The Khashoggi scandal and the future of regional order

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Since the U.S. will never leave the Middle East, the Trump administration needs to find a way to be engaged with the region's realities and set out a reasonable road map with rational local partners

Saudi Arabia has been backed into a corner due to journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi's mysterious disappearance in Turkey. New incriminating evidence has come to light in recent days, as diplomatic pressure on Israel has mounted. The Turkish newspaper Sabah published the personal information of the 15-member Saudi assassination team. With all eyes fixed on the Saudi consul's residence in Istanbul, a number of media outlets have reported that Turkey had an audio recording of Khashoggi's execution.

As Turkish security forces continue their efforts to shed light on what happened, Turkey has started asking Saudi Arabia more direct questions. On the return flight after an official visit to Hungary earlier this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters that, "We cannot keep silent in the face of the incident that occurred in our country." He added that the consulate of Saudi Arabia was equipped with "advanced camera systems." Meanwhile, under pressure from senators to take action, U.S. President Donald Trump began to demand answers from Saudi Arabia: "We are looking at it very, very seriously. We are working with Turkey. We want to find out what happened."

One thing is clear: Riyadh was wrong to assume that it could cover up the Khashoggi murder.

With his son-in-law Jared Kushner's close ties to the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) under scrutiny, Trump has been compelled to deal with the Khashoggi case. After all, the victim was a contributor to the Washington Post, which cited U.S. intelligence officials on Thursday who intercepted communications that linked Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS) to the assassination. U.S. media outlets have been attacking Trump for spoiling the Saudi crown prince over the "disappearance" of Khashoggi. Some believe that Trump's reluctance to act was proof that the United States had officially stopped protecting the liberal international order.

Others concentrated on the U.S.' presence in the Middle East. Earlier this week, an op-ed essay appeared in Bloomberg View making the case that Khashoggi's murder was proof that Washington could not just withdraw from the region and hand over control to regional powers: "A post-American Middle East will not be stable and peaceful."

There is no doubt that Trump engaged with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in certain ways that made those countries more audacious. He reversed former U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts to reintegrate Iran into the international system by scrapping the Iran nuclear deal and publicly targeting Tehran – the stuff of dreams for the Saudis and the UAE. Combined with the Trump administration's open support of Israeli expansionism, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi assumed that they could contain Iran and restore the regional order, which the Arab Spring revolutions have disrupted. Their expansionist campaigns in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, they thought, could succeed.

The designation of MBS as crown prince was followed by a crackdown on his opponents in the House of Saud. Encouraged by his close ties to Trump and Trump's son-in-law, he proceeded to impose a blockade on Qatar last year. Khashoggi was one of the most prominent names on Saudi Arabia's hit list, but he isn't the last.

Trump created an alliance between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and Egypt with the primary purpose of containing Iran; yet, he cannot create a new regional order. Quite the contrary, the most recent developments in the Middle East fueled new power struggles and incited violence. The Khashoggi affair is one of the most devastating reminders of that fact.

Ironically, it was Washington's military intervention that caused violence in the region – even though the United States remained committed to the liberal order at the time. The memory of the human cost of the U.S. occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, including hundreds of thousands of casualties, millions of refugees and the rise of radical groups, are still fresh. Today, the Americans aren't really pulling back from the Middle East by throwing their weight behind Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv. They are merely creating the conditions for a different kind of intervention. As such, one cannot reasonably make the case, citing the Khashoggi assassination, that the U.S. cannot withdraw from the Middle East because its allies would fail to maintain order.

At the end of the day, nobody really believes that Washington will actually leave the region. The United States must bring its methods of engagement, set of local partners and goals in line with the facts on the ground. The Gulf-Iran rivalry cannot be kept under control unless Turkey's balancing role becomes clearer. There can be no peace or order until then. Provided that this is quite obvious, the only plausible explanation is that the United States does not want peace and order in the Middle East.

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