After spending the last two weeks lying about Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — claiming that he left the consulate in Istanbul — Riyadh is lying again. He died, the regime now insists, in a fist fight. The royal family left unexplained the arrival and sudden departure of a 15-man squad including a forensics specialist carrying a bone saw. More important, where is the body, if Khashoggi’s death was accidental?
Some apologists for the House of Saud have been trashing him. Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson even abandoned the pretense of Christian principles in citing the employment value of selling arms to the Saudis. Blaming the murder victim is ludicrous: I met him more than once and he was a complicated figure, with connections to the royal family and past friendliness toward political Islam. However, he leaned in a liberal direction and pushed for greater freedom in a region that desperately needs to overthrow Islamic fundamentalists and licentious princes alike. Freedom House only rates one Arab nation, Tunisia, as free, and three others as partly free. The rest are unfree — Saudi Arabia ostentatiously so.
Khashoggi went into exile because the supposedly reforming crown prince punished even modest dissent. Khashoggi died because he dared criticize a regime which continues to oppress its own people, suppress the slightest hint of political and religious liberty, destabilize the Middle East, promote radical Islamism around the world, including in America, and underwrite violent jihadists in Syria and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia is everything that it accuses Iran of being. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s misrule is harming American interests.
The House of Saud is no friend of America, and its bogus “modernizer” must go.
While running for office President Donald Trump appeared to see the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia plain. There certainly were no shared values. He called the Saudis “bullies, cowards.” National interests occasionally overlapped, but candidate Trump realized that the KSA demonstrated an unfortunate warmth toward violent Islamists. He complained that the Saudis were “paying ISIS.” And, like so many other nominal allies, he recognized that Riyadh was determined to leave the heavy lifting to Washington.
The U.S. never should have kowtowed to the Saudi royals. Decades ago rising energy demand allowed OPEC members to raise prices but cheating always undermined the group’s effectiveness as a monopoly seller. More recently new oil discovers, buttressed by supplies from fracking, dramatically limited reduced Riyadh’s influence.
During the Cold War a Soviet lunge into the Persian Gulf would have dramatically impacted the world energy market. However, prophecies of the end of Western industrial activity inflated Soviet capabilities. In any case, the prospect of outside control long ago vanished.
Any attempt by Riyadh to wield oil as a weapon is bound to fail. To start, it is more important for the Saudis to sell their oil than for Americans and others to buy it. The pampered royals need money to maintain political control and enjoy luxurious living. A selective oil boycott would merely rearrange tanker schedules, as middlemen ensured everyone who wanted petroleum could buy it. With the oil market growing ever larger and more diverse, Saudi energy influence will continue to fall.
Beyond oil Saudi Arabia offers America little. Even the Kingdom’s fascinating culture and history is tainted by ruthless intolerance of individual liberty, political democracy, and religious freedom. The KSA is uniquely oppressive, allowing not a single synagogue, church, or temple. Even North Korea has a couple of churches for show.
Political repression is intense as well, growing under MbS (as the Crown Prince is known) even as he traveled the world pretending to be reformer-in-chief. Last October the Kingdom declared criticism of the king and crown prince to be acts of terrorism. Wrote Khashoggi in his last column, published posthumously: “The jails of Saudi Arabia in fact are now brimming with people ensnared in the crackdown launched by the crown prince.”
The State Department is equally blunt in its assessment:
The most significant human rights issues included unlawful killings, including execution for other than the most serious offenses and without requisite due process; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of lawyers, human rights activists, and antigovernment reformists; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, including on the internet, and criminalization of libel; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections.
Riyadh does not merely stand for intolerance. It actively promotes religious hostility around the world, having spent some $100 billion pushing Wahhabism, including in the U.S. While not overtly violent, Wahhabism preaches hatred of non-Muslims. This hostile mindset lays a foundation for the violence that permeates the Muslim world against religious minorities, including other Muslims, as well as violent terrorism against others. Moreover, no country is more responsible for terrorism against Americans: private Saudi money aided al-Qaeda and fifteen of nineteen 9/11 terrorists were Saudis.
