Elephants in the Room

The United States Should Use Its Leverage Over Saudi Arabia

Trump has a window of opportunity to demand real change.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Oct. 24. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Oct. 24. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

The global response to the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, which has Riyadh on the defensive in the face of international outcry, has opened a window of opportunity to exert leverage over Saudi policy. Last week, the United States began pressuring the kingdom over its role in the war in Yemen.

Washington should use this moment to exert pressure on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to extend his economic reform agenda to the Saudi domestic political and civil rights sphere as well.

Khashoggi’s slaying inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month has garnered two types of responses from U.S. officials and much of the media: up-to-the-minute comments on the investigation and the Saudi response or the contextualization (read: minimization) of his killing within the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The former approach falls short of addressing the kingdom’s broader crackdown on journalists and activists, which Khashoggi wrote about and for which he wound up giving his life. The latter fails to recognize that the silencing of dissent undermines Saudi Arabia’s economy, stability, reputational goals, and the human rights of its citizens. U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments after Khashoggi’s death about the importance of the U.S.-Saudi economic and security partnership reflect his disregard or ignorance of the linkage between the political climate and Mohammed bin Salman’s economic goals.

Take, for example, how business leaders responded to the Khashoggi’s murder. Forty of the 150 or so participants scheduled to attend the kingdom’s Future Investment Initiative business conference—the so-called Davos in the Desert—in late October pulled out over the Khashoggi case. While international businesses will never completely shun Saudi Arabia’s economic offerings, they are responsive to certain high-profile human rights abuses at the hands of the Saudi regime. A similar decision was taken by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which announced its decision to end its $5 million project with the crown prince’s personal charity because of Khashoggi’s death. This response will only grow, following the public nature of Khashoggi’s death and Saudi Arabia’s mishandling of the investigation.

Saudi Arabia’s silencing of those who want to bring reform and change to the country also undermines the country’s security and stability. Khashoggi wrote that Saudis “suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education” and argued that the creation of an independent international forum “isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.” Left unaddressed, these problems will lead to widespread unrest, as seen throughout the region. An illiberal approach to governance while seeking economic growth and openness is a recipe for disaster.

Whatever remains of Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a modernizing and reformist country is at risk as crackdowns and arrests continue. Khashoggi captured this concern in a piece he wrote a year ago, highlighting the arrests of 72 intellectuals and asking whether Saudi Arabia can “really present a compelling image of a modern society, complete with robots, foreigners and tourists when Saudis … are silenced.” The gap between the country’s projected image and the reality of its political climate will continue to grow over time and ultimately undermine whatever reforms Mohammed bin Salman envisions.

Khashoggi’s killing and the jailings he wrote about were not isolated events. The prominent Saudi journalist Marwan al-Mureisi was arrested in June while visiting his 5-year-old son in the hospital and has not been heard from since. The respected Saudi columnist Saleh al-Shehi was sentenced to five years in prison by a special criminalized court for insulting the royal court. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted Saudi Arabia among countries of significant concern. (Turkey, Egypt, and China topped the list.) Mohammed bin Salman has also cracked down on political rivals, including a purge of hundreds of businessmen in 2017 at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, which he attributed to anti-corruption efforts. Freedom House consistently ranks Saudi Arabia among the “not free” countries, joining only 12 other nations and entities in earning the lowest overall rankings for both political and civil rights. It earned the lowest score (0 out of 4) in freedom of the media, religion, and assembly.

Trump; his son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner; and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have established strong and trusting relations with the crown prince and are well positioned to articulate both a commitment to the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the importance of reform and to make the case that the country’s stability and reform goals are not mutually exclusive with political change. A wide array of reforms are needed, including but not limited to more freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, termination of state control of all media outlets, an end to prosecution of journalists who speak out against the royal family, a repeal of the male guardianship laws, and citizen engagement in independent associations. The United States can no longer praise Mohammed bin Salman as a reformer—he is actively pursuing a nonreformist agenda on political rights and free expression.

It goes without saying that Trump would not pursue this conversation based on a human rights argument. Human rights have not been a priority for his administration. But he is a pragmatist who wants to protect U.S. security and economic interests and has shown his support for Saudi Arabia. Here is a clear case in which human rights protections and the expansion of freedom of expression can support U.S. security and economic interests.

Likewise, the crown prince will need to see why political reforms are tied to the issues he genuinely cares about. Given his desire to build his reputation as a regional and global leader pursuing significant economic innovation and reform, he should be concerned that the grim political rights situation is undermining his goals.

In the coming weeks, as more details about Khashoggi’s killing emerge, Mohammed bin Salman will have to recover from the significant reputational blow that he and his country have taken. He will likely do so by showing strength. This could take many forms. It is in the interest of the United States to make the case that he can achieve strength through real political reform, as opposed to crackdown. “Encouraging public debate and discussion by relaxing his grip on the country’s media, as well as releasing those jailed for expressing their views, would prove that he is indeed a true reformer,” Khashoggi wrote.

The U.S. Congress has an important role to play in expanding the conversation beyond Khashoggi’s case. Numerous legislators—including Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Mike Coffman, Adam Smith, Eliot Engel, and Adam Schiff—have been outspoken in demanding accountability for Khashoggi’s death. Rep. Jim McGovern, along with a bipartisan group of 20 members of Congress, has introduced legislation that seeks to ban arms sales and military aid to Saudi Arabia but ties this ban only to the outcome of the investigation into Khashoggi’s killing. These efforts must extend to a broad range of Saudi domestic issues, including the release of all political prisoners and journalists and the lifting of restrictions on the media and civic debate. This would help spur significant change that would serve both the Saudi people and the country’s economy.

In an ideal world, Mohammed bin Salman would open political space and stop persecuting journalists and activists because of moral concerns and in order to meet international standards, and the United States would make the case for these same reasons. But for Trump, the pragmatic case for reform is more compelling. Regardless of whether the White House and Congress are concerned about justice for Khashoggi or the future of U.S.-Saudi relations, now is the time to push Mohammed bin Salman to make meaningful changes.

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is a professor in the practice of international relations at Georgetown University and the chair for the global politics and security concentration in the Master of Science in foreign service program. She is the chair of the board of directors of the International Justice Mission. She served for ten years in the United States Department of State, working on democracy promotion, human rights, human trafficking, religious freedom, refugees, and counterterrorism. The views are hers and not those of these organizations.

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