Possible Saudi involvement in the disappearance—and alleged murder—of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi presents the U.S.-Saudi relationship with its greatest crisis since 9/11. If the Saudis are proven guilty of this heinous crime, it should change everything about the United States’ long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia. Regrettably, it probably won’t.
The administration’s identification with the 33-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, as a modernizer determined to open up the kingdom and tame its religious extremism has now been undermined by a crueler reality—that of a ruthless, reckless, and impulsive leader willing to repress and silence his critics at home and abroad.
Whatever happened to Khashoggi is first and foremost on the Saudis. But in kowtowing to Riyadh in a fanciful effort to make it the centerpiece of U.S. strategy in the Middle East, the Trump administration has emboldened MbS, as the crown prince is known; given him a sense of invincibility; and encouraged him to believe there are no consequences for his reckless actions. And it is likely, unless confronted with incontrovertible evidence of Saudi responsibility for Khashoggi’s death or serious pressure from Congress, the president would be reluctant to impose those consequences even now.
Donald Trump’s enabling of Saudi Arabia began even before he became president. He talked openly on the campaign trail about his admiration for Saudi Arabia and how he couldn’t refuse Saudi offers to invest millions in his real-estate ventures. His predecessors may have gone to Mexico or Canada for their first foreign foray; Trump chose Saudi Arabia. In a trip carefully choreographed by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who quickly established close personal ties with the soon-to-be crown prince, Trump was feted, flattered, and filled with hopes of billions in arms sales and Saudi investment that would create jobs back home. Trump’s aversion to Barack Obama’s Iran deal also fueled the budding romance. Trump used his anti-Iranian animus (even while he boasted that he’d make a better deal with the mullahs) to energize his ties with Riyadh, and MbS was only too happy to exploit his eagerness. Reports that MbS saw Trump’s team, particularly Kushner, as naive and untutored should have come as no surprise.
Previous administrations—both Republican and Democratic—also pandered to the Saudis, but rarely on such a galactic, unrestrained, and unreciprocated scale. Through its silence or approval, Washington gave MbS—the new architect of the risk-ready, aggressive, and repressive Saudi policies at home and in the region—wide latitude to pursue a disastrous course toward Yemen and Qatar. The administration swooned over some of MbS’s reforms while ignoring the accompanying crackdown on journalists and civil-society activists. Indeed, The Guardian and other outlets reported that MbS had told Kushner in advance of his plans to move against his opponents and wealthy businessmen, including some royals, in what might be termed a “shaikhdown.”
The greatest foreign-policy achievement of MbS’s first year in power was his success at capturing the heart and mind of the president. And there’s little doubt that U.S. permissiveness and willingness to give the Saudis the benefit of the doubt emboldened MbS to act without regard to external constraints and with the confidence that U.S. support could be taken for granted.
The U.S. has important national interests in the stability of Saudi Arabia, and Trump’s embrace of MbS has brought some returns. The upsides of U.S. support for MbS, however, are overwhelmed by the downsides of empowering him to screw up whatever he touches. Over the past two years, the policies pursued by the crown prince have undermined important American interests. For all the investment the administration has made in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, we are getting precious little in return.
In May 2017, the Saudis promised to buy $110 billion worth of additional U.S.military weapons and equipment. Trump has cited those arms sales as a reason not to pressure the Saudis over Khashoggi’s disappearance. But there’s a lot less here than meets the eye.
The Saudis have also opened their checkbook to support U.S. aid initiatives in the Middle East. In response to American prodding, they have offered $100 million in reconstruction assistance to Syria. This is a welcome step, but they could be doing much more, as, for example, they’ve been doing in Iraq.
It is hard to assess the value of Saudi counterterrorism cooperation because most of it operates under a cloak of secrecy. Whatever contributions Saudis make in intelligence sharing and law enforcement, though, serve Saudi interests. They are not being proffered as favors to the United States. The same is generally true for Saudi energy policy, where decisions on oil production and exports are largely driven by market forces and the kingdom’s own needs.