Afterwards the KSA underwrote radical insurgents in Syria, groups that would be happy to target America. Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ruled brutally, he has not, and is unlikely to, attack the U.S. Violent Islamists pose a much more serious threat to America.
The Kingdom evidently is no friend of the U.S. For some, including today’s White House, all that matters is Iran, which the Saudis implausibly compare to Hitler’s Germany. In fact, Tehran is weak. The economy suffers from isolation and sanctions. Far freer and more diverse than the KSA, Iran hosts a more open political environment, with serious dissent and opposition to the government. Although Iran’s elections are not free, they matter, and challenge the authority of the Islamist regime. Not so in Saudi Arabia.
Nor is Tehran a serious military threat. Any attack on the U.S. would risk devastating retaliation. Iran spends a fraction of what nuclear-armed Israel and Saudi Arabia devote to the armed services. Bolstered by the endless weapons purchases encouraged by the president, Riyadh and its Gulf allies should be capable of deterring Tehran from aggressive action.
Nor is the MbS government a force for regional stability. Iran has done far more than Riyadh to combat the Islamic State and other Islamic radicals, who usually are Sunnis. In contrast, the Saudis promoted Wahhabism throughout the region, including in Yemen, and underwrote violent radicals in Syria.
MbS also is recklessly aggressive. Three years ago the KSA invaded Yemen to restore a puppet regime to power. The controversy had little to do with Iran, as claimed by Riyadh. An independent Yemeni (at one point two states) dates back to 1962. Since then the territory has been almost constantly at war. Indeed, Riyadh intervened decades ago on behalf of one Yemeni government, facing off against another Yemeni state backed by Egyptian troops. Riyadh’s foolish war allowed Tehran to bleed the ineffective Saudi forces. The KSA has dragged Washington into the murderous fight, turning an entire people, who otherwise had nothing against America, into enemies and potential terrorists.
Last year MbS shocked even his friends by kidnapping Lebanon’s prime minister in order to force the latter to resign, apparently believing doing so would weaken Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed faction in Lebanon. Instead, the country united against the Saudis, who ultimately were forced to release Saad Hariri, who resumed his position. The Saudi-Emirati attempt to isolate Qatar, which originally was to be followed by a military invasion of the offending emirate, also backfired badly, dividing the Gulf and strengthening Iran. Riyadh supported stability of a sort by underwriting vicious, oppressive regimes in Bahrain and Egypt, but even more virulent popular opposition may eventually break through.
The murder of Khashoggi highlighted MbS at his most reckless. Despite ingenuous comments by President Donald Trump and other Saudi groupies, no serious person believes that a 15-man kidnap/hit squad, including a forensic specialist with a bone saw, showed up at a Saudi consulate and killed Khashoggi without MbS’s approval. The crown prince tightly controls government policy and is notably intolerant of dissent.
Indeed, in believing no one would notice or care about such an operation, MbS must share the hubris of the gods. As the story built and foreign criticism rose, the crown prince demonstrated that he was not ready for prime time. Rather than confront the crisis, his government made it worse, offering a succession of transparent, incredible lies. Then came ludicrous threats of retaliation if other nations imposed sanctions, followed by a statement suggesting that Riyadh was only kidding when it came to punishing the U.S. Finally, the KSA blamed Khashoggi for his own death, as if he was responsible for being ambushed by a well-armed gang in his nation’s consulate.
Rumors, unconfirmable by their very nature, are now circulating of top princes discussing a change in succession. MbS possesses seemingly supreme power, but only because it has been granted by his father. Chosen to lead the KSA into the future, his policies have been controversial at best and catastrophic at worst: turning the Ritz-Carlton into a prison, slaughtering school children in the Yemeni war, squeezing the last gasps of intellectual freedom out of Saudi society, kidnapping Lebanon’s Hariri, intervening in the Syrian civil war, treating Qatar as an enemy.
Yet none of these generated much foreign reaction. All were essentially dealing with statistics, in the famous observation by Joseph Stalin. Khashoggi was an identifiable individual, whose murder focused attention on MbS’s misrule, creating almost universal revulsion in the West, from which the Saudis seek military protection and economic sustenance. Even the crown prince’s father might be dissatisfied with his performance, and what it portends for the future. Washington should add its concern over someone who lacks the character and temperament to rule, let alone absolutely.
