Unmentioned, however, was the upcoming first anniversary of an event that has deeply shaken the Saudi-U.S. relationship: the murder by Saudi government agents of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist who was critical of the crown prince’s push for reforms.
The two events represent a difficult duality. Although Saudi Arabia was on the receiving end of Saturday’s attack, it is viewed unsympathetically in many nations. In general, Mohammed has a global reputation of being a villain, not a victim.
Polling conducted after Khashoggi’s death suggests the country’s reputation suffered deeply as a result. In a survey undertaken for The Washington Post in late October 2018, 84 percent of voters in key battleground states said they thought top Saudi leaders had tried to cover up the killing of the journalist.
A Gallup poll from February 2019 found that more than two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable view of Saudi Arabia, an increase of 12 percentage points from the year before and higher than such countries as China and Venezuela.
There is little sign that the attacks on Saudi Arabia have changed anything, Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email. “Khashoggi has become a symbol that has prompted folks in Washington to litigate the relationship with the Saudis,” Cook added.
That’s an issue not only for Saudi Arabia, but also its Western allies. Other than the United States, which quickly suggested Iranian involvement, Western nations have been cautious in their statements about Saturday’s strikes, urging against a unilateral reaction.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the crown prince on Tuesday to condemn the attacks, but “noted the need to establish the facts of what happened,” according to a spokeswoman in London.
France would send experts to help study the attacks and reaffirmed “the engagement of France for the security of Saudi Arabia and stability of the region,” President Emmanuel Macron told Mohammed on Wednesday, without assigning blame.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Monday that his country was worried about the danger of the situation escalating further. One politician in Canada used the attacks to point out that Alberta’s oil fields were remote and secure.
Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the few international leaders who did not distance himself from Mohammed last year, offered little sympathy, telling an audience that included Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that Saudi Arabia should purchase a Russian-made missile defense system.
“They will reliably protect all infrastructure objects of Saudi Arabia,” Putin joked at an event Monday in Turkey.
Russia and other nations remain parties to a 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which Saudi Arabia opposed and the United States withdrew from under Trump last year. But their muted reactions may also be a fraught reflection of their alliances with Riyadh, too.
The 34-year-old Mohammed is technically the second-in-command in Saudi Arabia after his father, 83-year-old King Salman, but he has spearheaded an aggressive reform policy in the kingdom since being appointed crown prince in 2017, and he is widely considered the de facto leader.
Mohammed’s push for political, social and economic reforms in Saudi Arabia was initially greeted with enthusiasm among Western powers that had long hoped for a liberal order to emerge in the Saudi dynasty. As a result, the crown prince was feted in American and European capitals.
But the killing of Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 last year changed all that.
Khashoggi was well-known in Western political circles. As a member of Saudi Arabia’s own elite, his criticisms of Mohammed carried weight, and his murder seemed to confirm the worst of them.
Mohammed’s push for the kingdom’s disastrous military intervention in Yemen, his role in the regional blockade of Qatar, his government’s jailing of women’s rights activists, and a bizarre attempt to kidnap the prime minister of Lebanon all added to the impression that the crown prince’s hubris was leading the kingdom to disaster.
At a Group of 20 summit in November 2018, protesters outside the venue in Buenos Aires called for Mohammed’s arrest, and world leaders appeared to avoid him. A conversation between Mohammed and Macron suggested that the French president was privately upset with him.
“You never listen to me,” the French president said.
To some extent, the controversy has died down: Mohammed was very much center stage at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in June. And although Saturday’s attack was on Saudi soil, it struck at the heart of a global energy trade that has knock-on effects for countries all around the world.
But there are lingering issues. In particular, in the United States and a number of European countries, there is a strong and arguably growing opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Although Trump vetoed congressional bills to block arms sales to Riyadh, Germany has frozen the sale of weapons to the kingdom.
Michael Knights, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has followed Saudi air defense for decades, said Saudi Arabia may remain vulnerable to attacks by Iran and its proxies unless U.S. politicians change their views. “Congress sort of needs to get over it,” Knights said.
Saturday’s attack revealed that Saudi Arabia may in fact be as vulnerable as it often says it is. But the kingdom’s aggression could ultimately prevent it from getting the protection it says it needs.