be considered by the Trump administration".
"The United States cannot stand idly by, irrespective of our longstanding relationship with Saudi Arabia, and allow what happened to Mr Khashoggi to occur with impunity," he said.
Back on Fox, Graham said that nothing could happen in Saudi Arabia without the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman - commonly referred to as MBS - knowing about it.
"This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey and to expect me to ignore it, I feel used and abused. I was on the [Senate] floor every time defending Saudi Arabia because they were a good ally."
Graham added that MBS is "toxic" and "can never be a world leader".
Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, is one of 22 US senators who sent a letter to Trump last week, triggering an investigation into the veteran Saudi journalist's disappearance under the 2012 Magnitsky Act.
Under the act, which was used against Russian nationals involved in serious crimes, Trump has 120 days to determine whether to impose sanctions against any foreign nationals involved in what happened to Khashoggi.
Graham told Fox and Friends that "it's up to the president" to decide what he wants to do. "But I know what I'm going to do - I'm going to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia."
He then turned directly to the camera and said: "Saudi Arabia, if you are listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself."
Congress 'will act', says Rubio
Marco Rubio, another Republican senator, told CNN on Tuesday that MBS is "young and aggressive" and that the US has feared he would "overestimate how much room he had to do things".
He said the US Congress "will act" in a way that will likely alter the US-Saudi relationship for the foreseeable future as a result of Khashoggi's disappearance, and rejected Trump's previous reservations that imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia could freeze tens of billions of dollars worth of US arms sales to the kingdom.
"There are other countries we could sell that to," Rubio said.
For decades, US administrations have treated the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia as an outsize strategic priority - bending over backward to protect it - and for the Trump administration, this is even more the case
- Stephen Pomper, International Crisis Group
"I don't care how much money it is, there isn't enough money in the world to purchase back our credibility on human rights and the way nations should conduct themselves."
Stephen Pomper, the International Crisis Group's US programme director, told MEE that for decades, US adminstrations have "shown little inclination to readjust their thinking regardless of how egregiously the Saudis behave".
"US administrations have treated the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia as an outsize strategic priority - bending over backward to protect it -and for the Trump administration, this is even more the case," Pomper said.
"They're looking to Riyadh to be a hub of their strategy for countering Iran, they've looked to the Saudis to support their plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and they want Saudi help funding Syria's reconstruction."
But there is a lot Congress can do, he said, including blocking arms sales, de-funding support for Saudi and Emirati operations in Yemen and imposing sanctions - if they can assemble a veto-proof majority.
"That would not be easy, but it's also becoming less inconceivable, especially given the mounting and visible frustration with the Saudis on both sides of the aisle," he said.
In a letter on Friday, leaders of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs told Trump that they supported the senators' push for an investigation under Magnitsky and called on Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to cancel his plans to attend the upcoming Future Investment Intiative (FII) conference - nicknamed 'Davos in the Desert' - to be held in Riyadh.
"We value our relations with Saudi Arabia. Yet murder and other blatant violations of international norms and agreements cannot be done with impunity," wrote Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Representative Eliot Engel, ranking member of the committee.
Some of the events in last year's FII conference were held at the Ritz-Carlton which would serve just weeks later as a makeshift prison for hundreds of Saudi businessmen, members of the royal family and former government ministers accused of corruption by the state.
Saudi authorities presented the detentions as an anti-corruption campaign and used it to bolster MBS' image as a young reformer, further promoted during a lavish, three-week Saudi PR road show earlier this year to the UK and US.
For many executives and others with business interests in Saudi, that narrative largely seemed to hold until Khashoggi's disappearance earlier this month. In the wake of leaks from Turkish officials purporting to reveal details of how Khashoggi was killed, speakers and sponsors of this year's conference started last Friday to bow out of the event.
Late Monday, David Petraeus, the retired US general and chairman of the KKR Global Institute, and Joseph Bae, co-president and co-chief operating office of private equity firm KKR & Co LP, were the latest to withdraw from the conference. Mnuchin is still reportedly planning to attend.
Pressure on the US government to act over Khashoggi has also come from Republican Senator Rand Paul who has pushed to cut funding, training and other coordination with the Saudi military "until Khashoggi is returned alive".
A spokesperson for Paul told MEE on Tuesday: "For far too long, Saudi Arabia has been the principal funder of terrorism around the world. Senator Paul has long advocated for reexamining our relationship with the Saudis, and now is the time to stop selling arms and to stop giving further aid to the kingdom.”