Needed: A U.S. Policy on Saudi Arabia

Needed: A U.S. Policy on Saudi Arabia

The next administration would do well to 
revise the long-standing U.S. partnership 
with Saudi Arabia, and America has 
substantial leverage to produce change 
in the kingdom’s behavior.

March 18, 2019

This is a preview of the Spring 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

On January 14, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stood on the tarmac in Riyadh after meeting the Saudi crown prince. It was a key stop on the American envoy’s weeklong Mideast tour, after President Donald Trump had surprised allies by calling for abrupt troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. Although the American presence in those countries had come to reflect inertia rather than any long-term strategic goals, Trump’s retreat was particularly hasty, leading to Defense Secretary James Mattis’s resignation.

Pompeo smiled and laughed with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his entourage during the brief touchdown in Saudi Arabia. On the runway before a scrum of reporters, he described his conversation as one with Saudi “partners and friends,” as if the recent killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi could be fixed over a chummy conversation.

It was as unconvincing as his marquee remarks days earlier at the American University in Cairo, where Pompeo heralded a new Middle East policy, more antagonistic toward Iran and more rambunctiously pro-Israel than ever, without substance on policy issues. Instead, the chief diplomat politicized the platform by dismembering Obama’s 2009 speech at Cairo University. These words undoubtedly pleased Arab Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, who felt undermined by Obama’s support, albeit tepid, for the 2011 Arab revolutions. Speaking to a select embassy guest list inside the gated suburban campus 25 miles into the Cairo desert, Pompeo blustered about Iranian “mullahs” and “ayatollahs and their henchmen,” but glossed over abuses of authority from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. In particular, unlike Obama’s speech or even Condoleezza Rice’s 2005 remarks at the same university, Pompeo failed to say the words “human rights.” He also didn’t mention Khashoggi.

The CIA had determined with a high level of certainty two months earlier that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the hit on the prominent Saudi writer. This crime could not be erased. To keep up with sensational leaks from the Turkish press, the Saudis changed their narrative a half-dozen times and inadvertently exposed their culpability. Still, the Trump administration had redoubled support for the 33-year-old de facto ruler of the kingdom. “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information,” Trump wrote in a catty White House statement, “but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” After disparaging his own intelligence reports, he went on to malign the deceased. “Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that.” Trump had sided with the Saudi cover-up. He had squandered American power and had nothing to show for it. The team that killed Khashoggi, according to The New York Times, had also conducted a dozen extrajudicial operations against Saudi citizens.

Pompeo’s shuttling is a caricatured version of America’s indulgent and shortsighted policy toward the Saudi kingdom going back several decades. But today with a newly pugnacious regime in Riyadh, the stakes are far higher. Until the 1970s, Saudi Arabia was simply a docile U.S. ally and source of cheap oil. That began to change with the OPEC-engineered price hikes, masterminded by the Saudi government. The Saudi government then subsidized the spread of radically fundamentalist Islam through the Muslim world. The stakes increased with the attacks of 9/11 (the majority of the skyjackers were Saudi). But throughout this era, Washington continued to indulge Riyadh, either because of the politics of oil, plain conflicts of interest, the fact that the Saudi policy toward Israel was covertly not as hostile as it might have been, or all three. With the ascension of MBS, a newly bellicose kingdom has emerged. Saudi has reached out to allies in Asia who neglect human rights and are happy to displace U.S. influence. It has engaged in monstrous violations of diplomatic norms, of which the Khashoggi hit was only the most extreme case. The U.S.-Saudi relationship has at last reached the inescapable crisis that Washington has been dreading since 9/11.

But that said, what should our Saudi policy be, even assuming a competent government in the White House after 2020? Washington’s leverage is ostensibly limited—by concerns about Israel, by other geostrategic goals in the region that require Saudi acquiescence—though Trump’s demonization of Iran needlessly enhances Riyadh’s leverage over Washington. A full-on reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is required, with the goal of restricting the possibility of Saudi aggression and transitioning the kingdom toward a more transparent and accountable governance. Otherwise, only time will tell what illogical and dangerous act Mohammed bin Salman pursues next.


