Suppose, hypothetically, it is determined that the Saudi Arabian government murdered Jamal Khashoggi over his opposition to Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

I can understand why this would be an unethical thing to do, as it would amount to the government killing a political opponent. I am having trouble understanding why it would be of such a concern to the United States that the United States might sanction Saudi Arabia. The killing would be bad, and bad for the people of Saudi Arabia, but would it be bad for the United States?

I have seen some discussion of how killing political opponents undermines Saudi Arabia's efforts to convince foreign businesses that the country is safe to invest in. I can see why this would be a concern to businesses. But again, businesses can make their investment decisions as they see fit without need for the U.S. to impose sanctions. Where does the role of the U.S. government fit into this?

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    Hypothetically? – Strawberry Oct 17 '18 at 8:50
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    @Strawberry probably just trying to avoid getting sidetracked by arguments about whether they did or not, or who was ultimately responsible, since that is tangential to the question. – PhillS Oct 17 '18 at 10:42
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    @Strawberry "Hypothetically" refers to "determined", not "murdered". Investigating occurrences inside a country's embassy requires the co-operation of that country, and they have strong motivation to co-operate enough to look co-operative but not enough to give evidence of their guilt. – David Richerby Oct 17 '18 at 14:27
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    I think it's sad that we live in an age where this is considered a legitimate question. Why shouldn't we sanction barbarism? – Strawberry Oct 18 '18 at 13:42
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    Not allowed to answer, but IN ADDITION to being a hit-job on a journalist (which is in itself grounds for sanctions) the big no-no here is using a diplomatic office (Consulate) in clear violation of what it is supposed to be. Saudi Arabia is granted a consulate for diplomatic business (and espionage, but that is an accepted by-use of any diplomatic office, ref "Military attache" roles) it is certainly not intended to be a honey trap to murder citizens of other countries. This is the main reason. – Stian Yttervik Oct 19 '18 at 8:58

It's especially an issue for the US because Jamal Khashoggi is an immigrant and permanent resident to the US.

The Washington Post reported on 9 October that "US intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture" Khashoggi. It was not clear whether the Saudi Arabians intended to arrest and interrogate Khashoggi or to kill him, or if the US warned Khashoggi that he was a target. The intercepted communication is deemed important because Khashoggi is a legal resident of the United States, and is therefore entitled to protection. According to NSA officials, this threat warning was communicated to the White House through official intelligence channels.


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    Also they are a major ally of the USA in the region and doing nothing can sound like USA gov can ignore ethics and law when it suits them – jean Oct 16 '18 at 20:56
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    @jean Is there any government which doesn't ignore ethics and law when it suits them? – Eric Duminil Oct 17 '18 at 9:49
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    @EricDuminil Aye, but Governments also like to maintain an illusion that they don't. – Jack Aidley Oct 17 '18 at 10:13
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    @xrorox also the US President has business deals with the kingdom, as does one of his closest advisors Kushner. That adds a level of complexity we haven't really seen before. – BruceWayne Oct 18 '18 at 13:38
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    @BruceWayne "One of his closest advisors" seems like it vastly understates the nature of their relationship. Kushner is the President's son-in-law, and is therefore part of his family. – Anthony Grist Oct 18 '18 at 21:41

First, civilization is based on doing things that don't directly benefit them. Sanctions can be based on moral concerns, without reference to interests.

Second, acting in support of morality even when it's not directly beneficial encourages others to do the same, which helps the US.

Third, there are extended effects of this that can hurt the US. For instance, killing opposition journalists makes it easier for dictators to engage propaganda, which makes it easier to drum up support for attacking other countries, and the US is another country. So there is an argument to be made for having a general policy opposing killing journalists.

But again, businesses can make their investment decisions as they see fit without need for the U.S. to impose sanctions.

No, they can't. Without the coordinating power of the US government, any company that decided to not do business would be at a competitive disadvantage to any company that did do business.

