Saudi Arabia likely to get ‘benefit of the doubt’ over missing journalist

The UK will try to give Riyadh “the benefit of the doubt” over the disappearance of a Saudi journalist as it tries to balance calls for an investigation against protecting its interests in the region, according to a Middle East specialist.

Jamal Khashoggi vanished on October 2 during a trip to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in what many believe to be a state-sponsored hit for his vocal criticism of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman.

On Wednesday Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his counterparts in the G7 said they were “very troubled” by the incident.

But Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at foreign policy thinktank the European Council on Foreign Relations, said any future action by the British government is likely to be cautious.

He told the Press Association: “The UK has traditionally been one of Riyadh’s strongest allies, they have a very close relationship that brings a lot of perceived benefits to the UK Government and that I think will go a long way in terms of muting what the UK is willing to do and say about this incident.”

But he added that even by calling for an independent investigation, the Foreign Secretary had gone “beyond the UK’s comfort zone” and further than what many observers had been expecting.

“I think the big question now is the extent to which they are going to follow that through, or the extent to which they are going to go along with an attempt to create a managed solution to the crisis that takes any responsibility and blame away from central authorities in Riyadh,” he said.

Mr Barnes-Dacey said the UK and other EU nations could accept a stage-managed handling of the incident, whereby Saudi Arabia accepts some responsibility but blames Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance on junior or rogue agents of the state.

“There isn’t going to be any rush to action that’s for sure – I think there’s going to be a desire to give Riyadh the benefit of the doubt until that’s impossible to do any longer,” he said.

“So long as there is a proclaimed investigation happening with Saudi and Turkish co-operation and being pushed by the US, the UK is likely to sit quiet and see that as part of the investigation they have been demanding.”

He said by offering Riyadh a compromise, western governments could push for Saudi Arabia “to assume a more responsible position” across a number of issues in the region, including its involvement in the civil war in Yemen.

“I think that’s probably going to be the bigger focus and probably the more attainable goal – rather than a process which sees the Saudis saying ‘Yes, the crown prince was directly involved in this and there will be a degree of accountability and justice on that basis’ – which clearly will not happen,” said Mr Barnes-Dacey.

He said the looming Brexit deadline could also stay the UK’s hand as trade with Saudi Arabia – which currently ranks 25th in the list of the UK’s most lucrative trading partners – becomes more important.

“In the past when individual countries have made individual stands against Riyadh it’s pushed back very strongly so I think it’s important that the EU countries do stand together in this to ensure they can’t be picked off by Riyadh with retribution – particularly in the economic sphere,” he said.

He added: “Following Brexit, the UK might be less willing to take risks that could sacrifice trading relations.”