“Purely Transactional”

The U.S.-Saudi relationship was never based on deep cultural ties between the two countries but rather on security arrangements, petroleum deals, protecting the trade routes surrounding the world’s largest producer of crude oil, and sharing intelligence about terror groups that threaten both countries.

The relationship had already deteriorated after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. The U.S. military presence in the Gulf had been a source of friction for Saudis, and in America anger was widespread against the kingdom. “9/11 also crystallized Islamophobia in the United States, and the American reaction to it was seen as belying Saudi expectations and U.S. assurances of solid friendship,” Chas Freeman, who served as American ambassador to Saudi from 1989 to 1992, told me. “The relationship became purely transactional—each side asking what’s in it for me, rather than a partnership, which was the case when I was there.”

Marco Ugarte/AP Images

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS)

That partnership is rooted in FDR’s 1945 bargain with King Abdel-Aziz Ibn Saud, forged aboard the USS Quincy on Great Bitter Lake and endlessly recounted in both countries’ lore. U.S. security for Saudi energy supplies remains one of the fundamental pillars of the two countries’ relationship and indeed much of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. But in the 21st century, this relationship has potential to change. “They need us much more than we need them,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official, told me. “We don’t need their oil, but they need our security guarantee.”

As fracking has made the U.S. a net oil exporter since the mid-2000s, Americans have imported less oil from Saudi, from 1.36 million barrels daily in 2012 to shy of a million daily in 2017 and continuing to drop. Yet the U.S. remains the prime guarantor of the world’s crude. That assumed responsibility is infrequently questioned yet has a huge footprint: The Navy’s Fifth Fleet operates out of the Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain, where more than 7,000 servicemen and personnel serve as traffic cop for the global flow of oil around the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. also maintains 10,000 military personnel at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, among the robust network of basing and military cooperation throughout the Arab Gulf and Levant, Israel, and the Horn of Africa.

The U.S. too depends on Saudi, and its strategic location on the Arabian Peninsula, for overflight permissions for aircraft operating in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq, but analysts note that it’s part of a broader security architecture that is of particular benefit for the Saudis.

The second pillar of the relationship is intelligence cooperation. “They’re a superstar counterterrorism partner, and their tips have saved lives,” Anne Patterson, a former ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan, told me over breakfast in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She cautioned, however, that “CT [counterterrorism] is not the same thing as Iran. These Sunni extremists pose a bigger threat.”

But when promoting American support for Saudi Arabia, Trump has accentuated the threat of Iran. Though Iran has potential to imperil U.S. interests on a variety of fronts, most experts agree that Obama’s nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, had brought Tehran into the international fold and limited their nuclear projects. It’s Trump’s breaking of that “deal” that is shaking international confidence and feeding anxieties around renewed nuclear development, including an arms race in the region.

Riyadh is eager to buy closely guarded nuclear technology from the U.S.—and Jared Kushner has been eager to help, seeking workarounds so that the kingdom can acquire power plants without going through Congress. Kushner’s efforts, according to a House Oversight Committee report, would benefit a company that helped bail out the Kushner family business, the first family’s financial interests again frustrating national security. Patterson told me that thwarting Saudi nuclear ambitions is a priority for U.S. security.

Saudi Arabia was among the countries lobbying loudest against the Iran nuclear deal, alongside its new unlikely partner in the shadows, Israel. The Israel-Saudi relationship has been based on realpolitik, collaborating on intelligence operations against Iran and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia’s brutal campaign in Yemen has parallels to Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and the Khashoggi affair revealed Saudi’s ambition to mimic the Israeli intelligence services’ notorious operations abroad.

“The modus operandi of this hit team was like a classic Mossad execution,” Chas Freeman, the veteran diplomat, told me. If that’s true, the Saudis were poor students; it’s hard to imagine such a sloppy Mossad operation. Freeman said that a priority for U.S. diplomats is finding a way for Saudi to dismantle its newly formed hit teams and rendition capacities. “Committing murder in your own consulate is an incredibly stupid thing to do,” he added.

What of continuing to work with a murderer? Saudi Arabia ranks 22nd in U.S. trade, according to the U.S. Trade Representative. This would seem paltry, but there’s massive money to be made in oil and gas infrastructure projects, as evidenced by the decent turnout at the Riyadh investment conference in October, just a month after Khashoggi’s death.

