The U.S.-Saudi Relationship: Too Faustian to Fail?

Trump’s in too deep with Mohammed bin Salman to make a stink about Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Saudi Arabia-United States Partnership Meeting in Washington on March 23. (Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Saudi Arabia-United States Partnership Meeting in Washington on March 23. (Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

For the Trump administration, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might be the perfect Middle East partner. He leads a strategic alignment against Iran, maintains quiet ties with Israel, and buys billions of dollars in U.S. weapons.

For Mohammed bin Salman, Trump is an equally convenient ally. The U.S. president doesn’t get too worked up about democracy and human rights—or the fate of an individual Saudi journalist who disappeared in Turkey.

According to several Saudi experts, in the year and a half since he became the de facto Saudi leader, the 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman has come to believe he has carte blanche from the Trump administration to be as brutal and bloody as he would like—both in waging a horrific war in Yemen and allegedly killing off political opponents such as Jamal Khashoggi.  

And brutal and bloody he has been, according to many accounts. Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who had criticized Mohammed bin Salman’s increasingly tyrannical tendencies in columns for the Washington Post, disappeared a week ago after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Evidence has since mounted that he was allegedly assassinated by Saudi agents who might have been acting on the crown prince’s orders.

It is part of an increasingly brazen—indeed unprecedented—Saudi campaign to silence dissenters who might question Mohammed bin Salman’s legitimacy since he was selected over ousted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (whom the new crown prince later placed under house arrest), said Bruce Riedel, a former career CIA official who has advised the last four U.S. presidents on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

Despite that, the Trump administration continues to respond to questions about Khashoggi’s fate with extreme caution, for the most part echoing the Saudi official line that it doesn’t know what happened to him.

U.S. National Security Council and CIA officials declined to comment for this article, and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert suggested at her daily briefing that any requests to the Turkish government for information would be “the FBI’s lane.” But without getting a specific request for assistance from a host country, the FBI doesn’t investigate crimes overseas unless they are acts of terrorism or offenses against U.S. citizens. Based on statements made by U.S. officials, it doesn’t appear such a request has come from Turkey.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that National Security Advisor John Bolton and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—a contemporary of Mohammed bin Salman’s with whom he has formed a friendship—had both called the crown prince to learn more about what happened to him. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also phoned.

As for Trump himself, he told reporters Wednesday that he wanted to invite Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee to the White House. (Khashoggi had gone to the Saudi consulate only to get his papers in order to be married). Trump said he would “get to the bottom” of Khashoggi’s disappearance and added: “We cannot let this happen to reporters, to anybody.” But Trump also said he had no idea what happened to the journalist and said of Mohammed bin Salman: “I’ve always found him to be a fine man.”

Indeed, Trump’s only criticism of the Saudis has been related to oil prices. The president told the U.N. General Assembly last month that the Saudi-led OPEC has been “as usual ripping off the rest of the world. … We defend many of these nations for nothing, and then they take advantage of us by giving us high oil prices. Not good.”

Speaking at a campaign rally in Mississippi this month, Trump also personally criticized Mohammed bin Salman’s father, King Salman: “I love the king … but I said: ‘King, we’re protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military, you have to pay.”‘

Mohammed bin Salman rushed to make up with his U.S. partner. Trump’s comments were no big deal, he told Bloomberg News the next day. “If you look at the picture overall, you have 99 percent of good things and one bad issue,” the crown prince said. “I love working with [Trump]. I really like working with him, and we have achieved a lot in the Middle East.”

Trump’s larger Middle East agenda, particularly aligning with both Saudi Arabia and Israel to contain Iran, appears to be the main reason for his silence on Mohammed bin Salman’s human rights record. And in the case of Khashoggi, the U.S. president has opened to door to physical attacks on journalists by repeatedly calling the media “the enemy of the people.”

“I’m sure the demise of a Washington Post journalist is not a priority for a ‘fake news’ president,” Riedel said. “I don’t think the Trump administration is going to do anything about Khashoggi.”

Above all, he’s promising to give Trump what he most wants—deals, lots of them. Late last year, Kushner negotiated a record $110 billion arms deal with him. It’s not clear how much substance there is to that much-hyped agreement (many of the contracts haven’t been signed), but Mohammed bin Salman has pledged there will be a lot more to come.

After Trump became president, “we’ve changed our armament strategy again for the next 10 years to put more than 60 percent with the United States of America,” he told Bloomberg.

Riedel and other Saudi experts said that while brilliantly making friends in high places in the West, Mohammed bin Salman has only grown more reckless and savage in his crackdown. He has charmed powerful people in the West by speaking of acceptance of Israel and reducing support for Wahhabism, which has radicalized much of the Islamic world thanks to Saudi petro-dollars. So compelling a presence is the crown prince that last year he managed to gull Thomas Friedman of the New York Times into calling him the renewed hope of the Arab Spring. 

“It may be his genius,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, who oversees Middle East affairs for Human Rights Watch. “He is a craven bully and a thug … but from a Machiavellian perspective, no Saudi royal has ever concentrated so much power in his own hands.”

This is a departure from what used to be a consensus-based system within the Saud family. “Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, but that said, it has behaved within international norms for the most part,” Riedel said. “It did not used to kidnap and murder critics in such an egregious way. It didn’t round up hundreds of its own citizens and shake them down in a Ritz-Carlton [as Mohammed bin Salman did last fall]. It has not put a former crown prince under house arrest. This … reflects the somewhat precarious nature of bin Salman’s position. His legitimacy is open, and his judgment is reckless.”

The Saudi war against Iran-backed Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen is also believed to be entirely the doing of Mohammed bin Salman, who was the new defense minister when it was launched in 2015. The longtime Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal—who was known to oppose the invasion—had been ailing and died just before it began. Since then, Riedel said, “Saudi royal family members have gone out of their way to say this was not a family decision.”

From that perspective, the alleged killing of Khashoggi was not necessarily a surprise for a ruler who appears to believe he is all but immune from retaliation. (Saudi officials deny any harm came to Khashoggi at the consulate and say that he left the building on his own accord.)

Even so, it may have been a step too far, some critics say. Riedel noted that intelligence officials consider the tradecraft of the Khashoggi disappearance to have been careless and shoddy, which is why Turkish authorities exposed it so quickly.

Together with his faltering efforts to modernize the Saudi economy—which is how Mohammed bin Salman justifies his domestic crackdown—the embarrassment of the Khashoggi affair could leave the crown prince vulnerable to second thoughts by his father and other key family members about his suitability for the throne.

And, in the United States, if the Democrats take over the House of Representatives after the midterm elections on Nov. 6, some of the U.S.-Saudi arms deals could be put on hold. That would also be a setback for Mohammed bin Salman.

“He continues to enjoy the protection of his father, and that’s what’s crucial,” Riedel said. “But I would not be surprised if he were moved out of the line of succession or there was an assassination attempt.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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