How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 has damaged the Saudi regime’s image and credibility worldwide. Partners of Saudi Arabia that have always cherished their close relationships with the regime and refrained from overtly criticizing its domestic repression, such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, have spoken out in the aftermath of the murder and demanded a clear and honest investigation.
The detention and even elimination of dissidents and critics is nothing new in Saudi Arabia. But Khashoggi’s murder has shone a spotlight on the excesses of an increasingly authoritarian regime. In the past, individual Saudi rulers were at least partially constrained by a system of power sharing in which different princes controlled different influential branches of government and the sovereign was accountable to all of them. But King Salman swept away this model when he came to power in 2015 and propelled his son Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to the top position in the kingdom as crown prince. The Saudi monarchy has been transformed from one that rules by royal consensus to one in which a single individual holds absolute power.
Khashoggi’s murder apparently demonstrates such power wielded to its ugliest extreme. The incident poses a serious new challenge to Saudi Arabia’s allies and partners—especially the United States. With the rest of the royal family and the Saudi public completely marginalized, the United States is the only remaining actor with enough influence to restrain MbS. To do so, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump would have to reconsider the foundations of U.S. diplomacy with Saudi Arabia. Given Trump’s noncommittal response to the Khashoggi affair thus far, this prospect is unlikely.
At the heart of the present crisis in Saudi Arabia is the question of succession. In the past, the Saudi regime consisted of multiple fiefdoms, with different senior princes in charge of influential ministries. The monarch was the head of the state and also the head of his royal kin. This arrangement occasionally resulted in friction among princes, but overall it served to restrain the power of the monarch, who was forced to consult with his brothers about major issues. The king was effectively the first among equals, with a degree of balance prevailing among the different factions of the House of Saud.
King Abdullah (1924–2015) was the last monarch to rule under this arrangement. Like other kings before him, he recognized that he would not be able to rule the kingdom effectively if he overlooked his senior brothers or acted against their will. In a bizarre coincidence, King Abdullah became the first king to witness the death of both of his crown princes: first his half brother Prince Sultan in 2011 and then his full brother Prince Nayef in 2012. While both of his crown princes were ill, King Abdullah invented a new position—that of deputy crown prince—in order to militate against a power vacuum. He appointed his half brother Prince Salman to that position, and Salman became king when Abdullah died in 2015. In 2007, King Abdullah established the Allegiance Commission, consisting of 35 senior princes and their sons, to oversee the succession should he or the crown prince die.
King Salman has since shattered the family’s cherished power-sharing arrangement. He was able to do so because of the demographic makeup of the royal household. Most of the king’s brothers had died by the time he took power, allowing him to sidestep his own surviving eligible brothers and even senior nephews. Only one of the king’s brothers, Prince Ahmad, was an option for crown prince. But because of his marginality (he had never held a senior position in government for any extended period of time), and King Salman’s strong desire to ensure that only his own offspring would inherit the crown, he decided to ignore Prince Ahmad, too. Within months of becoming king, Salman sacked Crown Prince Muqrin; he then deposed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in 2017 and chose not to appoint a deputy crown prince. In making the appointment, King Salman ignored the Allegiance Commission. All of these measures cleared the way for his son’s rise to power.
Saudi Arabia has effectively transformed into a totalitarian regime in which all of the power of the state is concentrated in one person's hands.
No prince before MbS has held so many positions of authority at such a young age. In addition to being crown prince, he is deputy prime minister, minister of defense, chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, and chairman of the Council of Political and Security Affairs. He is the head of Aramco, the state-owned oil and natural gas company. The young prince also controls the Saudi state’s instruments of soft power, such as the newly created Entertainment Commission. Saudi Arabia has effectively transformed into a totalitarian regime in which all of the power of the state is concentrated in one person’s hands.
MbS has blocked the few channels by which the Saudi public and royal family were once able to influence policy. The Allegiance Commission dissolved after several of its members were detained in the so-called anticorruption crackdown in 2017. MbS has disbanded the royal assembly, marginalized the religious establishment, and detained critics as well as financial elites.
The crown prince has imposed policies from the top down, without giving the Saudi people the opportunity to debate, let alone criticize, them: for example, lifting the ban on women driving and promoting pop culture and entertainment. These are cosmetic reforms masquerading as substantive ones, and they are meant to be a popular alternative to political reform. They are also designed to distract Saudis from worsening repression, particularly the suppression of critical voices and the silencing of debate in the public sphere. Even the other members of the royal family are disenfranchised. The new Saudi totalitarianism, which requires complete subservience and loyalty to the crown prince, has culminated in the scandal of Khashoggi’s murder.
