Why the U.S. Can’t Control MBS

Reining in the Rogue Prince

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 16, 2018 Leah Millis / REUTERS

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

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