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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 for multi-billion-dollar arms sales, but not for a truly capable army; the open secret was that the Al Saud preferred a “coup-proof” force. But this calculus has changed. Since 2015, the Saudi military has been bogged down in a ruinous conflict in Yemen, against Houthi rebels and their tribal allies who now control Sanaa.
For those who had worked with the Saudis on security issues in the past, the move into Yemen clearly telegraphed: This is not your father’s Saudi Arabia. Similarly disturbing was the abrupt disappearance of a man who had been a linchpin of U.S.-Saudi cooperation, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. As interior minister and in a variety of other jobs, MbN, as he is known, had been the chief of Saudi counterterrorism and was widely viewed as the United States’ best friend in the kingdom. Under MbN, Saudi cooperation on this issue became increasingly valuable—to the point where it could be argued that it was more important to the bilateral relationship than Saudi help on maintaining stable oil prices. On more than one occasion, MbN’s work saved American lives. When Salman became king, MbN was first named deputy crown prince and later crown prince.
In 2017, Salman shunted him aside and made his son Mohammed heir. According to some reports, MbN is under house arrest, and many of his top aides have been fired. When asked about MbN today, U.S. officials speak darkly of his situation and bemoan the fact that in the era of the bromance between presidential senior advisor Jared Kushner and MbS, no one dares utter MbN’s name. The days of cozy retirements for royal also-rans appear to be over.
So, too, are the days of some minimal comity with neighbors in the Gulf. Friction between the Al Saud and the Al Thani who rule Qatar goes back decades, but past clashes have repeatedly subsided, with the United States occasionally tamping down tensions to keep some semblance of unity in the GCC. Last May, however, the Saudi government blockaded Qatar. Joined by several other Sunni powers—and egged on in particular by the United Arab Emirates—Riyadh sought to push Qatar to the breaking point and even seemed to back a renegade member of the Al Thani as a replacement for the emir.
Saudi Arabia and its partners issued an ultimatum with 13 demands—including requirements such as shuttering Al Jazeera, terminating construction of a Turkish air base, and downgrading relations with Iran, co-owner with Qatar of the world’s largest natural gas field — that no sovereign ruler could have accepted. MbS and his advisers seem not to have contemplated a flat rejection by Doha. When it came, Riyadh had no Plan B. The countries have been locked in a bizarre standoff ever since.
Which brings us to l’affaire Khashoggi. Mortification at the thought of things going wrong had been an important constraint on Saudi behavior for decades. The operation that went awry in Istanbul was of a kind that much bolder countries, with more practiced intelligence services, would rarely even consider. To be sure, there is a long Saudi history of torture—a big reason why to this day the United States has no extradition treaty with the kingdom—but not one of international rendition or assassination. Before Khashoggi, these were not undertakings one could ever imagine the Saudis attempting.
Some may argue that such recklessness simply manifests the growing pains of a new Saudi Arabia—one that will reform, diversify its economy, and shed its habitual low profile in international affairs to become a more effective, decisive player. But the evidence—including the brief and stunning hostage taking of the Lebanese prime minister and the quarrel with Canada over human rights—suggests there is no growth going on here. There is only heedlessness and overweening ambition.
For the United States, the costs of abetting Mohammed bin Salman are growing. The blockade of Qatar threatens to destroy what is left of the GCC, which Washington has long supported as a bulwark of stability in the region. The United States has an airbase—the largest in the region and the focal point for the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS)—in Qatar, and thus in a country cut off from Washington’s neighboring partners. This is problematic, to say the least: U.S. commanders complain that long-range planning is exceedingly difficult. The political disarray in the region also undermines U.S. efforts to maintain a united front to contain Iran. Even if one believes that the Trump administration has taken an overly hostile, provocative approach to the Islamic Republic—and moved too close to the Saudi posture of confrontation—squabbling partners are not helpful for advancing U.S. goals in the region.
The fighting in Yemen has spawned worse demons. Remote and underreported, the war in Yemen has become in the minds of most “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” There is no reliable number for the civilian deaths from violence and cholera, but the 10,000 mark was passed two years ago, and eight million or more are now at risk of famine in the coming months. (Yemen watchers have noted that Khashoggi’s murder has mobilized incomparably more public opposition to the Saudis than all the news from Yemen combined.) President Trump has shown little interest in overseas humanitarian operations, but if a famine on this scale occurs, it is hard to imagine—and repellent to believe—that the United States would do nothing.
The chaos in Yemen threatens to amplify the terrorist threat, just as conflicts have done elsewhere in the region. Jihadists thrive in war zones, where recruitment soars and experience with weaponry and explosives is easy to obtain. Although most such fighters will never leave Yemen, their burgeoning numbers increase the chances that some will — possibly with new techniques and capabilities. Allowing the war to rage on, many experts warn, has given al Qaeda and ISIS an opportunity to rebuild.
Past American administrations often bemoaned the chronic hesitancy of Saudi rulers. But swinging so far to the other extreme looks to be worse. MbS’s record in office is a dismal one, all the fanfare about economic reform notwithstanding. The question thus becomes: What will it take to restrain the kingdom’s unbound crown prince? Rumors circulated before the killing of Khashoggi that King Salman was concerned enough to consider putting some fetters on his heir. Whether he does or not, the United States needs to establish some distance from the headstrong prince—and curtailing his supply of weaponry may be a good place to start. Enabling him is not helping us.
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