Indeed, MbS will find it virtually impossible to escape the taint of l’affaire Khashoggi. Even the Times’ Tom Friedman and fellow wannabe courtiers will hesitate performing journalistic fellatio in the future. Interviews with the “young reformer” will have to include a couple questions about his government’s brutal human rights practices. Stories on alleged reform will have to discuss the downside of MbS’s rule. Even the Trump administration will feel more pressure to address human rights, or the lack thereof, in the Kingdom.
As a result, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud might decide that another, more responsible son, should rule. Already the enfeebled ruler reportedly felt the need to intervene in the crisis. There might be more changes to come. MbS took the leadership test and failed. He might not go quietly, but he has made enemies freely, and even his nominal friends will have trouble trusting him to guide the nation forward in uncertain times.
Saudi Arabia’s future long has been in doubt. The Kingdom desperately needs far-reaching reform, which spurred Western fantasies about MbS as the chosen one. However, he proved that he has the heart and soul of an autocrat and killer. Worse, he proved to be a reckless, arrogant fool. His dangerous excesses, gambles, and threats have hurt the KSA and the U.S.
For both nations the risk of MbS becoming king is too great to accept. The sooner the Saudi royals police their own, the better for everyone involved. In the meantime, Washington should treat the current Saudi regime as the criminal enterprise which it has become. The embarrassment and other costs of embracing such a regime will only grow along with MbS’ irresponsibility.Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has left Washington reeling — and Riyadh bewildered. Whether Saudi leaders didn’t expect to get caught, or simply believed themselves above reproach, they appear to have been taken by surprise at the outpouring of criticism.
Indeed, Khashoggi’s death feels like a watershed moment in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Suddenly, many in Washington are finally willing to admit that Saudi Arabia — a country they have long treated as a friend and partner — is little more than another murderous Middle East dictatorship. The White House may still be supportive, but newspapers are printing criticism, think tanks are returning Saudi money, and Congress is actively considering sanctions.
This moment has been a long time coming. Khashoggi’s murder caps years of growing dissatisfaction about the Saudi alliance. Like a failing marriage, the United States and Saudi Arabia have long been drifting apart. Diverging U.S.-Saudi interests, and an increasingly reckless Saudi foreign policy have taken their toll on the relationship, even as domestic repression has grown inside Saudi Arabia. As Sen. Chris Murphy noted in a recent op-ed:
When I came to Congress a little more than 10 years ago, support for Saudi Arabia was broad and bipartisan. But now… more and more of us are wondering whether our ally’s actions are in our own best interests.
Indeed, while some argue that the problem with the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a conflict between American interests and values, it’s no longer clear that American interests are well-served by a close relationship with the Saudis. If policymakers follow through, the dissident’s death could provide the opportunity to — finally — distance the United States from its toxic Saudi ally.
‘The Most Significant Reform Process Underway Anywhere in the Middle East’
It hardly matters whether Khashoggi’s death was accidental — part of a botched interrogation or planned abduction, or even a fight as the Saudi government now claims — or intentional. The brutal murder of the U.S. permanent resident in Turkey marks a new low in U.S.-Saudi relations.
Yet Khashoggi’s murder is notable only for its brutality and his western connections. If indeed the Saudis originally intended to return him to Riyadh, he would be far from the first expatriate kidnapped in this way since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — or MBS, as he is often known — began his ascent to power. One royal prince even found his plane to Cairo mysteriously diverted to Riyadh and members of his entourage subdued by armed flight attendants.
Since 2015, the crown prince has actively curtailed space for political criticism, tolerating no dissent, even from inside the royal family. His most obvious rival for power, former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, remains under house arrest. The young prince is even rumored to have placed his own motherunder arrest to prevent her from independently advising his father, the king. Outside the family, MBS has cracked down on domestic opponents, from Shiite citizens in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern provinces to human rights activists.
This may seem curiously at odds with the image of MBS found in the Western press: a young, far-sighted reformer, dragging his country kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The cultivation of this image — and the adulation which greeted MBS’ arrival in Washington and London — is undoubtedly one of the recent successes of Saudi foreign policy. A highly successful Western tour included photo ops and meetings with luminaries from Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey.
