Five months after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the European uproar over the murder is fading. Perhaps predictably, key EU member states are now quietly returning to their close, long-standing strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia. As part of this, London, in particular, is focused on working closely with Riyadh to maintain Saudi support for the political process in Yemen.
Although this shift is understandable given the severe humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country, European states’ new approach raises questions about their broader strategic positioning on Saudi Arabia. In some respects, the United Kingdom is now reverting to a strategy that, in recent years, has failed to significantly mitigate destabilising Saudi activities in the Middle East – and moving away from a more assertive and united European approach that has proved more constructive, not least in Yemen.
This marked a distinct shift away from the assertive position Europe established immediately after Khashoggi’s killing. At that point, the French, German, and UK foreign ministers took the unprecedented step of openly uniting in their demand for “a comprehensive, transparent and credible” investigation into the killing. They stated that Saudi-European relations would be shaped by the nature of Riyadh’s response.
Europe’s softening approach is likely motivated by an acknowledgement that there is now little prospect of a transparent Saudi investigation into the murder and a belief that continued pressure will only alienate Riyadh. While it has arrested 11 Saudi citizens for the crime, Riyadh firmly rejects accusation that the assassination was sanctioned by the Saudi leadership – despite US intelligence assessments to the contrary.
Decreasing European insistence on such an investigation masks what was an impressive moment of coherence on a challenging issue. By standing together, Europeans protected themselves from Saudi retribution. Indeed, whereas previous European arms embargoes resulted in punitive Saudi measures against Germany, Riyadh responded to Berlin’s post-Khashoggi measures with an attempt to strengthen their ties. Moreover, increased European and US pressure likely played some part in establishing a more restrained Saudi position on Yemen, which involves a push for the Yemeni government to accept the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement – a deal that provides some hope for ending the country’s devastating conflict.
Nonetheless, the UK is now pushing on alone again, looking to both enhance its bilateral partnership with Saudi Arabia and to use this relationship to create lasting improvements on the ground in Yemen. It remains unclear what this approach can achieve when disconnected from unified European power. The UK is effectively counting on its hope that Riyadh has learnt from the Khashoggi affair and wider regional mishaps of recent years. While Europeans have failed to attain a credible investigation into Khashoggi’s killing and have done little to meaningfully oppose the intense domestic crackdown under way in Saudi Arabia, the progress on Yemen is still very much welcome.
‚The End of the Post-Khashoggi Era? Europe’s Collapsing Unity on Saudi Arabia‘ – Commentary by Julien Barnes-Dacey – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.