Intelligence reports suggest that Saudi Arabia had Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi killed in its Istanbul consulate this month on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. MBS, as he is known, insisted to President Trump this past week that he did not know anything about the incident, but he has orchestrated a crackdown on critics in recent years as he consolidates power in anticipation of his eventual ascent to the throne.
If the crown prince or anybody else in his government is responsible, they clearly believed that Saudi Arabia could get away with Khashoggi’s abduction and killing without U.S. censure. (Or, worse, they thought they had Washington’s implied approval in advance.) There is a reason for that: MBS has developed such a close relationship with the Trump administration that he has gotten almost everything from it that he wants. He may reasonably have concluded that, as far as U.S. policy goes, he can act with impunity.
His tightest relationship is with Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, and their bond has been well documented (Kushner successfully lobbied Trump to make Saudi Arabia his first foreign visit as president). But in 2017, after he was named crown prince, many in Washington, the U.S. business community and the media fell in love with MBS and what he appeared to represent. His youth and refreshing personal style were a radical departure from a history of geriatric Saudi leaders. He wanted social liberalization for his nation, including cinemas (which had been banned), live entertainment such as concerts and, most appealing of all, a policy that finally permitted women to drive cars, which he implemented in June. His ambitious plans for economic transformation involve diversifying away from the kingdom’s dependence on oil; the Vision 2030 project is potentially lucrative for American businesses.
U.S. policymakers tolerated his clampdown on dissent — he has purged and imprisoned royals who represent rival power centers, such as the investor Alwaleed bin Talal, and expelled Canadian diplomats because officials lamented the lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia. The crown prince’s greatest gift to Western allies was his promise of “moderate Islam,” which would reject Saudi Arabia’s backing for dubious religious schools and charitable donations. An added element of the seduction was an inclusive attitude toward Israel as part of the Middle East; the Palestinian issue needed to be sorted out, but it would not stop the kingdom from developing technological and commercial relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel seemed to be forming a new alliance around countering Iran.
MBS scored a major victory when Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which, in the Saudis’ eyes, normalized Iran’s nuclear status without containing it. The deal had been viewed in Riyadh as the ultimate insult to the kingdom and a further display of President Barack Obama’s natural sympathy for Iran. It also had not slowed Iran’s missile development; its rockets, including modified Scud-type missiles, funneled to and launched by Yemeni rebels, now land regularly on Saudi territory. At least two salvos have been aimed at Riyadh.
The disastrous war in Yemen, begun in 2015, is another MBS policy that won Washington’s tacit approval. The kingdom has sought to dislodge the putsch by Houthi tribesmen supported by Iran. But Saudi military inadequacies on the battlefield have been matched by incompetence in the air war, with embarrassing levels of civilian casualties caused by inexact Saudi targeting. Amid the chaos there is also a catastrophic looming famine. Last month, when members of Congress vowed to stop the flow of U.S. military assistance to the Saudi campaign, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directed bureaucrats to keep sending the aid, arguing that casualties would rise even higher without U.S. help. It was a huge victory for MBS, who orchestrated the war.
Even before the conflict, the United States was a major provider of military equipment to the kingdom, the biggest buyer of U.S. weapons. Principally it purchases F-15s for its air force, now regularly used for bombing Yemen, but the arsenal also includes Patriot missiles to protect air bases and cities from Yemeni rocket attacks and, perhaps more important, munitions, service and training contracts that last years. Trump has refused repeatedly to entertain the notion of canceling any of it to shape Saudi behavior, showing MBS that his decisions may have no meaningful consequences.
Trump’s shifting position on Qatar over the past year may suggest flexibility in his support for MBS. When Saudi Arabia blockaded its Persian Gulf neighbor in June 2017, punishing it for a close alliance with Iran, Trump’s tweets were on message: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!” he wrote . Yet eventually, the administration seemed to realize that it was being played by the Saudis and, in the process, losing some lucrative opportunities. By January, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were hosting a U.S.-Qatar strategic dialogue in Washington. In April, Trump welcomed the Qatari emir to the Oval Office and, with bonhomie, chatted about trade deals.
Elected officials in the United States and Europe have often been challenged — by journalists, human rights watchdogs, Khashoggi himself — about their support for MBS. Their response generally holds that the prince’s impulsive authoritarianism at home has to be matched with his success in changing the kingdom from an incubator of extremist Islam to a home for the “real” Saudi Islam MBS describes, a moderate variant derailed by the 1979 Iranian revolution. But the Islamic State-type horror of Khashoggi’s likely demise — which appears to have involved a bone saw — imperils this image.
In response, members of Congress are competing to find phrases of condemnation. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) vows to prevent “business as usual” until the Khashoggi situation is explained properly, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) pledges to avoid Saudi Arabia while MBS is there. A number of D.C. strategy and communication shops have dropped the Saudis as clients.
Still, Trump left another window open for MBS by saying this past week that Khashoggi’s disappearance may have been perpetrated by “rogue killers.” After talking to the king and his heir, he said they denied responsibility, and he seemed to compare the royal family to Brett M. Kavanaugh, saying they were presumed “guilty until proven innocent.” With friends like these in Washington, no wonder MBS thinks he can get away with whatever he wants.