Trump says he's 'not satisfied' with Saudi handling of Khashoggi death

Asked during a trip to Nevada, President Trump said he is not satisfied with Saudi Arabia's handling of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. 

In a move that could put further pressure on President Trump to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Sunday evening that her government would not approve new arms exports to the kingdom until further notice.

“There is an urgent need to clarify what happened — we are far from this having been cleared up and those responsible held to account,” she said at a news conference. “I agree with all those who say that the, albeit already limited, arms exports can’t take place in the current circumstances,” Merkel said. While the move affects future deals, exports that have already been approved to the second-biggest foreign market for German arms equipment will proceed for now.

Germany is the first major U.S. ally to cast doubts over future arms sales after the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and the move is likely to put pressure on bigger exporters, including the United States, to do the same. President Trump has ruled out suspending arms exports but faces bipartisan calls to hold the perpetrators behind the writer’s killing accountable.

Since the Oct. 2 disappearance of Khashoggi, companies and governments worldwide have come under pressure to abandon their ties to the Saudi Arabian leadership. Saudi Arabia first denied allegations that it was behind the columnist’s disappearance but later claimed that Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in a “fistfight” with more than a dozen Saudi officials. While Trump has sent mixed messages — both calling the Saudi investigation “credible” and accusing the Saudis of “deception” — key U.S. allies in Europe agree that Riyadh’s explanation does not add up.

On Monday, one of Merkel’s closest allies — Economy Minister Peter Altmaier — pressed other European Union member states to also halt arms sales until we “know what happened.” The German government has said it was seeking to coordinate an international response to the Khashoggi case, but Merkel did not tie her decision to temporarily halt sales to measures taken by other major exporters, including the United States.

As of last year, more than a dozen other E.U. member states were selling military equipment to the Saudis, with France ranking as the second-biggest exporter after Britain, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In Britain, a country already facing economic uncertainty over its decision to leave the E.U., the dismantling of Saudi ties could have severe repercussions. The country sold Riyadh military equipment worth about $1.4 billion in the first six months of 2017 alone, with thousands of British jobs dependent on the sales.

Germany today only accounts for a relatively small share of European sales to Saudi Arabia, after years of curbing exports to the kingdom amid human rights concerns. By the time the German coalition government was formed this spring, the country had become one of Saudi Arabia’s most outspoken critics, prompting the withdrawal of the Saudi ambassador and of Saudi investments in the country.

In the weeks before Khashoggi’s disappearance, however, the German government had quietly backed away from its earlier promise to no longer sell military equipment to the Saudis. In September, it confirmed the export approval of four artillery positioning systems to Riyadh. Overall, Berlin has agreed to export equipment worth more than $460 million to the Saudis this year.

Germany’s announcement on arms exports to Riyadh is yet another policy reversal. Merkel’s critics argue that her shifting stance toward the Saudis leaves her in no good position to lecture other Western leaders on human rights.

While Germany’s complicated dealings with the Saudis raise doubts over the longer-term sustainability of Merkel’s exports ban, her decision still puts other leaders in an uncomfortable position at a sensitive time.

In the United States, Trump is under pressure to act after a bipartisan group of senators triggered global Magnitsky Act sanctions procedures two weeks ago. The Magnitsky legislation forces Trump to determine whether any country or individual responsible for the writer’s disappearance should be held accountable.

If the United States imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia, other major arms exporters such as Britain would likely also be forced to take similar measures. But in Berlin, top officials now hope that their move to suspend future sales could pressure other European allies into following suit, even if the United States refrained from doing so.

Germany’s export stop will have little impact “if at the same time other countries fill this gap,” Merkel’s ally Altmaier acknowledged Monday.

Read more:

Inside the Saudis’ Washington influence machine: How the kingdom gained power through fierce lobbying and charm offensives

Saudi attempts to distance crown prince from Khashoggi killing haven’t quieted uproar