Oil and Arms: Why Saudi Arabia won’t be held accountable for Jamal Khashoggi’s Death

Ursula Greig-Steinmetz

7 November, 2018

Jamal Khashoggi in March 2018

Jamal Khashoggi in March 2018


On October 2nd Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul Turkey. While he was inside, he was strangled, dismembered, and carried out in five different suitcases. He had entered the consulate to get a marriage license as his fiancé waited outside for eleven hours. He never came out. After two weeks of insisting that he left alive, Saudi Arabia finally confirmed that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. The kingdom now maintains that Khashoggi’s murder was a rogue operation and will be punishing those responsible.

Jamal Khashoggi was a prominent writer who had been living in self-imposed exile since September of 2017. Throughout his career, he was involved in controversy for criticizing the Saudi Kingdom. He feared arrest after a surge of detainments of people with what he described as “independent minds”.

Saudi Arabia has been accused of violating human rights for years, making the case of Khashoggi’s death, while gruesome and disturbing, not surprising. Raif Badawi is another infamous example of Saudi Arabia’s attitude toward freedom of expression. In 2012 Badawi was convicted of insulting Islam in his blog posts and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes.

Khashoggi’s disappearance and death have drawn condemnation from the international community. Although countries in the West have issued official statements strongly denouncing Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Khashoggi’s death, few have taken real steps to hold the kingdom accountable.

The president of France, Prime Minister of Spain, and the United States government have all refused to reconsider arm deals with the kingdom. The ruling Conservative Party in the United Kingdom has been hesitant to impose sanctions but has faced significant pressure from the opposition Labour Party to do so. Canada has expressed willingness to impose sanctions, but expressed concern over the financial hit the country would take.

Although faced with growing pressure to sanction Saudi Arabia, many countries continue to tread lightly. This is likely due to Saudi Arabia’s distinct position in the global economy. It is the world’s second largest arms importer and the largest oil exporter, making it one of the world’s most influential economic powers.

Saudi Arabia is a significant contributor to many countries’ economies. It spends 10% of its GDP on arms, spending over 69.4 billion dollars, making them the world’s second largest arms importer. They represent a particularly significant sector of the United States’ economy. Saudi Arabia is the United States’ biggest arms customer and imports 61% of their arms from them. Within the European Union, the United Kingdom and France are the largest exporters of weapons to Saudi Arabia. The UK sold 1.4 billion worth of equipment in a six-month period and France exported arms worth 3.92 billion to Saudi Arabia in 2017.

Many countries have a vested interest in staying on Saudi Arabia’s good side. This helps explain their cautious reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Another way Saudi Arabia is able to limit backlash from the international community is its dominance of the oil sector. It produces about 10.5 million barrels of oil per day, representing over 10% of the global crude oil demand. Saudi Arabia’s control over both the supply and price of oil is a significant factor in why many countries hesitate in halting weapons sales. Saudi Arabia could easily weaponize their position in the oil market by limiting its production and driving prices up to punish those who oppose them.

Global fear of Saudi Arabia’s retaliation in face of sanctions is not unfounded. The Saudi Arabian government has explicitly said if they are faced with political pressure or economic sanctions they will retaliate and punish the governments that act against them. It is not surprising that many countries have opted out of holding them accountable through harsh punishments.

Despite all this, Germany has distinguished itself by taking a tough stance on Saudi Arabia’s recent actions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would no longer sell arms to Saudi Arabia, halting all future arms deals going forwards.  Although Germany encouraged other major arms exporters to follow their lead, they did not rely on others to join in on this decision. This puts the country in the unique position of being the first major western economic power to refuse to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Germany alone will not be able to significantly influence a country as powerful as Saudi Arabia, and other global powers are unlikely to threaten the stability and prosperity of their economies to join them. So far, it seems that as long as the West can export its arms and import Saudi oil, Saudi Arabia will not be held accountable for the deplorable killing of Jamal Khashoggi.