The Saudis Are Killing America’s Middle East Policy

Mohammad bin Salman isn’t just ruining his own reputation—he’s spoiling Washington’s policies across the region.

Then-Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the G-20 opening ceremony at the Hangzhou International Expo Center in Hangzhou, China, on Sept. 4, 2016. (Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images)
Then-Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the G-20 opening ceremony at the Hangzhou International Expo Center in Hangzhou, China, on Sept. 4, 2016. (Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump could kill someone on the White House lawn and Washington would still be talking about the disappearance and presumed murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It has been an extraordinary three weeks inside the Beltway. Not since Monica Lewinsky’s daily dash from a car to the lobby of her lawyer’s office building on Connecticut Avenue in 1998 has the city been so focused on a single story.

There are four reasons for this fixation. First, Khashoggi wrote a column for the hometown newspaper in a place where people make news, write about news, and obsess about news. Second, there is the Trump administration’s apparently close relationship with Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is suspected of ordering the columnist’s death. This gives the episode a certain partisan bent, even if there are prominent Republicans who want to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Third, it raises uncomfortable questions about Riyadh’s influence among Washington’s elite. Finally, and most importantly, it heightens an ongoing debate about the wisdom of Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia’s apparently heedless crown prince, who along with killing poor Khashoggi may also have killed American Middle East policy.

There was a certain logic to the Trump administration’s approach to the region that gave pride of place to Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman. Surveying the wreckage of the Middle East on Jan. 21, 2017, the new team in the White House no doubt quickly discovered it had few, if any, options other than Saudi Arabia—all the other Arab countries were either failing, staggering from crisis to crisis, or limited by small size. So, when Trump indicated he would make good on his campaign promise to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and take a hard line on Iranian adventurism around the region, the Saudis were more than supportive. When Trump wanted to “completely destroy” the Islamic State and fight Islamist extremism, the Saudis said they would help and opened the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology to much fanfare (and derision) during the president’s visit to Riyadh in 2017. Trump wanted to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace, and the Saudis promised to be helpful. Trump wanted to sell beautiful American weapons, so the Saudis committed to buying billions of dollars of them. When people think about Saudi Arabia, they tend to think immediately of oil, but arms trade has become an increasingly important facet of the bilateral relationship.

As for the administration’s relationship with the Saudi crown prince, that was a fait accompli. King Salman had clearly decided that his son was going to succeed him—instead of his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef—by the time the president walked through the doors of the Oval Office for the first time. It was likely okay with the president anyway. Saudi watchers believe that King Salman has groomed his favorite son to be king because he is said to be tough, and let’s face it, Trump likes bad boys. In addition to this apparent affinity, someone in the White House must have thought it would be a good idea for Trump’s 37-year-old son-in-law to be the point person with the 33-year-old crown prince—forgetting, of course, that the former had zero diplomatic experience and the latter is far from worldly.

Whether sophisticated or not, the crown prince seemed to understand that his country was badly in need of change. The economic and social—but not political—reforms that Mohammed bin Salman proposed were cheered in Washington because they promised to strengthen the Saudi economy and thus the country’s stability, which is what policymakers have long sought in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, the idea that the crown prince himself and Saudi Arabia were assets to the United States was entirely aspirational. In practice, the Saudis have been nothing but a headache. It is positive that Mohammed bin Salman reined in the religious police, allowed movie theaters to open, gave his blessing to concerts, and has overseen an initial effort to chip away at the gender apartheid that has characterized Saudi society. But as important as those developments are, Saudi Arabia seems to be experiencing a wave of repression. It was never an open place, but having accumulated personal political power, the crown prince seems intent on silencing all dissent no matter from how far away or how mild. His response to his international critics is essentially, “I am the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Deal with it.” That does not directly affect the United States, but it does make the crown prince a raft of enemies, raising legitimate questions of whether in Mohammed bin Salman’s drive for power he is not also destabilizing Saudi Arabia, where a delicate balance among different constituents has long kept the peace.

On foreign policy, for all of Saudi Arabia’s recent chest-thumping, Riyadh has not achieved anything. The Saudis picked a fight with Canada—an exemplary global citizen—over a tweet, making them look petty and weak, the exact opposite of what they intended. Mohammed bin Salman and his closest regional ally, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, along with Egypt and Bahrain, imposed a blockade on Qatar starting in June 2017. After a brief wobble in the Qatari economy, Doha seems to be carrying on quite well without the Saudis and their partners. The only thing this blockade seems to have done is annoy U.S. defense planners who would prefer not to have to work around what seems like a personal feud while they are trying to fight terrorists and contain Iran. And the Palestinians clearly do not trust the Saudis to be impartial interlocutors in the Trump administration’s effort to persuade Mahmoud Abbas to unceremoniously surrender to the Israelis.

Most important is Saudi Arabia’s disastrous intervention in Yemen, which was launched to prevent, in the words of Saudi officials, the “Hezbollah-ization” of that country and the destabilization of the Arabian Peninsula, but has instead pretty much made those outcomes inevitable. The United States is confronted with a strategic ally stuck in a war it cannot win, sucking the Saudis of resources and further tipping the regional scale in favor of the Iranians. By supporting Riyadh logistically in Yemen, Washington is associated with a government that has demonstrated an astonishing disregard for the amount of suffering it has caused, reflected most recently last summer when Saudi military officials insisted for weeks that a school bus full of children hit in an airstrike was a legitimate target. Under mounting pressure, the Saudis promised to investigate.

And now they have created an international uproar over the killing of someone who posed zero threat to the safety and national security of Saudi Arabia. It seems that the new Saudis are proving themselves to be as inept, arrogant, and tin-eared as the old Saudis, but worse, because they are emboldened by a mistaken belief in their own greatness.

Recently, the editorial board of the Washington Post asked, “Who needs Saudi Arabia?” It is a good question, and not just because the Post’s editors and reporters are outraged about what happened to their colleague and friend. Look closely at everything the Saudis have done recently, especially those policies associated with the crown prince, and the answer is, “Not us.” It is true that they recently gave the United States $100 million to go toward the stabilization of Syria, which is a good thing, but the overwhelming record thus far under King Salman and his son can be categorized as either unhelpful or counterproductive.

In response to this criticism, the Saudis will no doubt argue, “You Americans demand that we do more to protect our own security and advance our common interests. When Saudis finally do it, all you do is complain and criticize. What are we supposed to do?” They have a point, but if they want to salvage their ties with the United States, the answer to their own question is simple: Act like adults.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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