Elephants in the Room

Trump Should Salvage U.S.-Saudi Relations

Like it or not, Washington’s ties with Riyadh still matter.

U.S. President Donald Trump poses with sword dancers ahead of a banquet in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump poses with sword dancers ahead of a banquet in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is in real trouble. And things could get worse—even much worse.

Bipartisan majorities in Congress have already made clear their desire to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a long series of transgressions, including the kingdom’s role in Yemen’s catastrophic civil war and the murder of dissident U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. These efforts will only intensify as the 2020 U.S. presidential election cycle ramps up. For the ever-expanding list of Democratic aspirants, the temptation to outdo each other in attacking President Donald Trump’s close links to the kingdom’s leadership will be nearly irresistible. It’s a truism of U.S. politics that there’s no downside to Saudi bashing. That’s doubly true today, with the controversial Mohammed bin Salman at the helm, and with talk of the use of bone saws on journalists, the detention and torture of U.S. citizens, and the abuse of women’s rights activists dominating the headlines. Even if Congress falls short of getting any new anti-Saudi legislation past the president’s veto, the constant drip, month after month, of hearings, bills, and public criticism targeting the kingdom risks doing serious long-term damage to the two countries’ strategic relationship.

It’s true that there’s a lot of ruin in U.S.-Saudi ties. The relationship has endured oil boycotts, the 9/11 attacks (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals), and more than 70 years of constant clashing of cultures and values. The national interests that have bound Washington and Riyadh together through the decades, despite their deep differences, remain formidable. But real changes are now afoot in the underlying dynamics of the relationship. They should at minimum give pause to anyone who blithely assumes that there’s no amount of public derision that the United States could heap on the kingdom that might put the broader U.S.-Saudi partnership at risk, and the Trump administration should take notice.

One such change is the rapid rise of Saudi nationalism—especially among the country’s large youth population. As part of his reform agenda for transforming the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman has consciously sought to build a new sense of identity among Saudis, grounded in nationalism rather than Wahhabism, the fundamentalist religious sect that served as an ideological gateway for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. While largely a positive development, the nationalist tide could have a double edge, as I learned on an Atlantic Council trip to Riyadh in February.

It was striking how many researchers, activists, and government officials in Riyadh seemed defensive, resentful, and even angry when asked about the United States. “We’re getting sick and tired of having our country reduced to its worst mistakes,” one woman said, referring to the Khashoggi tragedy. Another said, “Thanks to the crown prince, the lives of millions of women are being positively transformed in ways that our mothers couldn’t even dream of. If the United States can’t appreciate the historical importance of what’s happening here, and chooses to focus only on our faults and trying to change our leadership, then you’re hurting our cause—and I’ll oppose you.” Whether justified or not, the sense of hurt, of being misunderstood and unfairly attacked, even humiliated, appeared genuine. It’s not hard to see how that kind of raw populist emotion, sufficiently stoked, could result in overreaction, miscalculation, and counterproductive policies. At a minimum, it’s a new variable in the equation that U.S. policymakers, in both the administration and Congress, should be taking into account as they calculate how best to pressure the kingdom to change its most problematic behaviors.

Perhaps an even more important change, one that amplifies the potential risks of a possible nationalist backlash, is the emergence of great-power competitors with the United States, especially China. It’s still the case that Saudis overwhelmingly prefer Washington to remain their dominant global partner. If nothing else, they know that if the worst were to happen, and war with Iran came, neither Russia nor China would lift a finger to save the house of Saud. The U.S. military still would—probably. But that “probably” is itself a growing problem, one which has been getting worse over the past decade as two successive U.S. presidents of both major parties have increasingly signaled their determination to do less, not more, in the Middle East to guarantee the security of partner states. Inevitably, as the perception of U.S. retrenchment deepens, the Saudis are hedging their bets and developing new geostrategic options.