With pundits lauding his moves to loosen the kingdom’s draconian restrictions on women, and his moonshot plan to wean his country off of oil through an IPO of Saudi oil company Aramco, it seemed the young prince could do no wrong. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson thanked the prince on Instagram for partying with him, while Tom Friedman got rather more florid with his praise in the New York Times.
Like a failing marriage, the United States and Saudi Arabia have long been drifting apart.
What the pundits and politicians either missed or ignored, however, is that reform requires centralized political power. The reformist image of MBS presented in the press is not entirely untrue; women can now drive, and other economic and social reforms are taking place. Yet these reforms have not been matched by any political liberalization. Worse, in order to sustain these reforms, the Saudi royal court has increasingly resorted to repression.
In one case, the arrest of hundreds of prominent Saudi business leaders and their imprisonment in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton — ostensibly part of an anti-corruption drive — helped to cement the young prince’s hold on power and replenish government coffers at a time of fiscal austerity. In another, a 2017 report from the United Nations makes clear that Saudi anti-terror laws are routinely used to justify torture and crack down on free speech.
Until recently, the focus on reform and the longstanding partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia largely trumped any criticism of these crackdowns. Perhaps a few more articles bemoaning Saudi human rights abuses were published in Western papers. But domestic Saudi repression had little bearing on the U.S.-Saudi relationship until the death of Jamal Khashoggi. Now, of course, it’s headline news.
Washington’s willingness to criticize the Khashoggi murder owes as much to the changing nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as to growing repression. Though the few defenders of the Saudi government have trotted out the standard arguments in favor of the U.S.-Saudi partnership — oil, regional politics, arms sales — these arguments are far less persuasive today than they were 35 years ago. The United States simply no longer needs a close relationship with Saudi Arabia to achieve its foreign policy goals and meet its energy needs.
Take oil. It’s true that Saudi Arabia remains among the world’s largest producers of oil, producing around a quarter of the world’s crude oil. And thanks to changing production patterns — notably the growth of shale oil production in the United States — America is far less directly dependent on Middle Eastern energy.
Certainly, this doesn’t mean Saudi oil supplies are unimportant to the United States. Since oil is priced globally, Saudi domestic stability is still key to ensuring a reasonable price for oil. Yet oil markets have come a long way since the Carter Doctrine. During President Jimmy Carter’s time, the United States was reeling from twin oil shocks, as the 1973 OPEC embargo and the 1979 Iranian revolution triggered oil shortages and price hikes throughout the Western world. The Carter Doctrine — which promised to protect Middle Eastern oil-rich states, prevent Soviet regional hegemony, and protect global oil supplies — effectively committed the United States to act as Saudi Arabia’s guarantor of security, a commitment fulfilled during the Gulf War.
Today, most of these risks have disappeared. Innovations like spot pricing and strategic reserves help to stabilize the market during shocks. There is no Soviet threat poised to dominate the region. To ensure the free flow of oil, the United States doesn’t need a heavy military presence in the region. Instead, it needs to protect the global commons (i.e., sea lanes), and maintain the expeditionary capacity to re-enter the region if it becomes necessary, a posture often described as an over-the-horizon approach.
Energy security is a good reason to maintain a U.S. interest in Middle Eastern stability. It is no longer a sufficient reason to provide the Saudi government carte blanche.
Public understanding of these shifts in global energy production remains limited, as illustrated by recent concerns about Saudi Arabia’s empty bluff to cut off oil supplies. But arguments about Saudi Arabia’s importance for regional stability are no less dated, and far more visibly false; only 4 percent of Americans now consider Saudi Arabia to be a U.S. ally.
In Yemen, for example, Saudi-led forces have repeatedly ignored the laws of war, bombing schools and hospitals and refusing to allow necessary supplies to reach civilians trapped by conflict. Yemen is now experiencing a mass humanitarian crisis, including a famine that may soon be the worst in a hundred years. In Syria, the Saudis have mounted a concerted effort to fund and arm rebel groups in the fight against the Assad regime. With little vetting and less oversight, many of these weapons ended up in the hands of extremists.
