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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    – Strawberry
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 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
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 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. Commented Oct 17, 2018 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
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 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
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 8:58

4 Answers 4


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
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 20:56
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    @jean Is there any government which doesn't ignore ethics and law when it suits them? Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 9:49
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    @EricDuminil Aye, but Governments also like to maintain an illusion that they don't. Commented Oct 17, 2018 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
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 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. Commented Oct 18, 2018 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
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 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. Commented Oct 16, 2018 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
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 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. Commented Oct 17, 2018 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. Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 14:35

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.

  • It’s now confirmed that all the sanctions ended up being a nothing burger and SA got away with the murder without a hitch. So it was mostly a big deal only in the minds of journalists, actual men with power didn’t care all that much. Commented Mar 22 at 13:59

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. Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 10:11

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