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In the May/June 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, I wrote that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), had consolidated his position within the ruling family to such a degree that he was free of the constraints imposed by the collective leadership model that characterized the Saudi regime in the past. That freedom of action allowed MBS to take important steps toward economic and social change, such as privatizing five percent of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco, and allowing women to drive. But it also facilitated foreign policy adventures that would not have occurred previously. “Given his ambition and impulsiveness,” I warned, “the world should expect more surprises.”
The grisly and brutal murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a former regime insider and mild critic of the crown prince, in Istanbul in October 2018 was just such a surprise. The Saudi regime has dealt brutally with its critics abroad in the past, but never in such a flagrant way. The crown prince is obviously responsible for Khashoggi’s death, despite official Saudi denials and attempts by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to question his role.
The killing of Khashoggi was, to paraphrase a quote often attributed to Talleyrand, both a crime and a mistake. It not only sullied MBS’ global reputation as an economic and social (not political) reformer, it unleashed a storm of criticism in the United States, where Khashoggi had a network of friends and acquaintances in political, media, and academic circles, including me. In a unanimous vote on December 13, the U.S. Senate formally accused MBS of ordering Khashoggi’s murder and at the same time elected to cut off U.S. involvement in the Saudi- and Emirati-led war in Yemen. The incident has become the most serious crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations since the 9/11 attacks.
In my article, I wondered whether MBS would turn out more like Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or King Henry VIII of England. This was in terms of how he would use the assets he acquired in his November 2017 crackdown, when he imprisoned more than 300 of what his government called “corrupt” elites from the private sector and ruling family in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. The murder of Khashoggi makes clear that, at least when it comes to dealing with his critics, the crown prince sees all three leaders as models. Both Xi and Putin have reached beyond their borders to try to silence critics and potential adversaries. Being a regime insider was no help if you displeased Henry VIII, as a number of his wives and most important ministers found out on their way to the chopping block.
The problem for MBS is that although he might want to emulate Putin and Xi in his treatment of opposition, he is not presiding over a great power as they are. Putin and Xi can act with impunity on the international stage because they do not need the help of other governments to sustain their rule and advance their countries’ interests. Saudi Arabia is not a great power. It relies on the United States and other allies for its security. It needs foreign investment if it is going to reduce its dependence on oil exports, as MBS wants to do. Saudi Arabia does have power in the oil market and as one of the leaders of the Muslim world. But that power is limited, as Saudi inability to win the war in Yemen, bring down President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or turn back Iranian influence in the Arab world demonstrates. MBS has even suffered recent setbacks in his domestic economic agenda. The crown prince’s uncles, who ruled Saudi Arabia for decades, understood the limits of their power. They were cautious on the international stage. MBS, on the other hand, is learning about those limits the hard way—if he is learning about them at all.
The Trump administration made a serious error when it publicly tied itself to MBS during his ascent to power. Past U.S. administrations, at least since the early 1960s, have stayed out of the power struggles within the Saudi royal family, confident that whoever emerged would sustain the relationship. Trump openly supported MBS as he maneuvered more senior relatives out of power. Now he is paying a price for that unnecessary meddling in Saudi domestic politics.
But the most extreme critics of the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the wake of the Khashoggi killing are making a similar mistake. In calling for the crown prince to be removed from power, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is asserting the United States’ right to dictate who will rule in Riyadh—an intervention into Saudi domestic politics as direct as Trump’s ill-considered backing of MBS. Regime change efforts in the Middle East have ended badly for the United States, from the coup that ousted Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Washington should get out of that business. Particularly in this case, where MBS has consolidated his position within the ruling family and dominates the coercive arms of the government, an active effort to encourage opposition to the crown prince is unlikely to succeed. The current crisis in the Middle East is the result of failing states and civil wars in countries such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The world does not need an unstable Saudi Arabia added to that list.
Washington can, and should, express its rejection of the crown prince’s behavior. It can strongly urge Saudi King Salman to appoint a new foreign minister to act as the interlocutor with the United States and a voice of restraint in Saudi foreign-policy making. It can make clear that Riyadh needs a new ambassador in Washington, as the incumbent, MBS’ full brother, is no longer a credible representative of his country. But Washington should avoid picking specific people or insisting on a change in succession within the royal family. The family has been ruling Saudi Arabia for over a century. Let it do its job.
Rather than focus on the personality, Washington should push on the policy. The Trump administration has taken some steps in this direction, prodding the Saudis to find a diplomatic solution to the Yemen war and end the frivolous standoff with Qatar. Now it needs to redouble those efforts, particularly on Yemen, using whatever leverage Khashoggi’s murder has given it to push for a reduction in the political instability that plagues the Middle East and the human suffering that accompanies it.