Saudi money also flows to the U.S. in the form of weapons sales, to be sure, but the numbers cited by Trump have proved to be vastly exaggerated, with Trump’s purported $110 billion figure, touted in a March 2018 Oval Office meeting with MBS, shown to be mythical. Only about $4 billion or $5 billion in sales were signed since then, and much higher levels of sales were carried out under Obama. These days, even small-bore deals are getting unwelcome attention. Last year, $61 million worth of weapons made in New Hampshire were sent to Saudi by a company that didn’t want itself named publicly.

Over the past decade, these types of deals—huge orders for weapons that were rarely used, certainly not on the battlefield—were a boon to American defense contractors. Congress enthusiastically supported them. But as images of the grievous attacks and humanitarian crisis in Yemen reach American televisions, this is starting to change.

The Saudis, however, are dependent on expensive U.S. weapons platforms, and it will be difficult for them to begin buying weapons from Russia or China. Their weapons systems and aircraft squadrons are all American, and require almost constant American repairs. As a hardball tactic, Congress could try to pass laws that would effectively ground the Saudi air force. And the next administration could condition close military systems collaboration on Saudi behavior.

There are other avenues of cooperation, and the Saudi government’s role as the custodian of two of three holiest mosques in the Islamic faith have made them important symbolic allies. But gone are the days when Saudis were great financiers of American foreign-policy adventurism, like funding the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the ’80s. The role of Saudi windfall oil profits and petrodollar “recycling,” which was so important to both U.S. banks and Third World oil-consuming countries in the 1980s and 1990s, is also long past.

The human-rights agenda, so often touted as part of U.S. policy, has never held Saudi to much of a standard. Importantly, the Obama administration’s support for the 2011 Arab uprisings frightened the sclerotic Saudi leadership. Washington had sold out Mubarak, its partner of 30 years. “Clearly, we’ve given the Saudis a lesson,” Freeman told me. “We reinforced the thought that we can’t be depended on.”


“A Burgeoning Autocrat”

MBS has rattled previous arrangements to the core. Traditionally, the Royal Court had been a consultative body that, through consensus with tribes and families, reached policy decisions. It was a slow process befitting a conservative kingdom. When King Salman, then 79, took over the throne in 2015, he appointed his 29-year-old son Mohammed as defense minister, making him the youngest in the world. MBS in turn launched an impulsive campaign against a motley militia known as the Houthis who had run much of Yemen since the state’s collapse following the 2011 revolutions. There were some legitimate threats from unstable Yemen, but the Obama administration failed to recognize the threats posed by MBS.

Soon the U.S. was supplying, refueling, and servicing aircraft that Saudi pilots were using to attack targets in Yemen, killing 971 civilians by late summer. The prince found support in the Obama administration. In September 2015, Mohammed bin Salman dined at Secretary of State John Kerry’s home. He took to the piano after dinner to serenade the guests with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. “Everybody was so desperate for change in Saudi that they believed it,” Anne Patterson, who served as the senior Middle East official in the Obama State Department, told me.

While the Yemen war raged, the Obama White House rolled out the red carpet for the then-deputy crown prince, inviting him for a meeting with President Obama in June 2016. This wasn’t the usual protocol for a senior court-member’s visit. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, according to the account of a senior Obama official, said, “Like it or not, he could be the next king.” In the process, the Obama administration had legitimized MBS’s rise.

“We in the Obama administration could be faulted for not taking a firmer line with Mohammed bin Salman on some of the policies saying, hey you can’t do that. Yemen was certainly on our watch,” the official told me. “The signs were there that he could be a burgeoning autocrat.”

From there, MBS exhibited a mastery of public relations, inoculating himself from future criticism by ingratiating himself with so-called thought leaders. But he didn’t hold out the hope of political reform other than on the role of women, which proved to be a brilliant feint that gulled such commentators as Thomas Friedman: His much-touted vision for the country was economic.

On his first overseas trip as president, Donald Trump sword-danced and touched the enigmatic orb in Saudi Arabia. Ever since, Mohammed bin Salman’s destructive actions have accelerated.

Evan Vucci/AP Images

A 2017 lunch in the State Dining Room of the White House included President Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Saudi Arabia's new heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman. 

