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Saudi Arabia says it will hit back at 'threats' over Jamal Khashoggi

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/10/2018

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Saudi Arabia has said it will retaliate against any sanctions imposed over the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, as the Riyadh stock market had its biggest fall in years.

A host of western companies have distanced themselves from the Gulf state following the journalist’s disappearance, imperilling Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts at economic reform.

Khashoggi has been missing since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October and is presumed to have been murdered.

Donald Trump has threatened the US ally with “severe punishment” if Khashoggi, who has been critical of Bin Salman, has been killed.

On Sunday, Riyadh vowed to hit back against any action. “The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations,” it said.

“The kingdom also affirms that if it is [targeted by] any action, it will respond with greater action.” The statement also pointed out that the oil-rich kingdom “plays an effective and vital role in the world economy”.

Jamal Khashoggi has been missing for nearly two weeks since entering a consulate. © AFP/Getty Images Jamal Khashoggi has been missing for nearly two weeks since entering a consulate. The Saudi response came after the Tadawul exchange in Riyadh dropped by 7% at one point on Sunday, the week’s first day of trading in Saudi Arabia, with 182 of its 186 listed stocks showing losses by early afternoon. The market pulled back some of the losses, later trading down 4%.

Business leaders, as well as media companies including Bloomberg and CNN, have pulled out of an investment conference next week in Riyadh, dubbed “Davos in the desert”.

The belligerence of the statement is likely to anger those US senators already pressing for the Trump administration to take tough economic action against Riyadh, including sanctions.

There is no sign of contrition in the statement or clarification of the promise last week to conduct an inquiry into Khashoggi’s disappearance. Instead, Riyadh condemns a “campaign of false allegations and falsehoods”. In what is likely to be a reference to Turkey, and possibly its Gulf rival Qatar, it claims some are “rushing and seeking to exploit rumours and accusations to achieve goals and agendas unrelated to the search for truth”.

Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves, said to be around 260bn barrels, give it enormous clout in the global economy. The kingdom is the world’s largest oil exporter, pumping or shipping more than 7m barrels a day. This gives it significant power to drive up prices, which would hurt every major developed economy.

It also supports thousands of US jobs via its massive programme of arms purchases. Saudi is the world’s second largest arms importer after India and 61% of those imports come from the US. President Trump signed a $110bn defence agreement in Riyadh last year, a deal that stands to benefit US employers such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Electric and Exxon Mobil.

Turki Aldhakhil, the general manager of Al Arabiya, the official Saudi news channel, in an opinion piece claimed Saudi was ready to implement 30 measures “without flinching” the moment US sanctions were imposed, including cuts to oil production that could lead to prices jumping to $100 a barrel or even $200. “The truth is that if Washington imposes sanctions on Riyadh, it will stab its own economy to death, even though it thinks that it is stabbing only Riyadh,” he wrote.

Ramping up the rhetoric even more, Aldhakhil warned the repercussions of US sanctions could include a military alliance between Saudi Arabia and Russia and an end to intelligence sharing.

Over the weekend, Turkey pressed the UK to use its influence to ensure Saudi Arabia abides by its commitment to launch a joint investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, is due to meet his British counterpart, Jeremy Hunt, in London on Monday afternoon. He complained on Saturday that Saudi Arabia was still not cooperating with the inquiry by allowing Turkish investigators to enter the consulate.

Turkey wants to undertake a search for blood samples inside the consulate, but says it is facing resistance.

UK sources said the focus of Britain’s diplomatic effort would be to ensure the joint investigation starts, with ministers adding that any failure to cooperate with a joint inquiry would be seen as damning evidence against the kingdom.

The UK also suggested the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, may withdraw from the investment conference if it is shown the Saudi government was involved in the suspected murder.

The official UK position is that Fox’s diary for that week is yet to be finalised. Any British action is likely to be coordinated with the US.

The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, accused Hunt of “offering only pusillanimous mutterings”, and said she assumed on the evidence that Khashoggi had been murdered by the Saudis.

Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, she claimed Donald Trump had been more forthright in his condemnations of the Saudis than the British.. Thornberry said bin Salman “was out of control”.

Thornberry has said a Labour-led UK government would end all arms sales to Saudi Arabia until it changed its ways, adding that the proximate cause of a ban would be the Saudi conduct of the war in Yemen, not the Khashoggi affair.

Hunt hit back at Thornberry’s criticism, saying it was coming “from the party whose leader wouldn’t even condemn Russia by name after the first ever chemical weapons attack on British soil”.

Speaking at the weekend, Trump said – without being specific – there were “very powerful” things the west could do to hurt the Saudis, but stopping arms sales would in the end be America punishing itself.

“If they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or they’re going to buy it from China,” he said. “Think of that, $110bn (£84bn). All they’re going to do is give it to other countries, and I think that would be very foolish.

“There’s something really terrible and disgusting about that [Khashoggi’s suspected murder], if that was the case, so we’re going to have to see. We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.”

Democratic senators on the US foreign relations committee said on the basis of classified US intelligence briefings to the committee, Khashoggi has either been murdered by the Saudis or rendered back to Saudi Arabia.

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