Today, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner. It’s among the biggest customers for Saudi oil—while the U.S. shale boom increasingly poses the greatest threat to Riyadh’s economic prosperity. Thanks in no small part to decades of intellectual-property theft on a world-historical scale, Chinese technology, including military, intelligence, and cyber systems, as well as critical emerging sectors such as artificial intelligence, is increasingly closing the gap with the best U.S. high-tech offerings. And Beijing, like Moscow, is perfectly prepared to sell its most advanced capabilities to Riyadh with no strings attached. No complaints about the kingdom’s human rights record. No mentions of Khashoggi. No threats to withdraw support as punishment for the war in Yemen. As was painfully obvious during Mohammed bin Salman’s recent values-free trip to China in February, in an increasingly ideological age of great-power competition that pits Western-style liberal democracy against Beijing’s model of authoritarian capitalism, it’s no secret in which camp the house of Saud feels most at home.

The only point being that the decades-old assumptions that have governed the U.S.-Saudi relationship, while largely still valid, may be on increasingly shaky ground. Before the Senate passed a resolution earlier this month to end all U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut confidently reassured his colleagues, “The Saudis won’t go somewhere else.” The suggestion that they might turn to another great power for weapons, he claimed, “is belied by how this alliance has worked for years and the complication of the Saudis turning around and choosing to go to another partner.” While I’d still bet that Murphy is more right than wrong on this issue, if only due to the immediacy of the Iranian threat for Riyadh, I increasingly lack his sense of certitude. Saudi Arabia, U.S. foreign policy, and the global balance of power are all now in flux in ways that are quite unprecedented.

Even 30 years ago, the Saudis were capable of some nasty surprises, such as purchasing intermediate-range ballistic missiles from China capable of striking Israel. And just a couple of months ago, credible reports emerged that the Saudis have built a facility for producing and testing solid-fuel ballistic missiles west of Riyadh—one with features that bear striking similarities to comparable facilities in China. The danger that as Saudi doubts about the United States’ reliability grow, so too will their efforts to hedge by looking for weapons and support (in Murphy’s words) “somewhere else,” including to hostile great-power rivals of the United States, is probably greater than it’s ever been in the history of the countries’ relationship. The recent decision to introduce Chinese-language instruction at all stages of the Saudi educational system was no accident.

To its credit, the Trump administration has been prepared to expend significant political capital, including among congressional Republicans, to try and insulate the U.S.-Saudi partnership from the withering (and in too many cases, irresponsible) attacks from both Capitol Hill and the media. But that virtue has been a vice as well. Too often, the administration’s defense of the strategic relationship has appeared as unduly solicitous of Mohammed bin Salman’s sensitivities, unnecessarily dismissive or even contemptuous of Congress’ legitimate concerns, and insufficiently attentive to Saudi actions that have genuinely threatened both U.S. interests and values.

The fact is that over the course of the past 18 months, Mohammed bin Salman has engaged in a series of reckless and destabilizing behaviors that should have been setting off alarm bells across the administration. Instead, almost without exception, they were met with the diplomatic equivalent of a shrug. From taking the Lebanese prime minister hostage to billion-dollar shakedowns of prominent princes and businessman, from detaining and torturing peaceful women’s rights activists to blowing up relations with Canada over an objectionable tweet or two, the administration was largely AWOL when it came to calling the Saudis to account and attempting to short-circuit the crown prince’s impulsive, counterproductive misadventures. By the time of Khashoggi’s shocking demise inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate last year, it had become clear that the hands-off, highly transactional approach to managing the Saudis pursued by Trump and his son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, had gone badly astray. Giving Mohammed bin Salman carte blanche to indulge his darkest instincts in exchange for a few billion dollars in weapons purchases, lower oil prices, and a slightly less hostile attitude toward an otherwise doomed U.S. plan for Middle East peace was neither a wise nor sustainable trade-off for U.S. foreign policy.

The Trump administration badly needs to reassert some control over the relationship. It needs to demonstrate to Congress that it has the diplomatic competence to wield the country’s overwhelming power and influence to more effectively constrain and shape Mohammed bin Salman’s behavior. In this regard, the sooner Trump can get in place his nominee for ambassador to Saudi Arabia, retired four-star Army General John Abizaid, the better. The fact that Abizaid’s nomination has languished more than four months without confirmation, despite Congress’s endless kvetching about the crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations, is just another sign of Washington’s dysfunction and lack of seriousness. Abizaid spent 34 years in the U.S. military. He’s a Middle East expert and Arabic speaker. As commander of U.S. Central Command, he was in charge at the height of the country’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and dealt constantly with top Saudi leaders. He’s eminently qualified, and his expedited confirmation should have been a no-brainer for the Senate given the dire turn in Washington’s relations with Riyadh. As a point of comparison, as the Soviet Union was unraveling in 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Robert Strauss as ambassador to Moscow. Strauss was a Washington uberlobbyist with essentially no knowledge of Russia. But he was confirmed by the Senate and holding meetings in the Kremlin within two and half months.