“Saudis see themselves as a mirror,” said Patterson, the former diplomat. “As long as they have the king (Donald Trump) and the crown prince (Jared Kushner)—they’re okay. They think with Trump in their corner they’ll be fine.”

The story we didn’t hear at the time was the prince’s reputation as “Abu Rasasa,” which translates idiomatically as Mr. Bullet. As a threat, he had mailed a single bullet to a Saudi land registry official, as reported by The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins.

MBS’s coup, however, didn’t require a single bullet. To become crown prince, he sidelined heir apparent Mohammed bin Nayef, 59, the longtime security chief and epitome of the Saudi deep state. In June 2017, MBS had put him under house arrest and badmouthed him in the media as a pain pill–addicted has-been.

“As the members of the royal family look at the crown prince’s behavior, they have to be asking the question, ‘Will the House of Saud survive 50 years of Mohammed bin Salman’s decision-making?’” Riedel, the former intelligence official, told me.


“He Is a Saddam, Clearly”

The brutality of MBS can no longer be overlooked. He has presided over the largest clampdown the kingdom has ever experienced. Many activists are in prison. Some have been tortured or sexually assaulted. And the Trump administration continues to enable him.

Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, secretly traveled to Saudi Arabia in October 2017. A month later, Saudi kidnapped and blackmailed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The U.S. didn’t speak up for the Lebanese head of state. A few days later, MBS held hostage dozens of princes, notably Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, among 400 businessmen in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, conducting what might be called the largest bank robbery in history. He had effectively neutered the country’s wealthiest. The only major impediments to his absolute power were activists, journalists, and religious leaders.

“They are using legal means to kill people because they have different views, because they demand political change, because they demand liberties,” Abdullah Alaoudh, a law scholar at Georgetown University, told me. His father, the cleric Salman Alaoudh, was arrested in 2017. “Just imagine: They are seeking the death penalty against my father for holding similar views to Khashoggi.” Alaoudh described a “pattern of cracking down on dissent, irrespective of ideology,” including liberals, Shiites, and Sunnis.

In early February, the deadline for the Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against Khashoggi’s killers passed. Under the act, which was passed in 2015, the president has expansive power to sanction foreign individuals who commit “gross violations” of human rights, like extrajudicial killings. The same week, a U.N. rapporteur called the Khashoggi affair “planned and perpetuated by officials” of Saudi Arabia. “Our leadership is a red line,” the kingdom wrote on social media with a threatening photo of the king and the crown prince. “We warn against any attempt to link Khashoggi’s crime to our leadership.” But in a kingdom where all decisions are taken by the micromanaging crown prince, the line was hardly plausible.

Expect Congress to be increasingly aggressive in their condemnations. Eighteen Republicans crossed the aisle to pass a February 13 House resolution to stop aiding the Yemen war, invoking the rarely used War Powers Resolution. Further action might include holding back appropriations, blocking arms sales, and maybe passing sanctions targeting specific individuals in the Saudi government, making it difficult for them to travel to the U.S.

“I think he is a Saddam, clearly,” a senior Senate aide told me. “We need to make clear to Saudi Arabia: Your relationship is not going to be what it potentially could be while you have someone like this at the top.”

For Congress, the most urgent task at hand—and the most doable—is ending all support for the war in Yemen and investing in that country’s renewal. The crown prince’s rise is intimately tied to the grave humanitarian crisis he has perpetuated there, fueled by American weaponry and logistical support. Ending the Yemen war is a no-brainer given that the conflict is empowering al-Qaeda and ISIS, while exacerbating human tragedy that will lead a generation to hate America for selling its weapons to Saudi Arabia. Halting the war is an important goal unto itself, and it has the added knock-on effect of punishing Mohammed bin Salman.

But bigger changes are needed. More broadly, this is an opportunity to reassess the core oil-for-security bargain in the Arabian Peninsula.


“A Leading Contributor of Political Stability”

The Department of Defense is required to document the criteria for each arms deal that passes its desk. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, a milquetoast run-on sentence can justify a $1.3 billion transaction:

This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of an important partner which has been and continues to be a leading contributor of political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.

