Killing the Saudi journalist is the most heinous act of Mohammed bin Salman’s career as crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has always been one rooted in mutual gain rather than shared values. The Saudis have long benefited from arms agreements with the United States, and the United States has enjoyed buying oil from Saudi Arabia and its fellow Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members. This alliance has resulted in the United States aligning itself with an absolute monarchy that regularly commits human rights violations and refuses to recognize Israel’s sovereignty.
The one area that the two powers have found common ground on is a mutual distaste for Iran and some terrorist organizations, but even then, that consensus exists for the geopolitical advantage of both nations. For many years, keeping the powers that be in Riyadh happy was an important task for U.S. Presidents.
However, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, itself a terrifying abuse of power, should act as a wakeup call that pushes the American foreign policy community to distance itself from the House of Saud before the alliance costs us more than our morality.
In June of 2017, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) came to power as the crown prince and deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia. He was seen by many in the West, including myself, as a reformer, a leader who, while understanding Saudi Arabia’s long history, would not be afraid to fight the corrupt and oppressive regime.
Within the first few months he proved those wishful thoughts right to a degree. He allowed theaters to play American movies, allowed women to be issued driver’s licenses and briefly turned the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh into a detention center when he detained and interrogated almost 500 government officials and members of the ruling family in the name of rooting out corruption.
What did not make the front page of many major Western publications was how MbS, while reforming the country in some areas, cracked down on civil liberties and open society in others. Not long after MbS’s ascension to power, a columnist for the Washington Post wrote that “in recent months, Saudi Arabia has instituted several new and extreme policies” and ended the column with the claim that “we Saudis deserve better.”
That columnist was Jamal Khashoggi. It has now been two weeks since he was last seen entering the Saudi embassy in Istanbul where he was killed, likely on the orders of a man who saw him as a threatening, subversive dissident.
The murder of Khashoggi is the worst in a series of heinous crimes that define Saudi Arabia’s recent foreign policy. Their official account of events, which has changed several times, now affirms Khashoggi’s death and condemns the nature of it but claims that it was an interrogation gone wrong and was not premeditated. Thankfully, reporting by both Turkish intelligence and papers like the New York Times and Washington Post have kept the facts straight for those of us who still buy into those pesky things. The reporting found that nine out of the 15 suspects seen entering the embassy on the day Khashoggi was murdered had connections to Saudi security forces; one even served on MbS’s personal detail. However, all of this fits into a trend.
Within the last few years, Saudi Arabia has not only killed a permanent resident of the United States, but they have also kidnapped the Lebanese Prime Minister and starved almost eight million people with their proxy war in Yemen. Both these and the killing of Khashoggi presented the United States with chances to walk away from the partnership, but maybe looking toward the future will finally do the trick.
With a blatant disregard for international law, false promises of reform and a Machiavellian grasp of Middle Eastern politics, Mohammed bin Salman has learned the lessons of autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Saddam Hussein, respectively. Like many of his fellow autocrats, MbS recognizes his country’s biggest obstacle, which is their dependence on oil exports as the primary source of revenue.
Recognizing that obstacle is likely the reason that, before his consolidation of power, MbS looked like he would break the mold of reactionary Saudi rulers, but those times are long past. Even with his well-crafted image and cunning power grabs, MbS will eventually lose control of his kingdom because autocratic control almost always leads to unstable rule. When the chaos starts, and the young ruler’s tight grip begins to whither, the United States should be as far from that peninsula as we can.
America has hurt its image and the ability to look itself in the mirror over its cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia for the sake of its bottom line. However, now that Saudi Arabia looks more and more isolated in the international stage and MbS is making the transition from trendsetter to pariah, that too might be on the line if the US refuses to break ties with one of its worst allies.