Oct 12, 2018

Axios World

Welcome to Axios World, where two evenings a week we break down what you need to know about the big stories from around the globe.

Thanks for joining me! Please tell your friends and colleagues to sign up here, and I'd love your tips and feedback: lawler@axios.com.

1 big thing: Will America turn on MBS?

James Mattis and MBS at the Pentagon in March. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Report after report implicates Saudi agents in the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and no credible alternative explanation has emerged. The question is becoming whether his disappearance fundamentally changes the U.S.-Saudi relationship and if not, why?

Why it matters: The Trump administration, led by Jared Kushner, has placed a massive bet on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as the partner the U.S. needs in the Middle East and the man to modernize Saudi Arabia. He may well be. He is also proving himself to be a ruthless autocrat responsible for the jailing of his critics, massive civilian casualties in Yemen and — if reports are accurate — the assassination of a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist outside of Saudi Arabia's borders.

State Dept. spokesperson Heather Nauert said repeatedly in a briefing today that "we don't know what happened" to Khashoggi. She wouldn't discuss U.S. responses, saying it was "entirely a hypothetical situation."

President Trump, meanwhile, was remarkably blunt when asked whether he'd consider suspending arms sales:

"What good does that do us? There are other things we can do. First I want to find out what happened, and we're looking. Again, this took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge Khashoggi is not a United States citizen. ... We don't like it, but as to whether we should stop $110 billion being spent in our country knowing they have four or five alternatives ... that would not be acceptable to me."

Context: Promoting human rights is not a foreign policy priority for Trump, and building strong ties with the Saudis is — Saudi Arabia was the first country he visited as president.

  • William Wechsler of the Atlantic Council told Axios' Haley Britzky it's "not unusual" for a U.S. administration to avoid "screaming publicly" in a situation such as this: “What we’ve learned for decades across administrations is that the most productive relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia often take place in private."
  • Thomas Lippman, author of "Saudi Arabia on the Edge," says the U.S.-Saudi relationship has never changed “because of the fate of any individual. Nor will it do so now.” He added: “The president and Jared Kushner have found some kind of soulmate in Mohammad bin Salman. … They have too many things going to do anything decisive because of the fate of one guy.”

Things look a bit different on Capitol Hill. Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN today: “My instincts say there's no question the Saudi government did this." He's one of 22 senators who signed a letter calling on Trump to impose sanctions on anyone found to be responsible.

At a minimum, the growing backlash seems to undermine the massive public relations push MBS has undertaken around the world.

  • He's not just courting political leaders. MBS has met with Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Tim Cook, among others. I recently attended a panel at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York hosted by MBS' Misk Foundation and among the participants was Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

What to watch: There are billions of dollars tied up in the idea that MBS is a reformer. We'll get an early sign of whether the mood is shifting at the Future Investment Initiative he'll host later this month in Riyadh. Big names are under pressure to pull out. Meanwhile, Virgin's Richard Branson announced today he's suspending talks with the Saudis over his space venture.

Go deeper: What we know about Khashoggi's disappearance

2. Pastor at center of U.S.-Turkey standoff may be released

Brunson being moved from prison to house arrest. Photo: Evren Atalay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

NBC News and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that American pastor Andrew Brunson is expected to be released from a Turkish jail tomorrow, a move that could end a crisis that pushed U.S.-Turkey ties to a breaking point over the past two months. Axios has not independently confirmed those reports.

Catch up quick: Brunson has been held since 2016 on terrorism charges the U.S. says are baseless. Trump fumed publicly and slapped sanctions on Turkey after the pastor was moved to house arrest in August, rather than released as the U.S. expected. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed shocked by the response and refused to back down.

The latest: Brunson will be in court tomorrow. Sources tell NBC he'll be released under a deal that "includes a commitment by the U.S. to ease economic pressure on Turkey." WSJ says the judge is "expected to drop some charges and, at most, sentence him to time already served."

  • This comes as Turkey weighs how forcefully to confront Saudi Arabia over the alleged murder of Khashoggi in its capital city.

Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute tells me, "If a reset happens, MBS will have played a big role in it."

  • "I think the Khashoggi incident has inserted a window of opportunity into Erdogan's wait-and-see cycle," he says. "He doesn't want to go up against Saudi Arabia unless he knows he has U.S. backing. Enter the unrelated Brunson situation."
  • Where things stand: Cagaptay says that both Trump and Erdogan left "a door open to having a personal relationship again," but relations won't completely reset overnight because several points of tension remain (see item 3).

Go deeper: Jarrett Blanc of the Carnegie Endowment writes for Axios Expert Voices that despite strained ties, the Trump administration "needs to work closely with Turkey to address" Khashoggi's disappearance.