  • customers boycotting a company for supporting despotism might be more of a disadvantage than lost revenue, so your last point isn't solid. – dandavis Oct 16 '18 at 20:46
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    @dandavis Your objection is hypothetical, and depends on coordination among customers, which is even harder than coordination among companies. – Acccumulation Oct 16 '18 at 20:51
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    @dandavis : customers will tend to boycott producers of end customer products (because they cannot boycott the intermediary). Saudi Arabia is mostly known for its oil exports and weapon imports - neither of which are end products (simplification, but the country is not really an exporter of end products). So customers would have to boycott companies trading those with companies trading with Saudi Arabia (boycotting someone who exports end products to Saudi Arabia is also possible, though). That won't work. – Chieron Oct 17 '18 at 8:57
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    It's also a good excuse for the US govt to appear intimidating / flex their supposed "moral authority" over the rest of the world, which this particular session of govt is wont to do. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 17 '18 at 10:01
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    It's worth noting that both the USA and the UK are huge backers of the Saudi army and their current operation against Yemen to the tune of £3 billion (from the UK at least). It's unlikely that the USA or UK would pull support as their respective arms companies would take a hit, but it's an option. Sort of. – mickburkejnr Oct 17 '18 at 14:35

It's based on the claim that this alleged murder or abduction happened inside a consulate of one country in another country. Clearly abductions and/or murders are illegal in Turkey.

At the same time, by the Vienna convention on Diplomatic Relations (full text), accredited diplomats are immune to prosecution, and diplomatic missions such as consulates are inviolable.

Although Turkey couldn't prosecute an accredited diplomat over an alleged crime on their soil, they would certainly be angry if the diplomatic privilege was abused to break Turkish law to such a great degree.

It is to some degree comparable to the outrage over the murder of a British policewomen by a shot fired from the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.

The fact that Khashoggi is a US resident (not citizen, as had been claimed in earlier news reports) contributes to the concern when it comes from the United States, but the supposed abuse of diplomatic privilege is the main concern.

  • Consulates don't have the same physical protection as embassies. I don't know the details but as I understand it there is a big difference, e.g., the host country doesn't need the permission of the foreign country to raid a consulate, however convention is that something like that is done in cooperation with the foreign country etc. – d-b Oct 17 '18 at 8:34
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    @d-b Do you have a reference for that? The Vienna convention article 22 only talks about the "premises of the mission" and does not make a distinction between embassies and consulates. As long as the receiving state approves of a separate location apart from the main mission (article 12), then it enjoys the same protections as the main mission. – Erwin Bolwidt Oct 17 '18 at 9:01
  • Note that technically it is possible for Turkey to prosecute an accredited diplomat - but only if the sending country agrees to waive diplomatic immunity (note that this is up to the country, not the diplomat). Of course, this is vanishingly unlikely to happen in this case. – Martin Bonner Oct 17 '18 at 14:36
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    Not entirely correct. This is a consular office, hence the rules for consular immunity applies, which are weaker than diplomatic immunity. – Stian Yttervik Oct 19 '18 at 8:51
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    @ErwinBolwidt There are differences between consular and diplomatic immunity. There's a separate Consular Convention that covers this. (legal.un.org/ilc/texts/instruments/english/conventions/…) but the specifics will vary by country. – barbecue Oct 19 '18 at 14:47

It remains to be seen whether any sanctions will actually occur, and whether they wind up being token sanctions or meaningful ones.

Some of the US political reaction might well be genuine because of just how brazen the Saudis seem to have been about this: in geopolitics it is normal to keep up the pretense of diplomatic niceties and interrogating and killing someone who has been lured in to an embassy breaks the conventions quite badly. But some of it might also be a reaction to the US media coverage.

The high profile of the story is being driven by Turkey, which has had rather unfriendly relations with Saudi Arabia for a while, and which has taken exception to Saudi Arabia abusing the diplomatic status of their Turkish embassy to murder Khashoggi (at least in the Turkish view: they have no doubt about what happened. Possibly because they've got the embassy well bugged). So Turkey keeps pushing out information about this case.

One truism of journalism is that stories about journalism and journalistic freedom are seen as vitally important by journalists. So the murder of a journalist because of what he wrote about the Saudi government is going to be headline news disproportionate to its actual significance in any event short of a major war breaking out. Which explains why this gets so much press coverage. And since the press is keeping the profile of this case high, politicians are forced to respond to it, because journalists are publicly asking them questions about it.

