Trump administration should reassess relations with Saudi Arabia

By Daniel DePetris

During business hours last week, Saudi columnist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, a former adviser to the al-Saud royal family who has since become a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s consolidation of power, was getting married to a Turkish woman and needed to get his paperwork in order. Assured of his personal safety, the writer entered the building and told his fiancé to wait outside.

The journalist has not been heard from since. 

Turkish authorities, citing information from intelligence and law enforcement sources, have concluded Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate in a state-sanctioned kill operation. Other reports have intimated that Khashoggi’s body was later dismembered and removed by car off the consular grounds. Saudi officials have strongly denied the claims. Yet given the track record of the current Saudi leadership, which has arrested social and political activists on frivolous charges and detained hundreds of Saudi businessmen and wealthy members of the royal family (forcing them to transfer some of their assets to the Kingdom if they wanted their freedom back), the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudi government is certainty within the realm of possibility.

While the world awaits the final fate of the journalist, there is a distinct lesson in this sorry episode for the United States: at its core, Saudi Arabia is no different than the crop of authoritarian, violent, and despotic governments that have dominated the region since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

The Middle East is a harsh place, where politically-motivated assassinations and unsavory governing practices are as commonplace as the oil flowing underneath the sands of the Persian Gulf. To view Saudi Arabia as above of the region’s other police states is not matched by the facts. 

Here are the facts: the relationship between the U.S. and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not—nor will never be—rooted in common beliefs, shared values and ethics, or identical foreign policy interests. U.S.-Saudi ties, solidified during a 1945 meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy, is nothing more than a pragmatic arrangement.

For too long, Washington has mastered the art of self-deception as it relates to Saudi Arabia, believing that the desert kingdom is the answer to the region’s many problems. What is good for Riyadh is almost automatically—but mistakenly—interpreted as good for Washington, so much so that successive administrations have all but outsourced U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to the whims of the Saudi royal family.

The Saudi government has taken maximum advantage of America’s appetite for crude oil and a desire for a long-term counterterrorism partner in order to press its own regional agenda. This agenda is centered on the Saudi monarchy’s existential rivalry with Iran and its absolutist quest for hegemony. The United States, despite having no national security interest in the sectarian fault-lines of the Middle East, has frequently chosen to wade into Arab conflicts on Saudi Arabia’s side. 

Why U.S. officials continue to follow Riyadh’s lead is a mystery with no simple explanation. 

While Saudi oil exports are indeed important to global energy markets, America has made considerable strides in decreasing its dependence on Persian Gulf oil. Attracting the political support of a regional stakeholder is also an insufficient answer. Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen, its embargo of Qatar, and its export of Wahhabi Islam are not exactly helpful to the security the U.S. is working to provide for the American people. Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen, and Washington’s logistical assistance to the Royal Saudi Air Force in particular, has been especially devastating to the people of that poor, destitute country and America’s reputation among the Yemeni population—all the while providing more operating space for the very transnational terrorist groups the U.S. has pledged to combat.   

Saudi Arabia is not Canada, Britain, or Australia, three countries that have shared a long-standing and familial relationship on political, military, economic, and cultural grounds. The princes, ministers, and generals of Saudi Arabia are less concerned about women’s equality, due process, political pluralism, and individual, rather they are focused on perpetuating their power over the Kingdom’s political system and subjugating their smaller Gulf neighbors into Saudi vassal states.

However,  on shared security interests such as keeping tabs on the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda, a U.S.-Saudi partnership would be prudent. With balance of power politics re-emerging as a significant feature of global politics, the Saudis can be a helpful partner if it embraces more of the region’s security burden. There will inevitably be situations in the future that will require close collaboration with the Kingdom; on post-war reconstruction missions, Saudi and Gulf Arab money will be absolutely essential if the region is to begin recovering from the many conflicts of this century. Intelligence relationships between the U.S. and Saudi intelligence agencies will continue to benefit both countries for as long as Washington and Riyadh share an interest in depriving terrorist organizations of the resources and capability they require to launch sophisticated attacks. Such partnerships are low risk and high reward for the United States and appropriately limited.  

But the terrible killing of Jamal Khashoggi should shock the U.S. out of its tunnel vision and begin assessing Saudi Arabia with clear and open eyes—the Saudis may be a partner on select issues, but they most certainly are not true friends.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by USA Today on October 10, 2018. Read more HERE.