Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, served in senior national security positions in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.
President Trump may not believe in a rules-based international order, but we may now be seeing the consequences of the absence of global norms. The Russians have no qualms about poisoning a former agent in Britain. Lately the Chinese have felt free to disappear or detain some of their most prominent citizens — from an Interpol chief to a leading actress — by extralegal means. And now it appears the Saudis may have lured journalist and Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi to their consulate in Istanbul, with his fate at this point remaining unknown.
Initially, given the Turkish-Saudi rivalry and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s penchant for making baseless charges, I was skeptical of the Turkish reports of Saudi operatives sent to kill KhashoggI. But with the Saudis being unable or unwilling to show footage from the consulate’s security cameras portraying him leaving the building, their denials ring less true. Unfortunately, in a world defined by President Trump’s principle of “sovereignty,” other leaders may well believe they have a license to do whatever is necessary to protect their interests as they define them.
Today, in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), along with his father, the king, are defining Saudi national interests, with MBS driving revolutionary change in the kingdom. Why is he pushing social and economic changes so aggressively? Because MBS, even before his father became king, saw an unsustainable reality. Many among the approximately 70 percent of the kingdom’s population who are under 30 were showing increasing signs of alienation, to include attraction to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Eighty-seven percent of the government’s revenue come from oil, while 80 percent of employed Saudis work for the government — and this at a time when MBS could see Saudi oil revenues declining over time with renewables, shale oil and electric cars. His answer: diversify the economy, create greater social openness and fun, and produce a sense of possibility for Saudi youth.
His National Transformation Program depends on the growth of new industries, the development of the private sector and women playing a significantly greater role in the economy. By definition, such developments required profound social changes in the kingdom, and much attention has been given to women driving, cinemas opening, dance troupes coming and the power of the religious police being curtailed. In fact, two other developments deserve more attention than they have received. MBS’s appointment of Muhammad al-Issa as the head of the World Muslim League has sent a powerful new message of tolerance and rejection of radical Islamist teachings. His visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, his commitment to interfaith dialogue and his calls for peace mark a significant departure from his predecessors. So does King Salman’s appointment of a body of senior religious scholars to scrub the hadith – accounts of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad – to make them consistent with Koranic injunctions on peace.
Stated simply, if the changes that MBS is driving actually materialize, they would discredit religious extremism, end its export out of Saudi Arabia, reconcile Islam with modernity and provide a model for development that has been lacking in the Arab Middle East — at least among the larger countries. The absence of such a model has created a vacuum filled in the past by radical national secularists and today by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
It is for these reasons that I have been a strong supporter of MBS’s efforts – and still believe that America has a strong stake in the success of the National Transformation Plan and what is known as Vision 2030. Yes, MBS faces real resistance from the conservative religious establishment and elements in the royal family. And, yes only a revolution from above stood much of a chance to transform a country so rooted in Wahhabi traditionalism and consensus politics within the royal family.
MBS may well think he must ride roughshod over all opposition, and that has led to little tolerance for dissent. From this standpoint, silencing a well-known former establishment figure such as Khashoggi could be part of a plan to intimidate all other critics.
I hope that is not the case; I hope Khashoggi is not dead and will soon reappear. I also hope MBS understands that the ends cannot justify any means. If he wants to build a knowledge-based society where start-ups emerge and where creativity flourishes, he will never succeed in doing so in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. He must understand that certain actions cross the line and will have far-reaching consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations.
I am glad Trump is interested in meeting Khashoggi’s fiancee. That would symbolize the concern of the president and his administration. But it will matter much more if the president acts on the request of a bipartisan group of senators to use the Global Magnitsky Act — the legislation named for a crusading, anti-corruption Russian lawyer who died under questionable circumstances in a Russian prison. The senators’ request triggers an investigation that could lead to sanctions imposed on those individuals responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance. If the Saudi leadership has nothing to hide and cares about Khashoggi’s fate, they should welcome such an investigation. As importantly, invoking the act might also signal that the Trump administration sees the value of respecting global norms after all.