EU-Saudi Relations After Khashoggi: Business as Usual?

Emmanuel Macron (Alexandros Michailidis via Shutterstock)Emmanuel Macron (Alexandros Michailidis via Shutterstock)

by Eldar Mamedov

More than one month after the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul, the issue refuses to fade away into oblivion. As part of an effort to keep it on the agenda, Marietje Schaake, a centrist Dutch lawmaker in the European Parliament, launched an open letter calling on EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to recall the EU ambassador from Riyadh “until the government of Saudi Arabia ceases the bombarding of civilians in Yemen, takes positive steps in the field of human rights, and commits to an international investigation and fair prosecution of those responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s death.”

This comes on the heels of the resolution the EP adopted on October 25 voicing similar demands. As the text of the document makes clear, the MEPs are convinced that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) is the mastermind behind Khashoggi’s murder. Remarkably, only one MEP voted against the resolution—a far right Czech libertarian Euroskeptic.

During the debate preceding the vote, the MEPs not only focused on Khashoggi’s murder but also rolled out a long catalogue of Saudi misdeeds. These ranged from spreading Wahhabism, a particularly rigid form of Islam many hold responsible for the rise of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, to the war in Yemen and the mass arrests of women activists and other dissidents in the kingdom. “Medieval dictatorship” and “brutal regime” were some of the terms the MEPs applied to Saudi Arabia. Rarely has the house been so united on a foreign policy issue. It almost felt like Khashoggi’s murder prompted the MEPs to release all the pent-up anger they’d accumulated about the kingdom’s behavior.  That they felt encouraged to do so testifies to the deep unpopularity of Saudi Arabia in Europe and the ineffectiveness of the expensive campaigns to polish its image.

The question remains whether the outrage over Khashoggi’s murder will finally trigger punitive EU action against Riyadh. So far, strong political messages from the EP have not led the EU governments to adopt a unified position on Saudi Arabia the way they did in response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Halting arms exports to Saudi Arabia as long as it continues its war in Yemen could be one obvious way to express a disapproval of Saudi policies. Germany is leading the way. Such a step, however, would only make a difference if adopted as a common EU position, meaning that all 28 member states agree.

The recent example of Spain shows the complexities of the issue.  The Socialist government in Madrid announced, long before Khashoggi’s murder, that it would stop licensing arms exports to Saudi Arabia. However, reportedly after Saudi threats to terminate contracts with Spanish firms, the government backtracked and downgraded its announcement to a mere “declaration of intentions.” It is obviously wary of jeopardizing jobs and undermining the still vulnerable economic recovery.

French president Emmanuel Macron was even more explicit, dismissing those who demanded an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia in response to Khashoggi’s murder as “populists.” In reality, as one of the EU’s top arms exporters, France is unwilling to lose lucrative Saudi business.

The close diplomatic and strategic ties of some key EU member states with Saudi Arabia further complicate matters. Although Mogherini is willing to move toward a more balanced engagement with both Iran and Persian Gulf countries, as stipulated in the EU Global Strategy of 2016, the United Kingdom and France still see Saudi Arabia as a useful bulwark against the perceived destabilizing activities of Iran. The allegations of a recently uncovered assassination plot in Denmark against Iranian dissidents hardly contribute to building trust between the EU and Iran at this critical time.

The Khashoggi affair may have dissipated any lingering illusions about Mohammed bin Salman as a “modernizer,” but influential member states still associate him with the stability of Saudi Arabia. Others may not share this view. But the lack of a common EU position means that whenever a country like Sweden or Germany takes a critical stance toward Saudi Arabia, others see it not as an opportunity to show European solidarity but as an invitation to grab economic or strategic benefits that the offending party ceases to enjoy as a result of Saudi retribution. To a large extent, European common foreign policy continues to be an aspiration more than a reality: the interests of the 28 members do not always align, competition among them has not gone away, and, as a result, they tend to agree only on the lowest common denominator.

Still, even if EU governments do not heed the calls from the EP, other factors may compel them to modify their positions. Turkey’s continuing revelations of the details of Khashoggi’s murder and growing pressure in Washington to stop unconditional support for Saudi Arabia mean that the issue is unlikely to fade away without some kind of a reckoning for MbS. He simply has become too toxic to continue business as usual. The sooner the EU governments realize that and start distancing themselves from his regime, the less of a chance that they’ll be caught wrong-footed when a new crisis involving MbS erupts.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

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Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.

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  1. Considering the invasive nature of SA activities in past and the defensive nature of Iranian actions on the other side, selling arms is only pouring gas over a flame. Those sold arms would be fired in memberstates soon or later. Supporting radicalism would not remain without consequences as even now the backfires are evident.

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