Saudi Arabia has sought to move on from the scandal triggered by journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, but a UN expert’s report implicating its crown prince has heaped global pressure back on the kingdom, analysts say.
UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard’s report, released on Wednesday, said that there is “credible evidence” to warrant further investigation and financial sanctions against Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over Khashoggi’s murder in October last year.
The document detailing the dissident’s murder by Saudi Arabian agents at the country’s Istanbul, Turkey, consulate has cast a renewed spotlight on the case just as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler appeared to be emerging from the scandal.
The revelations, including audio transcripts of Saudi Arabian agents involved referring to Khashoggi as a “sacrificial animal,” have piled pressure on Western allies to suspend arms sales to the kingdom.
Riyadh rejects the allegations, which were likely to spur skepticism for Saudi Arabian support in the US Congress, despite the prince enjoying US President Donald Trump’s backing.
“A new crisis cycle is open,” said Joseph Bahout, non-resident fellow at Carnegie Endowment. “Another round of international embarrassment for [Saudi Arabia] is starting now.”
US lawmakers on Thursday voted to block Trump’s US$8.1 billion arms sales to Saudi Arabia shortly after Britain temporarily suspended similar sales.
The decisions were not directly linked to the report, but come after virulent criticism in the US and Britain over the kingdom’s four-year bombing campaign in Yemen.
Global revulsion over Khashoggi’s murder had shone a spotlight on the Saudi Arabian-led war in Yemen, gripped by what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The UN expert’s report is unlikely to challenge the prince’s position at home, where his grip on power “appears absolute,” said Hussein Ibish, an academic at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “The bigger concern, I have no doubt, is the growing anti-Saudi sentiment in US Congress. Riyadh’s relationship with Washington is not optional from a Saudi point of view. It’s essential.”
Last month, Trump bypassed the usual process of seeking a congressional green light for the arms sale, citing risks from Iran.
Now the move to block his sale comes as tensions with Iran soar after attacks in the Gulf on oil tankers and the shooting down of a US drone. Washington has blamed Tehran for both.
While Callamard’s report did not offer definitive evidence linking the prince to Khashoggi’s murder, it said that it was “inconceivable” such an operation could be implemented without him being aware.
The report said that there was evidence that the consulate had been “forensically, cleaned” following the killing, indicating a cover-up.
Khashoggi’s remains have not been found.
The report could “increase the reputational risks for US entities doing business with Saudi Arabia,” Ryan Bohl of the US geopolitical think tank Stratfor said.
The prince also faces overseas critics, including some Saudi Arabian citizens who have sought exile in Western capitals.
“This UN report will put winds into their sails and give them an opportunity to build up their public support,” Bohl said.
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