3. Russian weapons system dividing U.S. and key allies

A soldier looks at a radar screen of an S-400 missile system at the Vostok 2018 military exercise, which involves troops from China and Mongolia. Photo: TASS/Getty Images

Military hardware is Russia's second-biggest source of income after oil, and the S-400 surface-to-air missile is one of the country's most advanced and marketable weapons systems in recent years. Yarno Ritzen of Al Jazeera reports on why it poses a risk for long-standing alliances:

Because of its capabilities, several countries including China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India and Qatar have said they are willing to buy the S-400. Almost every government that announced it was planning to buy the system was threatened with some kind of diplomatic retaliation from the U.S., NATO or adversaries.

  • "The S-400 is among the most advanced air defense systems available, on par with the best the West has to offer," said Siemon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
  • "It's intended to be a one-size-fits-all missile system. It can be configured with long-range, semi long-range, medium-range and even short-range weapons systems, depending on how the individual user wishes to configure the S-400," said Kevin Brand of the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • "There is also a diplomatic issue here, as the agreement to sell sensitive technology to a country implies a wider alignment on a range of political issues," said Charles Forrester of Jane's by IHS Markit.
"India places top priority on ties with Russia. In today's fast-changing world, our relationship assumes heightened importance.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Vladimir Putin after signing the $5 billion deal.

What to watch: Turkey, a NATO member, is one of the most significant potential buyers of the S-400, which would be difficult to integrate into NATO’s defense system. "The worst-case scenario,” Brand says, “is that there might be vulnerabilities ... that could be exploited by a potential adversary.”

Expert Voices: U.S. and India headed toward clash over Iranian oil sanctions

4. Africa: Who's online, and why

South Africa's two most recent presidents snap photos during a party conference last December. Photo: Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images

A new Pew report looks at rising access to cell phones and the internet in six sub-Saharan African countries: South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania. Key findings:

  • Internet usage is around 59% in South Africa, 25% in Tanzania and around 40% in the other four.
  • At least 75% in all six countries, and 91% in South Africa, own a cell phone.
  • In all of these countries, if you're on the internet, you're probably on social media. In Ghana, for example, 39% use the internet regularly and 32% use social media.
  • Across the six countries, 85% of internet users use it to stay in touch with family and friends, 53% use it for news, 46% use it to make or receive payments, 17% to shop and 14% take online courses.

The bottom line: Vast majorities think the internet improves education, the economy, personal relationships and (by a smaller margin) politics. Respondents were split on how it affects morality.

5. Asia roundup: Chinese spy snatched in Belgium

A Chinese spy accused of stealing U.S. trade secrets was lured to Belgium, arrested and then extradited to the U.S. in what appears to be an unprecedented step by federal authorities.

  • Why it matters: "[A]pprehending an accused Chinese spy ... is an extraordinary development and a sign of the Trump administration’s continued crackdown on the Chinese theft of trade secrets," per the NYT.
  • Go deeper: A new era in U.S.-China relations.

Asian countries lead the way in the World Bank's new "human capital index," calculated based on the health and education of children around the world.

  • Top performers: Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Finland. The U.S. came 27th.

Spikes in the price of rice and other foods in the Philippines are "starting to alienate" the core supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte, the NYT reports.

6. Dangerous times for the world's journalists

Flowers and a portrait of slain Bulgarian television journalist Viktoria Marinova. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Khashoggi's disappearance highlights the dangerous climate for journalists in many countries around the world at present. Axios' Zach Basu rounds up three other troubling stories this week alone:

  • Myanmar: Authorities arrested three journalists for publishing a story that criticized government spending, just weeks after a pair of Reuters reporters were sentenced to seven years in prison for their investigation of the Rohingya Muslim crisis.
  • Bulgaria: A journalist whose last broadcast covered alleged corruption involving government funds was raped and murdered. She is the fourth high-profile journalist to be murdered in the EU since 2017.
  • Hong Kong, the Financial Times' Asia editor was denied a visa renewal after hosting a speech by a pro-independence political leader — "the first de facto expulsion of a foreign correspondent" since 1997.

By the numbers: So far in 2018, 27 journalists have been murdered, up from 18 in 2017 and 19 in 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since 1992, 1,322 journalists have been killed as a result of their work; 848 have been murdered, while 298 were killed in crossfire or combat.

7. Stories we're watching

A traditional human tower competition in Tarragona, Spain. Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

  1. China's "influence" vs. "interference" in the midterms
  2. U.S. garlic growers are in love with the China trade war
  3. Report: Trump raised Adelson casino bid with Japan's prime minister
  4. IMF drops global growth forecast due to trade tensions
  5. African aviation market expanding
  6. Booster rocket at fault for failed U.S.-Russia space launch
  7. Nikki Haley's political prospects


“They do nothing without our approval.”
— Trump on South Korea