So because this generates a lot of media and public attention and some degree of shock, politicians are forced to respond appropriately. Hence there are lots of words about treating this very seriously, dire consequences for Saudi Arabia if it is proven etc. The words don't mean a great deal. It is the actions taken that signify what really matters. If it ends up being sanctions that are talked up a lot and amount to very little meaningful impact on anyone, then you know the politicians are trying to be seen to do something whilst sweeping it under the carpet as much as possible.

There is also domestic US politics involved in this too. Trump is pretty pro-Saudi, being on good business terms with them in the past. Some quotes from his campaign rallies in 2015 (four different quotes in one quote block).

“Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,”

Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

“I make a lot of money from them.”

“They buy all sorts of my stuff. All kinds of toys from Trump. They pay me millions and hundred of millions.”

Consequently Trump's political enemies may well have seen an opportunity to damage him here, given his propensity for saying the "political" thing one minute and then undercutting it with something closer to his real opinion in more off the cuff moments. So there is the possibility of being able to stoke public outrage and expectations that the US should take a moral lead, and then they anticipate being able to contrast it with Trump trying very hard to avoid blaming the Saudis or taking any meaningful action against them.

As a further possibility, there may also be internal Saudi politics leaking in to the open. Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) isn't the monarch, but at the moment he is for all intents and purposes the head of state and ultimately in charge. He won the Saudi power struggle in 2017 when King Salman replaced his previous heir presumptive Muhammad bin Nayef with MBS. MBS was seen as a reformer of sorts, with allowing women to drive, trying to modernize the kingdom to make it more technology focussed rather than being an oil state, and opposing the power of the old religious conservative establishment. Which has made him a lot of enemies. In November 2017 he arrested a large number of government ministers and princes and held them in a hotel for an extended period. Officially an anti-corruption drive, and possibly also a way of neutering some of his opposition.

But there is significant opposition to him within the Saudi establishment, and the modernizing vs conservative power struggle isn't entirely settled. So there may well be elements with Saudi Arabia helping to stir the pot in the Khashoggi case, and it is not impossible that they have back room deals with various groups in the US to try and leverage this to mutual benefit.

Yes, a lot of this is wild speculation, but that's life in geopolitics. The people who know what is driving the public events don't tend to talk about it until they write their memoirs decades later. But you can be pretty sure that the actually politically significant actions taken will be driven by something other than questions of morality, although they may be framed in those terms for public consumption.


There are several factors that happen to align in this piece.

  1. Khashoggi was a journalist, and the journalism community has repeatedly endured being called 'the enemy of the people' by the Trump administration. The fact that he was an employee of the Washington Post, which has risen to prominence in post-Trump America as a solid and upstanding reporter of news, only strengthens this point.

  2. It was done at a consulate (thanks to Spehro). We keep consulates in other countries as both a gesture of goodwill and to help smooth over any major diplomatic bumps. If somebody can be dismembered while alive in a consulate, nobody's going to want to have consulates to Saudi Arabia.

  3. The United States has a shiny new toy with which to deal with this: the Magnitsky Act. This is an easy way to throw sanctions at state entities who commit gross human rights violations.

  4. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is an idiot. He's new, he's brash, and he's turning what used to be perfectly civil under-the-table crime and graft into out-in-the-open crime and graft, essentially showing the world Saudi Arabia's dirty laundry. If there's a chance Saudi Arabia can find another king before MbS solidifies his power base, the rest of the world would be much better off.

  5. Turkey v. Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is currently the dominant Sunni world power, and has been for decades. Turkey and Saudi Arabia had been friends and trading partners, but Turkey's support for the Arab Spring seems to have put them at odds. Turkey would now really like to take that mantle from Saudi Arabia. Turkey saw an opportunity in this situation to make Saudi Arabia look really, really, bad, and they took it, even going so far as to expose their own bugs in the Saudi consulate to provide overwhelming proof. They would love it if everybody boycotted Saudi Arabia and started dealing more with Turkey as Sunni #1.

  6. Trump's tepid reaction to the news. He says he has no financial ties to Saudi Arabia, but his first response was to waffle about how many contracts the US has to Saudi Arabia, rather than focus on the dead guy.

