Saudi Arabia officially acknowledged that Jamal Khashoggi was killed in their consulate on 2 October and have now begun an investigation into the incident, leading to the arrest of 18 Saudi nationals. On 25 October the Saudi prosecutor concluded, based on the information supplied by Turkish authorities, that the murder was premeditated. The condemnation of the incident, by the public and media outlets, has been unprecedented. This has led to a significant number of international businesses withdrawing from the Future Investment Initiative Summit held in Riyadh this week and the German parliament taking steps to halt future arms deals to Saudi Arabia. As the widespread scrutiny continues, there is increasing pressure on both the UK and the US governments to follow suit and take remedial action against the Kingdom. In this Special Advisory, Solace Global will explore how the incident could impact on travel security in the Gulf, exploring a most likely and an alternative scenario.
Tensions have been mounting between Saudi Arabia and several international governments following the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Khashoggi had been living in self-imposed exile in the US since September 2017, leaving Saudi Arabia ten months after the Royal Courts media advisor instructed the journalist to stop all social media and journalistic activities. It wasn’t until October 2017 that Khashoggi became openly critical of the reformist regime implemented following Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) elevation to Crown Prince, the designated successor to the King of Saudi Arabia.
The arrests of hundreds of prominent businessmen by Saudi security forces and their imprisonment inside the Ritz Carlton hotel led Khashoggi to start challenging the western rhetoric that MbS was a reformer, willing to push Saudi into the modern age. Instead his articles highlighted what he felt was a brutal and authoritarian regime, that sought to suppress any dissent from within the country. The Washington Post provided a global platform for Khashoggi to critically challenge MbS’s alleged power grab, focusing his articles on the continued military intervention in Yemen and subsequent humanitarian emergency; and the strange events that led to Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, being allegedly detained in Saudi Arabia and forced to resign from his position as prime minister. The message throughout the majority of his articles strongly articulated that the MbS regime was imposing political closure throughout Saudi Arabia in an effort to remove opposition forces and build a more appealing global image. Khashoggi argued the Crown Prince was achieving this by enforcing a police state.
Khashoggi’s decision to challenge MbS publicly, appears to have cost him his life. While it remains unlikely if it will ever be known whether the killing was ordered by the Crown Prince or committed by rogue elements within his regime, the incident serves as a reminder of the potential security challenges when operating in Saudi Arabia and the vital importance that business travellers are briefed on the cultural and political risks prior to travel to the Kingdom.
Given the outpouring of moral indignation by the public and key media organisations and their desire for punitive action to be taken against Saudi Arabia, it remains uncertain how key international governments will react to the current situation. It is important to approach the impact on travel risk management through a scenario-based approach that looks at a number of potential outcomes and how organisations operating in the environment should react to each scenario. At present our travel risk rating remains unchanged, Saudi Arabia remains a moderate risk country and travel can continue as normal as long as standard security precautions are considered.
Both the UK and the US have strong commercial interests as well as a significant number of expatriates residing in the country and the response of both governments will be a key indicator of the global response to the situation. Turkey has also emerged as a key player in the incident with President Erdogan holding a powerful position regarding releasing critical intelligence on the incident that is currently held by Turkey and how this could impact on the global media rhetoric. Different scenarios will prompt different counter-reactions by Saudi Arabia and each should be examined to gain a better understanding of the potential for escalation in the travel security environment.
Most Likely Scenario
The President of the US, Donald Trump, and Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May, have both warned that if the Saudi Arabian leadership are found to be culpable of the death of Khashoggi, remedial action will be taken. The rhetoric has been guided by an outpouring of scrutiny from their own parties demanding a punitive response. In the US, Congress, who have long sought measures to reduce US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign in Yemen, will use Khashoggi’s death in an attempt to place conditions on weapons being sold to Saudi Arabia. British politicians in parliament, triggered by strong condemnation from their constituents, are also in the process of discussing a drawdown in military sales to the Kingdom if the Saudi leadership is implicated in the murder. Both countries will carefully reflect on the implications of punitive action against Saudi Arabia and make a decision that considers both the safety and security of their citizens in Saudi Arabia and the impact on their respective economies, any decision to draw down economic relations with Saudi Arabia will be done over a number of years, rather than in a kneejerk reaction, with a clear economic plan in place to ensure alternative revenue streams.
