Why the U.S. Should Stay Out of Saudi Politics

Let the Royal Family Do Its Job

MbS in Cairo, November 2017.  Handout / REUTERS

In the May/June 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, 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

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