These are only the most obvious examples. Saudi Arabia also actively opposed many of the uprisings of the Arab Spring, with Saudi tanks putting down a pro-democracy uprising in neighboring Bahrain. An ill-advised blockade — and apparent planned invasion of Qatar — remains unresolved, as does the kingdom’s bizarre diplomatic spat with Canada. And Saudi money — both private and public — has long pushed an intolerant and hardline version of Islam that continues to inspire extremism throughout the region.
America’s key interest in the Middle East is stability. Yet in recent years, Saudi foreign policy has far more often been destabilizing than stabilizing. Saudi Arabia is often portrayed as a bulwark against Iranianregional influence, but it’s unclear why a destabilizing reactionary Saudi foreign policy is any better than a revolutionary Iranian one. Just as Iran sponsors Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia has sponsored various militant groups in Syria. Iran meddles in Lebanese politics, while Saudi Arabia recently kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister. If America’s regional interest is stability — rather than simply taking sides — it doesn’t make sense to back either country in their regional aspirations.
Even arms sales — a more contemporary argument in favor of a close partnership with Saudi Arabia — are no longer convincing. With his typical exaggeration, President Donald Trump cited $110 billion in arms sales and the resulting U.S. jobs as an excellent reason to maintain good relations with Riyadh. In fact, experts assess that Saudi arms sales are in reality worth only about $20 billion, while the 4,000 jobs created are a tiny fraction of the overall U.S. defense industry. With Saudi human rights abuses now regularly making headlines, it is much harder to justify the sale of offensive weapons to the kingdom.
A Failing Marriage of Convenience
These gradual changes in the U.S.-Saudi relationship have been slowly felt in recent years. Even before Khashoggi’s death, the Kingdom’s bloody war in Yemen generated pushback from human rights groups. Meanwhile, Trump’s close relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia has driven journalists to explore the free flow of Saudi money into institutions and lobbying firms here in Washington.
Perhaps the biggest change has been on Capitol Hill, where the Saudi alliance once enjoyed wholehearted support. A younger generation of policymakers like Murphy, Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Ro Khanna now argue for fewer arms sales, an end to U.S. support for the war in Yemen, and a shift to a more arms-length relationship with Saudi Arabia. Nor is the opposition limited to new arrivals; Sen. Bernie Sanders has been an open and repeated critic of Saudi Arabia.
Opinion has shifted even further in the last few weeks: Congress has called for a Magnitsky investigation into Khashoggi’s death, suggesting the potential for sanctions. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, typically an ardent supporter of Saudi Arabia, vowed to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Ever the trigger-happy proponent of regime change, the senator even called for Mohammed bin Salman to be removed from power.
Certainly, the Saudi regime retains the support of the White House, which sees Saudi backing for the anti-Iran campaign and potential willingness to prop up oil prices as sufficient to win its loyalty. Yet Western companies are pulling their support for Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative conference later in the month, and Saudi money is becoming increasingly toxic in Washington.
With the increasing divergence between Saudi and American interests, the Khashoggi murder offers an opportunity for lawmakers. Sanctions legislation, or legislation forbidding the use of U.S. forces to back the Saudi-led War in Yemen, would send a clear signal that Saudi behavior is unacceptable. It would lay the groundwork for a future administration to adopt a more balanced approach to the Middle East, one focused on stability, not on supporting the goals of any one state. And it would reorient American foreign policy to more accurately reflect the reality of the global oil market: that Saudi Arabia’s future increasingly lies in selling its resources to Asia, not the West.
Once, the U.S.-Saudi marriage of convenience served both sides well. But it was just that — a marriage of convenience. With changes in the oil market and regional security, the rationale for the relationship has been diminishing for years. It has undoubtedly taken time for opinion in Congress and elsewhere to catch up to this reality. It may take longer still — into the next administration — for the White House to finally acknowledge that the Saudi alliance no longer serves U.S. needs. But the shock of Khashoggi’s death has created an opening to reassess this alliance, highlighting that Americans have no shared values with Saudi Arabia, and perhaps, fewer shared interests than they thought.Emma Ashford is a Research Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.