US Relationship with Saudi Arabia Based on 'Interests Not Values': Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics

Published October 21st, 2018 - 01:50 GMT
Giorgio Cafiero at the Gulf International Conference 2018 (Al Bawaba)
Giorgio Cafiero at the Gulf International Conference 2018 (Al Bawaba)

Interview by Hayder al-Shakarchi


The following interview is part of a series published by Al Bawaba News, exploring the viewpoints, convictions, partisanship and consensus that exists in Washington D.C. around Middle East issues.

This author of this series will speak to analysts, policymakers and experts in their own words. Our aim is to provide a sense of the discussions taking place in the world's most powerful capital. This does not in any way imply an editorial edorsement of the individuals or policy proposols put forward. Al Bawaba is indepenent and does not align with any existing political party or ideological group.

Hayder al-Shakarchi is an Arab-American journalist and an international news analyst based in Washington, D.C.



al-Shakarchi: Is the U.S-Saudi partnership a stabilizing force or a destabilizing force in the Middle East?

Cafiero: “The partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is seen as stabilizing to some actors in the region and very destabilizing to others. There is no doubt that this relationship has served as a lynchpin of a conservative political order inside the region that is becoming increasingly under strain from various actors, such as Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and the Yemeni Houthi rebellion.”

al-Shakarchi: Khashoggi was meant to attend the Gulf Int’l Forum in Washington, D.C on 16 October. How do you feel his absence impacted the event?

Cafiero: “The alleged assassination of Jamal Khashoggi has been an extremely painful, difficult, and emotional one for many in D.C.’s foreign policy community. Khashoggi was extremely respected in the think tank world and through out the press in the U.S. Unquestionably, the future of thinktank events that focus on the region will be compromised without his expert opinion being contributed to them in the future.”

al-Shakarchi: How do you feel Khashoggi’s alleged death will impact the freedom of press?

Cafiero: “If the Saudi state was responsible for killing the journalist because of his views that criticize MbS, it would shed light on the problems of authoritarianism in the Middle East in a way that we possibly haven’t seen in the past.”

al-Shakarchi: Many journalists have begun fearing for their safety. Should journalists be afraid?

Cafiero: “If the Saudi state carried out this assassination to intimidate Saudi voices outside of the kingdom, it would seem to be the case that the Saudi state’s intention is to intimidate all citizens of Saudi Arabia and to let Saudi citizens know that being in a foreign country does not offer one protection when it comes to criticizing MbS.”

al-Shakarchi: What role does U.S. President Donald Trump play into all of this?

Cafiero: “Many analysts have contended that this alleged assassination, if carried out by the Saudi state, was likely an outcome of the Trump administration’s approach to Saudi Arabia. In simpler terms, many conclude that Trump has taken some pressure off of Saudi Arabia that past administrations had put on the kingdom, and as a consequence, MbS feels emboldened to make very impulsive, bold, and brash moves which have consequences that appear to be extremely difficult for Riyadh to deal with. The blockade of Qatar and the war in Yemen are two cases in point of this new style of Saudi foreign policy backfiring against the kingdom's interests.”

al-Shakarchi: Why all the spotlight on Khashoggi? Many journalists have been killed in the past, but none have received such publicity.

Cafiero: “Jamal Khashoggi was a contributor to the Washington Post, a resident of Virginia, and a voice who is deeply respected in the beltway think tank world. He was seen by many as a sober and intelligent critic of MbS and his writings resonated very well with many people in D.C., who were also extremely fond of him on a personal basis. Therefore, when the Saudi state allegedly killed him on 2 October, his disappearance met a very angry and emotional response from the establishment in D.C.”

al-Shakarchi: Did you know Khashoggi?

Cafiero: “I never met him; I had the pleasure of seeing him speak at numerous events, but I never knew him personally. I believe he was a very intelligent man who genuinely loved his country and had legitimate concerns about ways in which Saudi Arabia is changing and he felt that it was in the interest of Saudi Arabia for him to be here in the U.S. voicing his opinions via the Washington Post.”

al-Shakarchi: In his last published piece in the Washington Post, Khashoggi wrote about a Saudi columnist, Saleh al-Shehi, who was being punished for ‘insulting the royal court.’ Khashoggi highlighted that “such actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.” Will Khashoggi’s case be silenced?

Cafiero: “It’s not clear if or when such a silence will take place. I think that many in the U.S., and other countries around the world, are very angry about what happened and want to see justice and accountability for those who are responsible for Khashoggi’s alleged killing. I do not know if this event, like others that have harmed Saudi-U.S. relations, will go away so quickly.”

al-Shakarchi: If Khashoggi was killed in another Middle Eastern country’s Saudi embassy/consulate, would Trump’s reactions have differed?

Cafiero: “The fact that he was allegedly assassinated in Turkey had a big impact on how events unfolded, especially with the U.S. having several issues with Turkey at the time, including the case of pastor Andrew Brunson. The U.S. wants to see Turkey change its policies and the Turks have major problems with Washington's foreign policy in the region. Thus, it appears that Khashoggi’s case has become another leveraging chip for Ankara to use, both in its relationship to Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Had this alleged killing taken place in another country, the geopolitical equations would have likely been very different.”

al-Shakarchi: How would the geopolitical equations have differed?

Cafiero: “Trump was keen to take advantage of the situation in a way that would help strengthen U.S.-Turkey relations without having the U.S.-Saudi relationship suffer excessively. The fact that bilateral relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been somewhat tense lately is, of course, another factor that prompted the U.S. administration to react to this crisis very cautiously.”

al-Shakarchi: How do you see Trump reacting to this case if all the allegations become hard facts?

