2019 forecast: fallout from the Khashoggi affair

Bluster and limited sanctions will be the hallmark of the US-Saudi relationship in 2019.

As 2018 winds to a close, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudi state threatens to create a permanent rift between Riyadh and Washington.

For strategic and economic reasons — namely the much touted arms deals which President Trump has declared to be worth $200 billion — Trump has rejected the CIA’s conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) ordered the journalist’s killings. However, senators on both sides of the aisle, including former erstwhile Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham, have accepted the intelligence agency’s conclusion.

For many on Capitol Hill, the killing of Khashoggi added to concerns over Riyadh’s increasingly reckless behaviour in the region. On December 14, the US senate moved to suspend support for the Saudi-led intervention in the war in Yemen as well as passed a resolution declaring that MBS was responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.

2019 thus promises to be a difficult year for the House of Saud. With Democrats taking control of the House, Riyadh can expect to be increasingly feeling the heat. However, the Republican-retained Senate leads on Congressional foreign policy and some Republicans have stood by Trump’s defence of MBS — the Democrats room for manoeuvre may be limited. In any case, Riyadh still remains an important partner in securing bipartisan foreign policy commitments like curbing Iranian influence and ensuring low oil prices. Therefore, while more sanctions are likely, do not expect any moves which make cooperation untenable, like direct sanctions on the crown prince.