Against these modest gains, MbS’s mistakes weigh heavily. A Saudi-led military coalition is waging an inhumane campaign against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen, giving al-Qaeda and isis greater room to maneuver and handing Iran greater opportunities to spread its influence in Yemen. The wanton killing and destruction, much of it done with U.S. military support, has further sullied America’s reputation. The Saudis have resisted attempts by the United Nations to broker a political settlement of the dispute, as well as UN investigative efforts to establish accountability for possible Saudi war crimes.
The administration’s efforts to turn the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into an effective anti-Iranian coalition have foundered over the bitter and unnecessary fight that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have picked with Qatar. Their joint blockade of Qatar pushed the gulf state to strengthen its ties with Iran, and has greatly complicated administration efforts to confront the Iranian challenge in the region by turning the GCC into a more military force and forming a new “Middle East Strategic Alliance.” The Saudis have made a number of unreasonable demands on Qatar while rejecting U.S. efforts to resolve the dispute.
The Saudis have also dampened Kushner’s hopes of making the “deal of the century.” King Salman made it clear to the White House that Saudi Arabia will not support the new American Middle East peace plan unless it explicitly designates East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state, a demand Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is likely to reject.There was always too much magical thinking in the Trump administration’s conception of what the Saudis would do to reach out to Israel and pressure the Palestinians when it came to peacemaking. Now, in the wake of the Khashoggi affair, Saudi decision making on this and other issues may become even more inward looking.
All of this helps explain why the Saudi role in the disappearance of Khashoggi is such a critical inflection point in U.S.-Saudi relations. Unlike 9/11, where there was no compelling evidence that the senior Saudi leadership had foreknowledge of or played a role in the attacks, the killing of Khashoggi could not have taken place without the express approval of the crown prince. Even if those looking for a way to defuse this crisis believe it can be dismissed as a rogue operation and those who perpetrated the killing can be handed over for trial (most likely magical thinking), nobody would ever believe that MbS didn’t bear responsibility for the affair. This single act—the culmination of a series of repressive actions against women activists, journalists, and family members—will make it nearly impossible to continue to mask the obvious: MbS may be committed to serious reform, but it will be directed from the top down by a ruthless and inexperienced leader who brooks no criticism or dissent and who’s prepared to go to murderous lengths to eliminate any opposition. The message to Saudis who believed they could criticize MbS with impunity is that no one can protect them. If the allegations of Khashoggi’s horrific killing are confirmed, it will mark MbS permanently and make it impossible for the administration to tout his reformist credentials.
Still, Saudi money can be persuasive. Next week, high-level U.S. financiers and government officials have been invited to the MbS-sponsored Davos in the Desert conference, to be held at the very same Ritz-Carlton where the regime detained and bilked scores of wealthy and influential Saudis under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign. Who attends and who doesn’t may provide some measure of how the Khashoggi disappearance is affecting the kingdom.
Outside of the administration, pressure is growing. Congress recently fell four votes short of suspending U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia over civilian casualties in Yemen. A letter sent Wednesday to Trump by a bipartisan group of legislators triggered the Global Magnitsky Act, which will force the administration to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance and, if the Saudis are found complicit, to impose sanctions. And journalists—having lost one of their own—will continue to be seized by this issue.
The question that remains to be answered, though, given the executive branch’s control of foreign policy, is how the Trump administration will respond over time. Will it recognize that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is out of control? That the Saudis are pursuing interests that do not coincide with ours, and that the Saudi leadership seems to feel confident that it can continue to use and abuse Washington’s support without attention or regard to American values or interests? And will it—out of frustration over Saudi behavior—ask the same question posed by Bill Clinton to his aides after his first meeting with Netanyahu: “Who’s the fucking superpower here?”
On paper, MbS is committed to an agenda that would benefit Saudi Arabia and the region, particularly his seeming determination to moderate the extremist strain of Islam that the Saudis have exported for years, and to foster the kingdom’s emerging and largely covert ties with the Israelis. An enlightened and experienced leader pursuing reform in a political culture and region resistant to change would usually be worthy of U.S. support. But an impulsive and reckless 33-year-old leading a regime that’s repressing and imprisoning its subjects at home and perhaps killing them abroad is not. America cannot create the former, but it certainly has no business empowering the latter.The Trump administration should not fail to recognize the difference.