Reckless in Riyadh

Five Reads: The best Foreign Policy stories of 2018 on U.S.-Saudi relations and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in the Riyadh on Oct. 23. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in the Riyadh on Oct. 23. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in the Riyadh on Oct. 23. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

The tragedy of Jamal Khashoggi’s career as a journalist and critic is that, when it came to the issue he was most passionate about—his country’s future—he ended up having more influence dead than alive.

Khashoggi was fearless and eloquent in the pages of the Washington Post in exposing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s tyranny, and that may well have been his undoing. The crown prince, bearing the sporty initials “MbS,” had carefully cultivated a self-image of enlightened reformer with important American officials, not least U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Khashoggi challenged that reputation, and MbS wanted him stopped. Evidence gathered by the Turkish government and U.S. intelligence officials later pointed unmistakably to the crown prince’s culpability in ordering his killing. What MbS didn’t count on was that, after the brutal and shocking murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, he himself would become a global pariah, the U.S. Senate would rebel against the Saudi war in Yemen, and U.S.-Saudi relations would fall into a deep crisis.

1. Mohammed bin Salman is Weak, Weak, Weak

by Steven A. Cook, Aug. 7

The tragedy of Jamal Khashoggi’s career as a journalist and critic is that, when it came to the issue he was most passionate about—his country’s future—he ended up having more influence dead than alive.

Khashoggi was fearless and eloquent in the pages of the Washington Post in exposing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s tyranny, and that may well have been his undoing. The crown prince, bearing the sporty initials “MbS,” had carefully cultivated a self-image of enlightened reformer with important American officials, not least U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Khashoggi challenged that reputation, and MbS wanted him stopped. Evidence gathered by the Turkish government and U.S. intelligence officials later pointed unmistakably to the crown prince’s culpability in ordering his killing. What MbS didn’t count on was that, after the brutal and shocking murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, he himself would become a global pariah, the U.S. Senate would rebel against the Saudi war in Yemen, and U.S.-Saudi relations would fall into a deep crisis.


1. Mohammed bin Salman is Weak, Weak, Weak

by Steven A. Cook, Aug. 7

Steven Cook anticipates Mohammed bin Salman’s downfall with this colorful look at how the crown prince overreacted to mild criticism from Canada, and “comes out looking every bit the impetuous, petty, immature, tyrant that his critics say he is.”


2. Crown Prince of Disorder

by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, March 21

This is another piece that foresaw that the U.S.-Saudi relationship was headed for trouble long before the Khashoggi tragedy. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen writes that the  “visit of the king-in-waiting will occur against the backdrop of tensions that may yet overshadow U.S.-Saudi ties for some time to come.”


Saudi Army artillery fire shells toward Yemen from southwestern Saudi Arabia on April 13, 2015. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

3. U.S.-Backed Catastrophe Brewing in Yemen

by Keith Johnson, Robbie Gramer, and Colum Lynch, June 11

In this reported piece published in June, Keith Johnson, Robbie Gramer, and Colum Lynch sketched the outlines of the horrific human catastrophe in Yemen.


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

by Michael Hirsh, Oct. 10

Mohammed bin Salman, while making friends in high places in the West, only grew more reckless and savage in his crackdown at home. Given all the deep money ties, it is no surprise that the Trump administration has not broken with Saudi Arabia.


5. Are Putin and Mohammed bin Salman Getting Ready for Another High-Five?

by Keith Johnson, Dec. 6

Keith Johnson takes a look over the horizon at how Russia and Saudi Arabia are forging closer energy-based ties in the aftermath of the Khashoggi scandal.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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