Cafiero: “The Trump administration will come under significant pressure to take action against Saudi Arabia if evidence is presented which proves that the Saudi state dismembered the Washington Post contributor. There are voices in Washington who advocate imposing sanctions; not on Saudi Arabia as a country, but on specific Saudis who are seen as guilty of this crime or at least complicit in it. At the same time, lawmakers, especially if there is a so-called blue wave during next month’s mid-term elections, put pressure on the White House to change its policies in Yemen. Again, let’s keep in mind that JASTA, a piece of legislation that was passed in 2016 which allows victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue the Saudi government, is also another tool that the U.S. can use to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, or to at least come across as taking sufficient action to hold the kingdom accountable.”

al-Shakarchi: How would Trump go about justifying his continued defense of Saudi Arabia if it is revealed that he had known more than he had led on?

Cafiero: “The most important goals that Trump has in the Middle East include countering Iranian influence as well as securing lucrative transactions for U.S. companies. Therefore, given the extent to which Saudi Arabia is playing an important role in Trump’s pursuit of these two different objectives, he will be able to argue that the U.S. has a relationship with Saudi Arabia. He will stress that it’s very important and that it’s based on interests and not values, and this is how he may attempt to justify his standing very close by to Riyadh, even if the political fallout of the case makes it more awkward and costly for him to have such close ties with the Saud family.”

al-Shakarchi: How would the press react to that?

Cafiero: “A growing number of voices in America have criticized Trump’s foreign policy for so many reasons. One of the main criticisms is that this White House has removed values from its foreign policy agenda and is excessively transactional in its nature. Thus, many voices in the media would likely call on Trump to conduct a foreign policy that is less transactional and more values-based.”

al-Shakarchi: Could this be the genesis of a series of deadly attacks on the press?

Cafiero: “One of the reasons why this case is very difficult for the Trump administration is because of Trump’s negative relationships with mainstream American media outlets, such as the Washington Post. Some analysts have gone as far as to suggest that Trump’s rhetoric about the media played a role in MbS’ alleged decision to have Khashoggi assassinated. This clearly internationalizes the conflict that Trump has with the American media and raises more questions about how journalists can be protected in an environment in which not only authoritarian regimes in the Middle East target journalists and how the president of the U.S. has also incited violence against media outlets.”

al-Shakarchi: If the allegations are true, who will get the blame?

Cafiero: “If the Saudi state carried out this action, the blame would belong 100% on the Saudi doorstep in terms of direct responsibility. In terms of responsibility that’s a little bit less direct, I think its reasonable to argue that Trump contributed to a global environment that led to MbS calculating that he could make this move without any negative blowback from the White House and that is very significant.”

al-Shakarchi: What’s your take on all the reports regarding this case that have been circulating around the world?

Cafiero: “We have been reading about all of these Turkish sources that maintain that the Saudi security personnel dismembered Khashoggi while he was still alive. I think it’s very important for us to demand concrete evidence before reaching a conclusion. I have been a little critical of the American media for taking the Turkish sources’ word to the extent that they have… I think that we should be skeptical about everything until evidence is presented to us. And of course, Turkey is a country that has violated the human rights of many journalists. We need to keep in mind that many other journalists have been targeted by Erdogan’s regime and Turkey is an authoritarian country whose government is not always honest about every issue. For that reason, I once again encourage people to be skeptical about what Turkish sources are telling the world right now.”

al-Shakarchi: Is the Saudi-U.S. alliance that significant to the Trump to the point in which the death of a prominent journalist could possibly go unpunished?

Cafiero: “It certainly seems as though Trump is attempting to give the benefit of the doubt to MbS… He seems to be trying to give the Saudis as much room, space and time to figure out how they’re going to respond to the fallouts of this case. I see this within the context of Trump trying to limit the damage that could potentially be inflicted on the Washington-Riyadh relationship because Trump has many goals that he would like to achieve during his presidency when it comes to both America’s economic growth at home and America’s perceived interests in the Middle East… He is determined to prevent this fallout of Khashoggi’s disappearance which is undermining these important underlying objectives that he and those in his inner circle have.”

al-Shakarchi: How about the USD 100 million that was given to the U.S. by Saudi Arabia just one day before Khashoggi’s disappearance?

Cafiero: “Saudi Arabia has always used its financial resources to advance its foreign policy interests, as in an oil-rich kingdom with very deep pockets, the Saudis have the means to use money to buy good will and to try and decrease the negative fallout of PR fiascos, and this is nothing new.”

al-Shakarchi: Initially, Trump stated that ‘rogue killers’ could be involved. Who was he referring to?

Cafiero: “Trump saying that ‘rogue killers’ might be responsible for this alleged killing is, in my opinion, about the U.S. president trying to give the Saudis some room to devise a narrative which acknowledges the journalist’s killing but prevents the crown prince from being held responsible. In other words, rogue killers could mean some rogue faction, within the Saudi security apparatus, that carried this out without orders, permission, or approval from above. Therefore, Trump was thinking that the Saudis could possibly use this excuse of ‘rogue killers’ to avoid direct responsibility for Khashoggi’s alleged killing.”

al-Shakarchi: Could that be foreshadowing? Could Saudi Arabia stick with that narrative?

Cafiero: “It might be a difficult narrative to push given the extent to which there is really not a ‘deep state’ as well as the fact that that power has consolidated so much under MbS’ hands, as well as the fact that if a rogue element within the Saudi security apparatus sought to kill a Saudi national in Turkey, it seems unlikely that they would do this in the consulate, which is closely surveilled and monitored by cameras and other devices.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, and a frequent contributor to the Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council and others.  

This interview was conducted on 18 October, 2018. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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