The U.S. has leverage over Riyadh. Let’s use it.
In fact, I’ve felt reasonably safe in Saudi Arabia. Officials were respectful and courteous even when I was painfully frank. But people also seemed more afraid to speak to a journalist than before, and mingled with the oppressiveness, there was an aggrieved nationalism in the air.
.. Senior Saudis privately accept that M.B.S. ordered Khashoggi’s death but insist that the Saudi-U.S. relationship is more important than one man’s life. For the sake of stability in the region, they say, America should stand by Saudi Arabia.
To which my answer is: The problem is not only that M.B.S. is a murderer, but also that he has destabilized the region, starved Yemeni children and undermined the interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States alike. Everything he touches, he breaks.
President Trump and Jared Kushner have placed their bets on the prince, and in a narrow sense they may be right. King Faisal managed to oust his incompetent predecessor, King Saud, in 1964, but I saw no sign that M.B.S. is in jeopardy of losing power.
My most interesting interaction was with a group of young professionals who believe that I am getting it all wrong.
“I don’t know why the media focuses on the bad side,” protested Tariq Buhilaigah, a consultant in Riyadh. Sure there have been missteps, he said, but the most important things going on are the modernization of the country and the diversification of the economy away from oil.
.. But modernity isn’t just about cappuccinos and iPhone apps; it’s also about human dignity and the rule of law. While M.B.S. is bringing social progress, he’s also reckless, oppressive and brutal, and I am skeptical of his economic competence. He hasn’t even been able to organize an initial public offering for Aramco.
Trump’s bizarre defense of the prince reflects what has been wrong with the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It has become all transactional. The Saudis have treated us like body guards, and we have treated them like gas station attendants.
I suspect the real reason Trump and Kushner embrace M.B.S., aside from the hope that he will back their Middle East peace plan, is business: the belief that Saudis will invest in their personal real estate projects for decades to come.
The truth is that as Saudi Arabia’s significance as an oil producer diminishes, we need Saudi Arabia less. In 25 years, if we’re freed from the tyranny of imported oil, we may not need it at all.
Some Saudis kept trying to suggest to me that if we block weapons sales to Riyadh, the kingdom will turn to Moscow. That’s absurd. It needs our spare parts and, more important, it buys our weapons because they come with an implicit guarantee that we will bail the Saudis out militarily if they get in trouble with Iran.
Saudi Arabia on Monday delivered a rebuke to the U.S. Senate for passing a resolution that blamed the kingdom’s crown prince for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a rare criticism by Riyadh for its most important ally.
The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the Senate’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the killing as based on “unsubstantiated claims and allegations.” The rebuttal used unusually blunt language for a diplomatic communiqué, showing how the Khashoggi killing has inflamed tensions between Saudi Arabia and much of Washington’s establishment.“The kingdom categorically rejects any interference in its internal affairs,” the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “And any attempts to undermine its sovereignty or diminish its stature.”The Saudi government has vowed to hold the perpetrators of the Oct. 2 murder accountable and repeatedly denied that Prince Mohammed knew about the operation that led to the death of Mr. Khashoggi—a critic of the Saudi government and a Washington Post columnist—inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.But while the Trump administration has defended the crown prince, arguing there is no direct link between him and the murder, hostility toward Saudi Arabia is mounting in Congress and goes beyond the Khashoggi killing.
The Senate on Thursday also passed a resolution with bipartisan support calling for the U.S. to withdraw its backing for the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen. The measure, opposed by House Republicans, is unlikely to affect U.S. military policy in the region for now. The Senate is separately reviewing a bill that would halt weapons sales to the kingdom.
In a classified assessment, the CIA determined that, in the hours before and after the journalist’s death, the crown prince sent at least 11 messages to a top aide who oversaw the operation, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.It also highlighted areas of bilateral cooperation, including the kingdom’s role in
- keeping oil prices stable and
- countering Iran in the Middle East.
The fate of Khashoggi might come as a shock to many Americans, but it’s nothing new. A U.N. report reveals that over “3,000 allegations of torture were formally recorded” against Saudi Arabia between 2009 to 2015, according to The Guardian, with the report also noting a lack of a single prosecution of an official for the conduct.
I have been attempting to expose this for many years. Others in the U.S. government know it, but either won’t admit it or attempt to brush it aside. It’s a fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest sponsor of radical Islam on the planet, and no other nation is even close.