With no one able to restrain MbS from the inside, he must be restrained from the outside. The United States is the only power capable of exerting the necessary pressure. The United States is the main guarantor of the security of the Saudi regime. It sells more arms to Saudi Arabia than any other Western country. In Washington, Saudi Arabia is still considered a strategic partner (albeit an embarrassing one, from the perspective of the American public and media). The United States treats the kingdom as an important ally in the fight against terrorism, a player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a check on Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia is based entirely on personal relationships between leaders rather than diplomatic norms. These relationships are getting in the way of effective U.S. policy toward the crown prince.
The heavily personalistic relationships between American presidents and Saudi kings dates back to 1945, when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. This encounter led to the establishment of the first military base in the kingdom, where U.S. oil companies had maintained interests since 1933. Oil tightened the bond between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the latter’s strategic location was important for U.S. military operations in Asia. These common interests laid the foundation on which future leaders of the two countries would conduct diplomacy.
Since that meeting, the United States has viewed its foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia as contingent upon having the right royal with whom to do business. From 1983 to 2005, that person was Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. He was recalled to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, when the United States discovered that 15 of the hijackers were Saudi Arabian and it became very difficult to defend the kingdom. Princes Turki al-Faisal and Adel al-Jubeir, who succeeded him as ambassador, were unable to satisfy Washington’s desire for a Saudi interlocutor who was both close to the throne and loyal to U.S. interests. Prince Turki was sent to Washington as part of a charm offensive to defuse the tension with the United States immediately after 9/11, but he was critical of U.S. policy on major issues, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was also very critical of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s positive assessment of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Prince Turki argued that Iran, rather than domestic politics or democratic deficits, posed the greatest threat to both Saudi Arabia and the region. These tensions were further strained after the United States and other Western countries signed the Iran nuclear deal in 2013 without Saudi Arabia’s involvement, following secret negotiations in Oman.
When MbS came to power, he dispatched his own brother Khalid bin Salman to Washington as the new ambassador. While one brother ruled in Riyadh, the other had the ears of Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in an arrangement that more closely resembled a family affair than diplomacy between two sovereign states. Unfortunately, such personal relationships seem to have distracted foreign policy actors in Washington from the hard work of critically evaluating the changing priorities and national interests of the two countries.
The diplomatic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is further complicated by the fact that the kingdom completely lacks healthy institutions, such as an elected government, a functioning parliament, and an independent judiciary, which could have helped diffuse power and check the absolute rule of the monarchy. Notably, the United States has never used its influence to pressure its ally to create such institutions. Princes are the only conduit by which the United States knows how to deal with Saudi Arabia, and no normal diplomatic measures exist for holding a rogue prince accountable. The United States may choose to treat Saudi Arabia’s newly naked totalitarianism as a merely unfortunate or embarrassing development in one of its most cherished relationships, even after Khashoggi’s murder.
Princes are the only conduit by which the United States knows how to deal with Saudi Arabia.
When Khashoggi was murdered, Trump oscillated between condemning the crime and searching for an out for MbS by hinting that the murder could be the work of “rogue elements” within the state. But in a totalitarian regime in which all power is concentrated in the hands of one person, it is simply not believable that the responsibility for such an act could fall on the shoulders of anyone other than the crown prince. Trump’s statements demonstrate a complete lack of serious scrutiny of Saudi power and command structures. From his perspective, the merit of the U.S.-Saudi partnership is beyond serious reconsideration.
Going forward, Saudis will need to find a way to reinsert themselves into the politics of their own country. Under MbS, with all religious, financial, and royal elites silenced, Saudis are now ruled primarily by fear. The murder of Khashoggi has focused their attention on just how far the regime will go in pursuit of absolute power. Consequently, they are looking to the global community to restrain the dangerous crown prince.
The United States could start by making its support for MbS conditional on his recognition of people’s freedoms and the rule of law. This would help restrain a young power-grabbing prince who has so far displayed zero respect for the international community and has severely violated diplomatic trust, especially with Turkey.
But if Khashoggi’s murder ends in nothing but business as usual from the United States, this will not be the last horrific act we see. An indifferent response will send a clear message from the United States to MbS: the young crown prince can get away with murder.