There is a lot of good that Abizaid can do. For more than two years, the administration has had no ambassador in Riyadh as Trump and Kushner have sought to manage the relationship remotely from 7,000 miles away—with, as we see now, less than stellar results. Abizaid’s military stature and regional experience should give him instant credibility with the Saudis. So long as Trump fully empowers him as the day-to-day manager of the relationship, Abizaid should work to establish himself as Mohammed bin Salman’s most important outside advisor, both mentor and monitor. Abizaid’s credibility with Congress is also an important asset that the administration should carefully cultivate in its efforts to keep ill-advised congressional actions in check.

To have any hope of diverting Congress from its anti-Saudi warpath, the administration should pursue several short-term goals. First, it should secure, in private, an explicit commitment from the crown prince: No more surprises. No military actions without prior consultation (as in Yemen). No more launching boycotts against Persian Gulf neighbors (as with Qatar). No more torpedoing relations with major Western democracies (such as Canada). Whenever important U.S. interests might be affected by Saudi policy, the United States—as the kingdom’s top security partner—should be informed and given a chance to weigh in. That’s the same understanding that governs most of the United States’ other critical alliances, including with Israel. The administration should be able to reassure key members of Congress that it has secured explicit commitments from Mohammed bin Salman that going forward, they will see a more restrained and responsible Saudi Arabia.

Second, the administration should communicate to the Saudis in stark terms how bad their situation in Washington is right now and how important it is for them to start contributing to their own public defense. It’s not at all clear that officials in Riyadh fully understand how angry Congress is and how much worse the situation could get. There’s a tendency to dismiss congressional criticism as little more than politics as usual, an easy way for anti-Trump forces to attack the president, but not a real problem for the White House to contain. Mohammed bin Salman should be disabused of that idea very quickly. He needs to understand that the only thing standing between him and a precipitous, potentially destabilizing decline in bilateral relations is Trump. While the president is prepared to spend much political capital defending the strategic partnership, the crown prince should clearly be on the hook to help the administration make its case.

Finally, and perhaps most urgently, the administration should press the crown prince to take concrete action quickly to demonstrate that a page has in fact been turned on the unfortunate series of events of the past year and a half. Especially in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, perhaps the most impactful step Mohammed bin Sultan could take would be to release from prison several high-profile individuals who have been unjustly detained and, in many cases, reportedly abused and tortured. This would include the blogger Raif Badawi and his sister, Samar; several women’s rights activists who were arrested in the spring of 2018; and U.S.-Saudi dual national, Walid Fitaihi. The power to grant such clemency is entirely in the hands of the crown prince and his father, King Salman. Remarkably, despite the obvious importance that Congress has placed on these human rights cases, there’s no evidence whatsoever that the administration, much less Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has made them a priority with the Saudis. They should. Arguably, no other step might do more to help defuse the rising tide of anti-Saudi sentiment roiling Capitol Hill.

Thanks to Mohammed bin Salman’s recklessness, U.S.-Saudi relations have entered a particularly treacherous period, certainly the most difficult since the 9/11 attacks. Dynamics at work in both Riyadh and Washington could easily make things much worse. It’s up to the administration to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control, first by accurately assessing the situation, and then by executing a concerted strategy with both the Saudis and Congress to mitigate the escalating risks to the broader partnership. It will require a level of sustained diplomatic engagement, focus, and discipline, led by Trump himself, that the administration has rarely displayed over the past two years, and virtually not at all when it comes to constraining Mohammed bin Salman. That needs to change, and quickly—lest Washington discover the unpleasant reality that as bad as the Middle East can be when the United States is closely tied to the Saudis, the region is capable of getting even worse when it is not.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.

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