.. Since the 1980s, over $100 billion has “been spent on exporting” Wahhabism (the brand of Islam that controls Saudi Arabia and is most prevalent in madrassas). According to Foreign Policy Magazine, an “estimated 10 to 15 percent of madrassas are affiliated with extremist religious or political groups,” while the number of madrassas in places like Pakistan and India has increased exponentially – from barely 200 to over 40,000 just in Pakistan.
Even the State Department noted during the Obama administration that Saudi Arabia was the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” and said Qatar and Saudi Arabia were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups.”
.. Of course, this isn’t new, as the previously classified 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission report can also tell you.
The Saudis have exported this radical ideology worldwide. They have also committed war crimes in their Yemen war – a war for which American taxpayers are being used as unwitting accomplices.
The Yemen war, fought with American weapons and logistical support, has killed tens of thousands and, according to The Washington Post, left 8 million more “on the brink of famine,” in what it calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
.. There is ample evidence of mass incarceration, indefinite detention, torture, and a complete lack of the rule of law and due process within Saudi Arabia. As a matter of understatement, this is antithetical to American ideals.
Frankly, it’s a disgrace that Trump administration officials and American business tycoons enabled and applauded M.B.S. as he
- imprisoned business executives,
- kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister,
- rashly created a crisis with Qatar, and
- went to war in Yemen to create what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis there.
Some eight million Yemenis on the edge of starvation there don’t share this bizarre view that M.B.S. is a magnificent reformer.
.. Trump has expressed “great confidence” in M.B.S. and said that he and King Salman “know exactly what they are doing.” Jared Kushner wooed M.B.S. and built a close relationship with him — communicating privately without involving State Department experts — in ways that certainly assisted M.B.S. in his bid to consolidate power for himself.
The bipartisan cheers from Washington, Silicon Valley and Wall Street fed his recklessness. If he could be feted after kidnapping a Lebanese prime minister and slaughtering Yemeni children, why expect a fuss for murdering a mere journalist?
.. M.B.S. knows how to push Americans’ buttons, speaking about reform and playing us like a fiddle. His willingness to sound accepting of Israel may also be one reason Trump and so many Americans were willing to embrace M.B.S. even as he was out of control at home.
In the end, M.B.S. played Kushner, Trump and his other American acolytes for suckers. The White House boasted about $110 billion in arms sales, but nothing close to that came through. Saudi Arabia backed away from Trump’s Middle East peace deal. Financiers salivated over an initial public offering for Aramco, the state-owned oil company, but that keeps getting delayed.
.. The crackdown on corruption is an example of M.B.S.’s manipulation and hypocrisy. It sounded great, but M.B.S. himself has purchased a $300 million castle in France, and a $500 million yacht — and he didn’t buy them by scrimping on his government salary.
.. In fairness, he did allow women to drive. But he also imprisoned the women’s rights activists who had been campaigning for the right to drive.
Saudi Arabia even orchestrated the detention abroad of a women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, and her return in handcuffs. She turned 29 in a Saudi jail cell in July, and her marriage has ended. She, and not the prince who imprisons her, is the heroic reformer.
.. The crown prince showed his sensitivity and unpredictability in August when Canada’s foreign ministry tweeted concern about the jailing of Saudi women’s rights activists. Saudi Arabia went nuts, canceling flights, telling 8,300 Saudi students to leave Canada, expelling the Canadian ambassador and withdrawing investments. All for a tweet.
.. Western companies should back out of M.B.S.’s Future Investment Initiative conference later this month. That includes you,
- Credit Suisse,
- Bain and
all listed on the conference website as partners of the event.
.. We need an international investigation, perhaps overseen by the United Nations, of what happened to Jamal. In the United States, we also must investigate whether Saudis bought influence with spending that benefited the Trump family, such as $270,000 spent as of early 2017 by a lobbying firm for Saudi Arabia at the Trump hotel in Washington. The Washington Post reported that Saudi bookings at Trump Chicago increased 169 percent from the first half of 2016 to the first half of this year, and that the general manager of a Trump hotel in New York told investors that revenues rose partly because of “a last-minute visit to New York by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.”
.. If Saudi Arabia cannot show that Jamal is safe and sound, NATO countries should jointly expel Saudi ambassadors and suspend weapons sales. The United States should start an investigation under the Magnitsky Act and stand ready to impose sanctions on officials up to M.B.S.
America can also make clear to the Saudi royal family that it should find a new crown prince. A mad prince who murders a journalist, kidnaps a prime minister and starves millions of children should never be celebrated at state dinners, but instead belongs in a prison cell.