Saudi Arabia is ostracized after many poor decisions by its crown prince – now accused of orchestrating a journalist’s murder.
By Bruce Riedel*
The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul will have long-lasting implications for the region and especially for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The grisliness of the affair has already tarnished the reputation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, perhaps irredeemably. The Trump administration’s ambivalent response is a measure of the huge stakes at risk for Washington.
A Saudi journalist who undertook self-imposed exile in Virginia in 2017, Khashoggi became an increasingly outspoken critic of the crown prince. In his last opinion piece before disappearing into the consulate, he lambasted MBS for starting the brutal Saudi war in Yemen which has put 20 million Yemenis at risk of malnutrition and disease, a quagmire costing Riyadh at least $50 billion a year. He compared the crown prince to Syrian President Bashar Assad and suggested Saudi Arabia lost its “dignity.” He pressed for the Saudis and allies to cease fire in Yemen immediately. Apparently, this was a bridge too far for the crown prince who knows the war is part of his ugly legacy.
It’s increasingly clear that the Saudis lured the journalist to visit the consulate to collect official paperwork to remarry. A 15-man hit team composed of members of the Royal Guard and other security services reportedly flew into Istanbul the morning of October 2, killed Khashoggi and returned to Saudi Arabia that night with his corpse. Saudi Arabia denies the accusation, but offers no credible alternative explanation for his disappearance. The Royal Guard Regiment is under the direct personal command of the crown prince, putting his fingerprints all over the crime. At home, Saudi media lamely blame the affair on Qatar, the kingdom’s bête noire.
For the last four years MBS sought to portray himself as a reformer who understands the kingdom must change to survive. He allowed women to drive and opened the country to concerts, wrestling and movies. The intense and expensive lobbying campaign worked with many, and the prince was lauded from Boston to San Francisco. Donald Trump hailed him as a reformer before the United Nations.
The mirage is now shattered. The crown prince is a reckless and dangerous disrupter. He shakes down his subjects for their wealth, detains women activists who demand rights, mutes the former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in house arrest and tries to bully countries from Canada to Lebanon. The pattern of behavior has been obvious for years, but the veil only fell in Istanbul.
Oil reserves, the world’s second largest, means countries must deal with Saudi Arabia, and it is unlikely King Salman will hold his son accountable. But the crown prince faces global condemnation, making the kingdom an increasingly shaky partner. Investors already turn away in droves, and capital has fled. Instead of making Saudi Arabia more stable, the impulsive and poor decisions of the heir apparent are making the nation more fragile. The kingdom is less stable today than at any time during the last half century. The king ousted his son’s rivals, though the royal family is used to consensual governance not autocracy.
Western powers likely do not want to be seen embracing an accused murderer who uses diplomatic facilities to exterminate his critics. The fawning photo ops and glowing reviews are over, and the kingdom is weaker. It will be harder than ever to convince skeptical legislators in Washington, London, Ottawa and other capitals to approve arms sales to a thuggish monarchy. Demands for war crimes tribunals will intensify.
Iran is a winner from the crime in Istanbul despite its own awful record of abusing journalists and sponsoring terrorism. Tehran is delighted to see its archenemy under fire. And the longer MBS pursues his campaign in Yemen, the more Iran will encourage the Houthis to bleed the kingdom. As Khashoggi noted, it costs the Houthis little to fire low-tech ballistic missiles at Saudi cities, which are shot down by high-tech Patriot missiles that cost $3 million dollars each.
Turkey plays the affair cautiously, leaking damaging information, but also promising to cooperate with an “investigation.” An industrial cleanup crew appearing at the consulate hours before the Turkish forensic team’s arrival indicates the lack of seriousness for this investigation. Ankara wants to keep the focus on Riyadh and away from its own troubles with journalists.
The kingdom’s closest allies in Manama and Abu Dhabi stand with the crown prince. They have little choice. Other leaders in the Arab and Muslim world undoubtedly enjoy watching the Saudis squirm, as few have affection for the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is America’s oldest ally in the region: The relationship dates to 1943 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hosted two future kings, Faisal and Khalid, in the White House as emissaries of their father, King Abdel Aziz. The relationship is based on overlapping interests, especially oil, not on shared values. Saudi Arabia and the United States share no values in common, and the difference is especially stark on freedom of expression. The relationship has always been brittle, prone to crisis, but every American president since FDR has courted the Saudis.
No US president has courted the kingdom as avidly and crudely as Trump. He’s lied about a fake $110 billion arms deal, covered up the carnage in Yemen and tried to fashion an Arab NATO around Saudi Arabia’s extreme Wahhabi Sunni sectarianism. Saudi Arabia bought more than $112 billion in US arms during the Obama administration, half in one enormous deal in 2010. So far during the Trump administration, the Saudis have bought less than $5 billion of US arms, which Trump disparagingly called “peanuts.” The president’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has built his entire plan for Middle East peace with help of Israelis and Saudi Arabia. Having bet his Middle East policy on MBS, Trump is now accountable for his protégé’s record. No wonder the president looks uncomfortable when discussing Khashoggi’s death.
Responding to Trump’s vague talk of “severe punishment” for Khashoggi’s murder, the crown prince has promised severe punishment for any attempt to sanction him and Saudi Arabia for the disappearance. The Saudis risk creating an ever deepening divide and self-reinforcing isolation with the world community. But they also can’t admit the truth. One possible attempt is blaming the murder on “rogue elements,” to which Trump alluded. The usually vocal and articulate foreign minister is avoiding the media.
Saudi Arabia does need reform. Its welfare state is unsustainable. It has the third largest defense budget in the world and is stuck in an unwinnable conflict with the Arab world’s poorest country. Its friends are increasingly concerned, but unable to help it from making costly errors. If there was any sign of a learning curve or a maturing leadership role by MBS, there might be ground for hope. Unfortunately, the dark side of despotism is entrenched.
The Middle East has been in acute turmoil since the Arab Spring of 2011. Broken states litter the region. Civil wars thrive. A rogue Saudi Arabian prince has opened a new Pandora’s box.
The United States and the United Kingdom have enormous leverage with Saudi Arabia due to the arms relationship. The Royal Saudi Air Force is totally dependent on spare parts, maintenance, upgrades, expertise and munitions from Washington and London. The Istanbul incident is an opportunity to press the king to unilaterally cease fire in Yemen and fulfill Jamal Khashoggi’s last wish to restore Saudi dignity.
*Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, part of the Brookings Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. In addition, Riedel serves as a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy. He retired in 2006 after 30 years of service at the Central Intelligence Agency, including postings overseas. He was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House. He is the author of Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR, published in 2017. Read an excerpt.