Mohammed bin Salman Is Worse Than a Criminal. He’s a Symbol.

Why is everyone so angry about Saudi Arabia's crown prince? Jamal Khashoggi is only a small part of the story.

A protester wears a mask depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 25. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)
A protester wears a mask depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 25. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)

“Caterwauling.” That is how U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described congressional reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the stinging criticism of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. He also called it a “media pile-on.” The piece, which deflected blame for the journalist’s death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by focusing on Iran’s (many) misdeeds around the Middle East, argued that Saudi Arabia is too important an ally to censure.

The secretary’s op-ed was tin-eared and convinced absolutely no one. Yet he had a point. The congressional response to Khashoggi’s demise seems so out of character. After all, Congress as a whole has never had any particular interest in the fate of journalists around the world and generally deferred to successive administrations that justified “strategic relationships” with unsavory allies on national security grounds. When it comes to Saudi Arabia’s transgressions, few members were much interested in Yemen, spoke out forcefully about jailed activists, or raised an eyebrow at the crown prince’s accumulation of power. The political reaction to the Khashoggi story is particularly strange because, given its stated preferences, Congress should love Mohammed bin Salman: He hates Iran, has developed ties with Israel, allowed women to drive, and wants to crack down on extremism.

It’s not just Congress, though. Foreign-policy analysts, journalists, Uber drivers, the guys at the bagel place, and the folks at my mom’s bridge club recoil at the mere mention of Saudi Arabia and its young crown prince. There seems to be more to the generalized outrage over the Khashoggi murder than the headlines would suggest.

It’s hard to remember, but it was only last spring that Mohammed bin Salman took Washington by storm. He had friendly meetings at the White House and with a variety of legislators—some of whom are now his harshest critics—from both houses of Congress. All that political and diplomatic goodwill vanished the moment Jamal Khashoggi stepped into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Few have fallen so far so fast. It took years for the crown prince’s bête noire, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to wear out his welcome in Washington. There are still people inside the Beltway who believe that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was treated unfairly. No one much likes Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but unlike Mohammed bin Salman, no one has compared him to Saddam Hussein.

So besides the obvious reasons—a disastrous military intervention in Yemen, the brazen murder of Khashoggi, the jailing of reformers, the forced resignation of the prime minister of another country, the plan to build a moat around a neighboring country, and the apparently blind arrogance that makes all this possible—what is behind the anti-Mohammed bin Salman caterwauling?

The first is partisan politics, of course. It is true that there are a fair number of Republicans who have been critical of the crown prince and the Trump administration’s approach to Saudi Arabia. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has been outspoken of late, and his party colleague Sen. Mike Lee has consistently sought to hold the Saudis to account for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Last week, 14 Republican senators voted with all 47 Democrats and the Senate’s two Independents in favor of a resolution to end U.S. support for Saudi military efforts there, but all 37 “no” votes were also Republican.

Still, it’s the unanimity and vehemence of Democrats on the issue that’s most remarkable. It’s due partly to the perceived personal closeness between U.S. President Donald Trump’s family and the Saudi crown prince. It’s not just that the administration—as Pompeo made clear in the Wall Street Journal—regards Saudi Arabia as the pillar of its policy to contain and roll back malign Iranian influence around the Middle East. Outside the halls of Congress, commentators have speculated that the president’s effort to shield Mohammed bin Salman from blame in Khashoggi’s death has something to do with the Trump Organization’s business ties to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner apparently stays up late swapping stories and strategizing with the crown prince. And for their part, the Saudis, still angry over former U.S. President Barack Obama’s policies, allowed themselves to become a partisan issue. They are squarely on Team Trump (along with the Israelis, Egyptians, and Emiratis).

Not to diminish the moral repugnance of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder—a legitimate source of outrage—but it did provide another opportunity for Trump’s opponents in Congress, as well as editorial writers, columnists, and allegedly objective analysts, to assail a leader they loathe. This is the context in which to understand efforts like that of the incoming chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who has vowed to get to the bottom of the Khashoggi murder and explore Trump’s ties to the Saudi royal family.

Second, the anger at Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s murder seems connected to unfinished business related to the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. Relevant here is the fact that journalists are routinely abused in Egypt, Turkey, Hungary, Russia, China, and Iran—U.S. allies and foes alike—but their names and stories generally remain unknown except to a small group of activists and analysts at organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. The difference is U.S. officials’ lingering knowledge about—and lack of public reckoning with—Saudi responsibility for 9/11. They seem to have determined that with Khashoggi’s brutal death, enough is enough.

Everyone knows that 15 of 19 hijackers were Saudis, but the American public remains in the dark about aspects of the attacks directly related to Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the parts of the 9/11 Commission Report that remain outside public view are part of an effort to protect sources and methods, but they sow suspicions that Saudis played a role beyond the 15 known terrorists. The depth of American anger is reflected in the 2016 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which paved the way for families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts. The legislation passed in the Senate 97-1 and in the House of Representatives 348-77.

Khashoggi’s murder added fuel to the latent anger of 9/11. Mohammed bin Salman has engaged in some awful behavior, and many in Washington no longer feel the need to sweep bad Saudi behavior under the rug.

Washington has also grown to detest the Saudi crown prince, because he represents a world that seems to be spinning out of control. Khashoggi was neither the first nor the last person to be a victim of state-sponsored violence. Yet his brazen murder comes at a time when journalists, academics, reformers, and critics have come under attack everywhere from the Philippines and Pakistan to Bahrain and even the United States. The idea that the Saudi crown prince, who is widely presumed to have ordered the hit on Khashoggi, will get away with it stokes fear and outrage. If he is not held accountable, any remaining norms against the kind of international thuggery that Khashoggi’s murder exemplifies will be shattered. Observers fear that it will then be open season on anyone who crosses a line with a given leader.

Finally, Mohammed bin Salman has fallen victim to the bruising debate within the policy community over his leadership ever since he emerged as the likely inheritor to the Saudi throne. Some analysts were convinced that he was a genuine reformer who deserved U.S. support. They pointed to his willingness to rein in the religious police, give women the right to drive, and modestly relax of Saudi social strictures along with promoting a broad—if not entirely workable—plan to re-engineer the economy as proof that as far as Saudi leaders go, Mohammed bin Salman was about the best you were going to get. Other observers saw something completely different in the same man—a power-hungry and reckless leader-in-waiting who deserved no credit as a reformer so long as he was locking up opponents and making war on the region’s poorest country. The skeptics turned out to be correct, and to the winners go the spoils.

In the rough-and-tumble world of social media, defenders of the crown prince—or anyone sympathetic to the case the Trump administration has made for continuing close ties with Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudis—have been mercilessly criticized and mocked. Some of it is deserved, but no one’s analysis is ever perfect. Still, the Twitter herd has taken over, and it hates the Saudi crown prince. One can dismiss Twitter as a cesspool overflowing with bile, but in 2018 it does frame the terms of public debate on many issues, including Mohammed bin Salman.

Despite the Trump administration’s determined efforts to get beyond the Khashoggi murder, it’s going to be difficult. The entire episode reveals not just the brutality of Mohammed bin Salman and his entourage, but also the stream of American resentments that flows beneath the near-constant drip of revelations from the Turkish government and unnamed U.S. intelligence officials. The Saudis, in turn, have their own grievances against the United States. Pompeo clearly wants to compartmentalize U.S.-Saudi relations, separating out the Iran challenge for special treatment, but Jamal Khashoggi and the anger his murder has unleashed won’t let him.

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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