Not His Father’s Saudi Arabia

The Khashoggi Affair Reveals the Recklessness of MBS

Forensic officials arrive to examine the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, October 2018. Osman Orsai / REUTERS

Since the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a rapt global audience has followed in real time a spectacle usually reserved for the most senior levels of government: the fashioning of an exculpatory fig leaf for an atrocity. 

That work is almost done. Saudi Arabia appears on the verge of getting its story straight, about how an interrogation went horribly wrong but had nothing to do with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS. U.S. President Donald Trump has nearly nailed down a pretext for continuing to sell arms to Riyadh and maintaining the close embrace of the Saudi leadership. Turkey may yet get an infusion of cash for its ailing economy in return for locking away damning evidence of the murder in the Istanbul consulate. But however loud the protestations of innocence, only the most willfully blind could believe that the man who effectively rules Saudi Arabia did not authorize the operation that cost Khashoggi his life.

The botched rendition—if that is what it was—has elicited justified moral outrage. It has also made the need to reassess the US-Saudi relationship urgent and unavoidable. MbS, the 33-year-old who was named heir to the Saudi throne just two years ago and depicted as an ambitious reformer, has in short order transformed his government’smodus operandi at home, but especially abroad, from deeply ingrained caution to brutal impetuousness. In so doing, he has evinced a recklessness that is deeply at odds with U.S. interests. 

Consider the distance traveled from the Saudi royal family’s traditional prudence: before the death of King Abdullah, predecessor of the reigning, if none too vigorous King Salman, it was scarcely imaginable that the Saudi armed forces would go into action. The high-water mark of Saudi deployments since the 1990 Gulf War was the dispatch of 1000 troops to Bahrain in 2011, as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) mission to help the government put down Arab Spring protests. The kingdom had an appetite

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