Two Texas A&M University experts in Middle East policy and economics held a forum Monday evening to discuss diplomatic relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. About 65 area residents attended, many of them Texas A&M students and faculty.
Erin Snider, an assistant professor and expert on the regional political economy of the Middle East, and Gregory Gause, head of the Department of International Affairs who focuses on the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf, led a wide-ranging discussion that centered on the potential political and economic impacts of Khashoggi's death for the U.S. and in the Persian Gulf region.
Both professors are faculty members of the Bush School of Government and Public Service, who hosted the event as part of an ongoing conversation series.
Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and a columnist for The Washington Post, was last seen Oct. 2 entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Khashoggi was reportedly killed by a team of Saudi agents. Khashoggi had lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the past year and wrote editorial columns that were critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
"Right now it's wait-and-see," said Snider after the event. "I think there are people who are very much concerned, as they should be. In general, how the Saudis would respond to a disruption in arms sales, to any sort of pressure in how that might affect world markets, it's too soon to tell," she said.
Gause said the intertwined nature of U.S.-Saudi economic relations, particularly due to the global oil economy and to U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, would make any large shift in policy from the United States toward the Saudis surprising.
"If the [Trump] administration does anything on this, I think it will be to maybe not smack anyone on the head, but to smack them on the wrist and tell them not to do this again," he said.
Gause said Saudi Arabia is the world's third-largest oil producer. "And if there's less oil on the market globally, that will be reflected in prices globally, not just in the Middle East," Gause said in response to a question about the impact of a hypothetical Saudi reduction of oil exports.
Gause said he thought it likely that Congress would hold hearings on the killing and on the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
"Bipartisanship is not dead, at least on this issue, and the response [from Republicans and Democrats] has been one of extreme criticism of Saudi Arabia, from people who have been critical of Saudi Arabia for awhile, and also from people like [Republican Sen.] Lindsey Graham, who is, of course, very close to President Trump and who has been generally supportive of Saudi Arabia," Gause said.
Gause and Snider also provided context on relationships between and among a number of Persian Gulf nations.
"We tend to think of the Middle East as a Sunni-Shia conflict with Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other," Gause said. "What I think the tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over this event bring out is that there was an equally fraught relationship within the Sunni Muslim world," he said.
Gause said Turkey's leadership is more populist, while the Saudi government system is ruler-based and top-down.
Turkish officials have said that a Saudi team tortured, killed and dismembered the writer in a premeditated act. The Saudi kingdom initially said it knew nothing about what happened to Khashoggi, but on Thursday said evidence shows the killing was premeditated.
Trump has said Prince Mohammed, who has consolidated control over Saudi security and intelligence agencies over the past three years, bore ultimate responsibility for the operation that led to Khashoggi's killing. Trump has hedged his criticism of Saudi leaders over Khashoggi, and said he does not want to imperil a "tremendous order" of $110 billion of weapons he said will support 500,000 U.S. jobs -- a figure that Gause said Monday is inaccurate.
Toward the end of the forum, an attendee commented, "This seems like a game where everyone's trying to see what they can get away with."
"Welcome to international politics," Gause said in response, to laughter from the crowd.
An attendee asked Snider about why Khashoggi's death sparked international and U.S. outrage when other human rights issues, such as the famine in Yemen, has yet to grab the international community's attention in the same way.
"What you asked is a question that most of the academics that I know asked the day after the assassination," Snider said. "Is it not enough that most of Yemen is starving. ... Is that not enough to incite outrage from the United States? And unfortunately, it hasn't been," she said.
"There are no easy answers," Snider said of what to expect going forward. "Because things are complicated, between the global economy and given how interrelated countries in the region are with the United States ... it makes it very difficult to respond to events like this."