The apparent barbaric killing of Jamal Khashoggi tells us something important about Saudi Arabia. But it also tells us something important about the United States.
First, Saudi Arabia. As has been often noted, Khashoggi, a Post contributing columnist, used to be part of the Saudi establishment. Although not a member of the House of Saud, he was well born and well connected. He edited an important Saudi newspaper and worked for senior royals. I first met him 14 years ago; he assisted me when I spent a week in Riyadh and Jiddah. Khashoggi was working for Prince Turki al-Faisal, the longtime head of Saudi intelligence who was at that time ambassador to Britain and later ambassador to the United States. Turki is one of the sons of King Faisal — in other words, as senior a royal as you can get, other than the monarch.
Khashoggi was, even in those days, a liberal and a reformer but always moderate and incremental in his approach. He worried that too much reform would be disruptive. “I would like to see my government taking harsher measures against [extremist elements],” he told me in 2005 on my PBS show, “Foreign Exchange.” But at the same time, he warned about going too fast. “We do not want to break the society,” he said.
Watching Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s approach, a mix of authoritarianism and real reforms, Khashoggi became more critical but was never a radical. So why was he apparently seen as so threatening? Perhaps because he was respected within the Saudi establishment. Harvard’s Tarek Masoud suggests that the Khashoggi affair might signal that there is greater dissent within the Saudi establishment than we had believed. If so, this is significant. When the scholar Samuel Huntington studied the breakdown of authoritarian regimes in the 1970s and 1980s, he noted that a schism within the ruling elite was almost always the precursor to a broader breakdown of the regime.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has maintained stability because it was really a patronage state, not a police state. The kingdom has typically dealt with its critics and dissenters by buying them off — most importantly in the case of hardline clerics. It employed this strategy again most recently after the Arab Spring, when it massively increased subsidies to citizens and gave bonuses to government employees. It worked. In fact, a lesson of the Arab Spring seems to be that repression doesn’t work as well — consider Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad — as bribery does.
Yet MBS, as the Saudi crown prince is known, appears to be changing the patronage model, bringing it closer to the police-state one. He has mixed economic, social and religious reforms with an ever-tighter grip on power, shaking down businessmen, imprisoning activists, targeting news platforms — and now, it would seem, executing a columnist.
Leaving aside their immorality, ruthless actions such as these tend to produce instability in the long run. Mubarak couldn’t hold on, and Assad’s survival has come at a staggering cost, with his territory diminished and mostly in ruins. Ironically, for someone so ferociously anti-Iranian, MBS resembles no Middle Eastern ruler as much as the shah of Iran, a reformer and also a despot, who was much loved by Western elites.
Mohammed is a complicated figure. He has moved Saudi Arabia forward in some areas while moving it toward greater repression in others. But the larger issue is that U.S. foreign policy should not be based on personalities. President Trump’s worldview seems utterly rooted in his likes and dislikes of other leaders — including Kim Jong Un, Angela Merkel and MBS. In the Middle East, this has led to the blind subcontracting of U.S. foreign policy to Saudi Arabia. Washington has watched and de facto endorsed the kingdom as it ramped up its war in Yemen, blockaded Qatar, quarreled with Turkey and essentially kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon. All of these moves have, in large measure, failed.
The United States’ Middle East policy should be based on its interests and values in the region, and these will never be perfectly aligned with any one country. Historically, this has meant being an honest broker, respected by all major powers. It is what allowed Henry Kissinger to practice shuttle diplomacy and pull Egypt away from the Soviet camp, and it is what helped President Jimmy Carter forge the Camp David accords. This is why, from presidents Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama, the U.S. government has urged even its Arab allies to undertake serious political reforms.
All of this requires nuance, sophistication and ceaseless high-quality diplomacy. This is the price of being the leader of the free world, a job that we appear of late to have vacated.