The United States announced sanctions on 17 Saudis today for their alleged involvement in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Notably, the list of designees does not include Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known by his initials MBS, who the Donald Trump administration has cultivated as a key ally in its Middle East endeavors. Nor does it include MBS’ handpicked deputy intelligence chief, Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, who previously served as the spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen.
The list does, however, include the crown prince’s propaganda chief, Saud al-Qahtani, who has sometimes been described as the Saudi “Steve Bannon,” as well as Maher Mutreb, whom the Treasury Department described as Qahtani’s subordinate who coordinated the Khashoggi assassination. The Treasury Department also sanctioned the diplomat who was serving as the Saudi consul general in Istanbul at the time of Khashoggi’s murder, Mohammed al-Otaibi.
“Saud al-Qahtani is a senior official of the government of Saudi Arabia who was part of the planning and execution of the operation that led to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2018,” Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said in a press statement. “This operation was coordinated and executed by his subordinate Maher Mutreb, and involved participation of at least 14 other Saudi government officials.”
Why it matters: The Trump administration has seemingly sought to try to take minimal, mostly symbolic actions in response to Khashoggi’s murder, while trying to do enough to keep Congress from forcing its hand. The Trump administration has put US-Saudi ties at the centerpiece of its policy toward the Middle East, from fighting terrorism to imposing maximum economic pressure on Iran, while not having gas prices go up, especially before the midterm elections.
But in the past two weeks, there have been growing signs that the Trump administration, in coordination with the British, are making concerted efforts to push the Saudis and Emiratis toward a de-escalation of the war in Yemen and toward supporting UN-backed peace talks, which UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths now aims to convene, likely in Sweden, by the end of the year.
But why Asiri’s absence from US sanctions list? “Perhaps we want to be able to continue working with him,” former US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein told Al-Monitor. “If he remains in a senior intel position, then sanctioning him may make it difficult to keep working with the [General Intelligence Directorate].”
“The Asiri strategy … if I'm right … may not work, but we can see that the administration is going to do its damnedest to get this problem behind them,” Feierstein, now with the Middle East Institute, said.
What’s next: Mnuchin suggested that more people may be targeted for sanctions as more information is obtained.
“The United States continues to diligently work to ascertain all of the facts and will hold accountable each of those we find responsible in order to achieve justice for Khashoggi’s fiancee, children and the family he leaves behind,” Mnuchin said. “The Government of Saudi Arabia must take appropriate steps to end any targeting of political dissidents or journalists.”
Know more: Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse has the latest on Ankara’s efforts to keep the pressure up on Riyadh, and see columnist Bruce Riedel’s piece on how the Saudi palace is looking to rally support domestically as it deals with the international crisis.
- Laura Rozen
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