  7. Khashoggi was a legal permanent resident (green card holder) of the USA, going through the legal process to become a US Citizen. Past US Presidents have had a rather strong reaction about the defense of their own citizens or those legally in the process of becoming a citizen. Some have even called it the government's first duty.

  8. It appears the US Intelligence community knew that the Saudis were going to kidnap Khashoggi in the near future, and someone in the White House decided not to tell him, directly leading to his death. It's like Bengazi, except malfeasance instead of incompetence.

  • It was not an embassy, it was a consulate. Embassies are in Turkey's capital Ankara, not in Istanbul. – Spehro Pefhany Oct 20 '18 at 10:11

West fakes moral outrage to keep control over Saudi Arabia

As we all know, US and Saudi Arabia are close allies, and other Western countries have their interests there too (especially UK) . In a center of this alliance are two things : petrodollar, and Saudi silent support for Israel. Petrodollar is a simple system, Saudis and other Gulf monarchies price their oil exclusively in US dollars, and in return they get protection from US and their Western allies. US dollar is then reserve currency of the world, because everybody needs oil. Support for Israel is even simpler, Saudis protest against them verbally, but never do anything concrete, and clandestinely even wage wars against countries that oppose Israel (Syria is one example).

Western moral outrage is fake - everybody knows that Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, woman rights are almost nonexistent, they chop hands and heads, official religion is form of Wahhabism, dissidents often get lashes on public squares, law is based on Sharia , they even attack and kill population in other countries like Yemen. Not to mention that most of 9/11 attackers were Saudis and all other things totally alien and even repugnant to proclaimed Western moral values .

So, if all those things didn't bother West before, why pretending that death of one journalist matters ? Things are slowly but surely changing around Saudi Arabia . US becomes oil exporter, China tries to pay oil in yuans, China also cuts oil imports from US. If you mix this with Europe trying to move away from oil, and Russia firmly supporting Syria despite Saudi best efforts, things start to get interesting .

Saudis now have to think hard would they try to keep status quo, or should they switch sides and join Russia, China, Turkey and maybe even Iran in their opposition to US . They already had diplomatic conflict with Canada few months ago, and quite likely incidents like that would increase if they try to move from the West, and their usual behavior, which was mostly ignored by Western media, would now suddenly come into spotlight. If Saudi Arabia refrains itself for selling oil to China denominated in yuans (and increase price in dollars), if it stops dialog with Russia and Iran, if they continue to tow Western line over Syria and Palestine, then Khashoggi's killing would quickly fade away in news cycle and political rhetoric of the West. If however they do try to pursue more independent foreign policy, well ... suddenly a lot of their misdeeds would be uncovered.

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    I'm not sure your conclusion follows from what you wrote. What is changing for Saudi Arabia is that the US needs it as an ally much less than it did before. Saudi is the one wanting to stop the USA from drifting away rather than the other way around (aside from Trumps personal financial connections to Saudi Arabia). I see Turkey as the prime mover here, rather than the US. – PhillS Oct 17 '18 at 7:26
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    @PhillS Two-way street. US doesn't need Saudis that much, but they still want to keep them under control. Saudis want to remain allies with US, but they need to explore other options. This is marriage of convenience , and convenience is slowly disappearing, yet it could be salvaged , at least for a time being. – rs.29 Oct 17 '18 at 7:38
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    This answer has some valid points, but utterly fails to prove the conclusion that outrage is "fake." And frankly, it's pretty insulting to have a stranger tell me that my personal emotions are faked. – barbecue Oct 19 '18 at 14:54
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    @barbecue You are insignificant in grand scheme of things. And every outrage in media is fake and calculated to achieve some cold and hard interest. Learn some history on the matter, from Spanish–American War till now. – rs.29 Oct 19 '18 at 20:11
  • @rs.29 You didn't say "Western MEDIA fakes outrage" you said "West fakes outrage." Change your title if that's what you really meant. The media is incapable of "outrage" because the media is publicly traded corporations with no human motivations or morals. Only humans experience emotions. Media can and does manipulate those emotions, but claiming the emotion itself is fake is an insult to the people who feel it. Just like those idiots who claim the grieving parents of slaughtered children are "faking" their pain for political reasons. – barbecue Oct 21 '18 at 15:56

protected by Philipp Oct 17 '18 at 8:05

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