The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is kissing Saudi backsides. He’s not alone.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Cliff Owen/AP)

The most surprising aspect to the reaction to the possible abduction and killing of Saudi critic and Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey is the notion among some U.S. foreign policy elites that Saudi Arabia, prizing its longtime alliance with Washington, would never involve itself in such an atrocity. Not through my eyes.

The House of Saud, rulers of that desert kingdom, is not a government. It’s a gang that survives by bullying its neighbors and jerking around its so-called Western allies by weaponizing the vast oil reserves upon which it perches.

The family offers a face of religious piety. But Saudi Arabia is among the most bigoted, misogynistic human rights violators on the face of the Earth. Silencing critics is a Saudi art form.

This outburst isn’t coming to you from an armchair pundit writing from CliffsNotes.

Columnist David Ignatius and editor Karen Attiah remember Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post, Photo: Courtesy of Hatice Cengiz/The Washington Post)

Before joining The Post nearly 30 years ago, I was with the U.S. Treasury Department, where I saw Saudis throwing their weight around, threatening to hold up millions of dollars in assistance to poor countries if the Palestinian Liberation Organization didn’t get a seat at annual World Bank meetings.

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Further insight was gained as a commercial banker with a portfolio that included Saudi financial interests.

I have been on the streets of Riyadh and Jiddah and in business meetings at Saudi financial institutions. In a country where alcohol is banned, the best Scotch I ever tasted was in the Riyadh home of a Saudi acquaintance once based in Washington.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) says there must be consequence for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who resided in Virginia. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Breanna Muir, Justin Scuiletti, Joy Yi/The Washington Post)


They stuck it to us with their oil embargo in 1973. They thumbed their noses at President George W. Bush in 2008 when he appealed to them to bring down prices. They brazenly pumped up oil production in 2015 to make prices fall, keep market share and undermine U.S. shale-oil development.

Our good buddy?

There is nothing to suggest that to Saudi Arabia the United States is anything more than a good international customer and useful bodyguard against aggression by its archrival, Iran.

Yes, the United States is now an oil exporter. But Saudi Arabia is still second only to Canada as a top source of petroleum products to the United States. We imported $18 billion in fuels from the kingdom last year. In all, the United States imported $18.9 billion in Saudi goods, up 11.6 percent from 2016 when President Trump was elected. To Saudi Arabia, America is the soul-stirring sound of ka-ching.

In the feud between the two Islamic nations, the Saudi monarchy has managed to firmly enlist the United States on the Sunni side of a Muslim divide that takes in that country and other small Gulf kingdoms. Saudi royals’ greatest fear is a theocratic Iran leading the Shiite Muslim world in a struggle to dominate Islam. The ruthless Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his family need Trump to stifle Iran at every turn.

Toward that end, we delivered the goods, loading up the Saudis with firepower galore. They then used those weapons with abandon in neighboring Yemen.

Today, Yemen’s shell-stricken capital, Sanaa, is not the city I saw in the 1980s during my call on financial institutions.

The sad fact is that the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war couldn’t have taken out markets, weddings and a school bus carrying kids without the help of U.S.-made bombs.

The Saudis aren’t worried about a cutoff of U.S. aid. The 33-year-old crown prince and his 82-year-old pop, King Salman, play Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, like drums. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia helped do the trick.

The royal court recognizes that Trump is an emotionally needy narcissist. So it blared the trumpets, boomed the cannons and flew fighter jets trailed by red, white and blue over Trump’s head after he disembarked onto Saudi soil.

The Saudis couldn’t remain where they are on the world stage, however, without rhetorical cover from the Trump administration.

I reread the July speech of Vice President Pence, the Trump administration’s point man on religious freedom, before the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom conference in Washington. Positioning America as a “nation of faith” that stands for religious freedom, Pence called out by name North Korea, Russia, Iran and the Islamic State as depraved persecutors of religion. Pence, however, uttered not a word about Saudi Arabia.

Pence knows that Saudi-financed religious schools operate freely in the United States. He also knows there is not one church or synagogue in the kingdom, and that criticizing Islam or the royal family there may be the last thing you do.

Ah, but Pence and Trump avert their gaze. For big bucks, they will kiss Saudi backsides.

“What good does that do us?” Trump said Thursday, when asked if he would consider blocking billions in U.S. arms sales to the Saudis over Khashoggi’s disappearance. “That would not be acceptable to me.”

Jamal Khashoggi is to be publicly weeped and wailed about. But in the Saudi-Trump grand view, our courageous colleague is just an annoying and complicating blip on the screen.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

Read more:

Colbert I. King: Saudi Arabia is no friend to the United States

The Post’s View: The Trump administration vouches for its Saudi friends as civilians die in Yemen

Anne Applebaum: Trump’s bizarre and un-American visit to Saudi Arabia

Dennis Ross: Saudi Arabia’s ruler should understand that the ends don’t justify the means

Ben Cardin: Here’s how the United States can stand up for Jamal Khashoggi