While both the US and the UK government are under increasing pressure to act, any remedial action against Saudi Arabia is likely to be face saving measures rather than long term sanctions and, as such, the Kingdom is unlikely to react to such measures by ending intelligence sharing agreements, cancelling contracts with US companies or reducing the amount of approved work visas for US or UK citizens travel to the country. Saudi would respond to any punitive action by condemning the measures as a conspiracy, reiterating their innocence. It remains possible that in this scenario, Riyadh would also look at moving away from an increasing dependence on the US for arms and security, by directing major arms and energy contracts towards Russia and China. This would unlikely affect current or ongoing contracts with US companies as Saudi Arabia remains reliant on US armament for the war in Yemen. Saudi military systems currently rooted in American technology, any major change in supplier would take a significant amount of time. Oil remains the central source of revenue for Saudi Arabia, so any changes or reprioritisation of energy commitments would be made with consideration to a longer-term economic plan.
This scenario has limited implications on business travel in the region. The biggest impact for foreign business would be reputational risks. Saudi authorities may seek to limit the number of work visas issued to UK and US nationals and additional bureaucratical hurdles may be imposed on UK and US businesses operating in the country. Additionally, UK and US nationals may also face greater scrutiny while entering and exiting the Kingdom; highlighting the importance of always having official documentation in order when travelling to the country with travellers also maintaining robust information security, especially at international entry and exit points. A final consideration will be to ensure travellers in, or travelling to, Saudi Arabia maintain a neutral social media profile, limiting tweets on geopolitical issues and refrain from any criticism of the ruling family and its administration.
If credible evidence is uncovered implicating Crown Prince MbS in the alleged murder of Khashoggi, the King of Saudi Arabia may find himself in a situation where he may have to consider removing MbS from office or face stringent US and UK led sanctions. While this scenario remains unlikely, the evidence collected by Turkey and being filtered through to the press remains pertinent. Erdogan’s live address on 23 October clearly excluded any mention of the Crown Prince addressing only his father, the King, in a cryptic powerplay and went on to mention that “all those [involved in the killing of Khashoggi] from the highest to the lowest level will be highlighted and will get the punishment they deserve”. While it remains too early to speculate, the Erdogan speech indicated that Turkey knew more than they were revealing.
If the King, under risk of sanctions, was forced to remove MbS from his position and seek to appoint an alternative candidate from the royal family, there would be a period of political uncertainty; increasing potential risks for travellers in country. The Crown Prince MbS has garnered a strong and loyal following amongst the royal family; many of whom would stand behind the him and potentially seek to destabilise any possible successor. This could lead to the potential for an increase in Shia based violence in the east of the country and one-off terrorist attacks in urban centres as security and intelligence services are reorganised under new leadership.
Under MbS’s leadership Saudi has seen a reduction in sectarian and fundamental Islam, ending the widespread authority of the religious police and removing the power from ultraconservative religious leaders. In the event the MbS is removed, any successor may seek to reintroduce religious authority throughout the kingdom, adding additional challenges for business travellers in the Kingdom. Such ultraconservative laws present additional threats to all foreign nationals, especially women, when in country and would require a thorough revision of all travel risk management plans for organisations operating in the Kingdom.
A final consideration is that the King chooses not to remove his son from his position, regardless of international sanctions, seeking instead to take an aggressive approach to any inditement by the UK and US governments. While this remains the least likely scenario it could potentially cause a diplomatic crisis and have a large-scale impact on business operations. Much like with Qatar, this scenario could see Saudi cancelling the visas of US and UK citizens and advising them to the leave the country in a matter of days, leading to a confused and a chaotic rush for flights out of the country.
If a diplomatic crisis did occur, Saudi may use the oil market to further destabilise the West by failing to meet their committed quota of oil production, placing a huge strain on European and American economies. With sanctions in place on Iran and their oil production having already fallen by 700,000 barrel per day, further turbulence in the oil market would lead to sharp rises in the cost of oil globally. Saudi agreed to cover the shortfall caused by the Iran sanctions stabilising the market; however, even the fear of an oil shortfall is enough to make prices rise sharply on a global scale, fuelling further instability in key conflict flashpoints.