Each and every word in that rationale ought to be debated among policymakers. Important partners don’t murder journalists, least of all those employed by The Washington Post; endless wars don’t serve national interests, and political stability is not a one-man show. The brand of “political stability and economic progress” that Saudi represents is a dangerous one indeed.

As American energy production expands (and increases further with a growing shift to renewables), the U.S. will have more space to recalibrate its relationship with the kingdom. A policy review would note that the free flow of oil and counterterrorism efforts remain priorities. Other aspects of the relationship, like cooperation on Islamic and religious issues, could benefit both countries but have largely languished. Overall, MBS’s rashness threatens the balance on each and every component of the relationship, adding a severe cost to Washington for even pursuing the same old approach.

A conversation might begin privately between senior officials of both countries. But if Riyadh is unwilling to remove MBS from day-to-day policymaking and loosen constraints on Saudi activists, media, and religious actors, then it’s a message that Washington should convey publicly, much like it did against China in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. And unlike the weak U.S. follow-up after Tiananmen, this time America’s warnings should be followed by action.

Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/Pool via AP

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, as he departs from the airport in Riyadh on January 14 

Americans and Saudis not beholden to MBS need to work together to advance structural changes to ensure that no single impulsive prince could hold the entire kingdom hostage to his poorly thought through policies. “There are no actual institutions, no rule of law,” Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scholar and activist, told me. “The only people in a position to do anything are allies of Saudi Arabia in the so-called liberal world.”

There are three strategic goals that the United States should seek to advance within Saudi Arabia. First, Washington should urge a return to a consensus system of checks and balances within the royal court. Second, institutions independent of the House of Saud, like the attorney general’s office and other transparent agencies, must be bolstered to create new systems of justice. Executions and torture can no longer be tolerated. Third, Saudi Arabia must open up the country to free expression. This will be a gradual process, and to ensure it goes forward, American companies might condition their participation in the kingdom on such reforms, or the U.S. government could limit their freedom of action as it had done in the case of other totalitarian regimes during the Cold War and in the case of North Korea and Iran. In exchange for achieving progress toward these outcomes, the U.S. would provide even more security guarantees to the kingdom.

This is a regime with tenuous legitimacy and thus in a state of constant paranoia. Saudi recognizes that it is under strain from its population, which it bought off with cash subsidies after the Arab Spring. But it won’t be able to buy off its citizens in perpetuity. There has already been significant capital flight from Saudi since the Ritz roundup and drops in international investing in the country. MBS’s Public Investment Fund has only so much liquid cash to buy back Saudi stocks on bad market days.

Among the points of leverage not often discussed is that Saudi does need economic change. For Mohammed bin Salman to achieve his purported post–oil economy reforms which would make Saudi more attractive for global investment, he has to have the cooperation of major American institutions, including hedge funds, private-equity shops, and more. The U.S. can make it easier or harder on him in terms of working with those firms. We can give them top cover—and both sides stand to make money—or we can name and shame financial institutions that have aided and abetted MBS’s worst tendencies, or even prohibit their operations with the kingdom outright. We should also pressure U.S. companies not to provide technology that can be misused against Saudis and sanction Israeli firms that sell vicious spyware to Gulf autocrats.

If Saudi Arabia is unwilling to reform on these three points, then perhaps it is time to raise first-order questions about why the U.S. military is so deeply ensconced in the Middle East and the long-term benefits of such inertia. Washington could begin by considering a path toward a constructive relationship with Iran. Containment of Tehran hasn’t worked, and a move toward rapprochement would theoretically provide the U.S. with more options. Over time, the U.S. might downgrade the Saudi relationship and pursue a new regional strategy, reducing the American military profile in the Persian Gulf, sharing the security burden with European and Asian allies, and perhaps even relocating the U.S. Fifth Fleet currently based in Bahrain. Threatening or carrying out a military pullback is risky, but so is supporting an autocrat increasingly at odds with his own people and bent on destabilizing the region.

An alternative view is that meddling in Saudi affairs could backfire. The Saudi leadership will resent U.S. interference in the court, even among those concerned about MBS’s cruelty. But the perils of a cavalier crown prince increase whether the U.S. intervenes or not. Indeed, it’s the spectrum of American support for MBS across two administrations that has led to this entanglement. The U.S. has a responsibility, after coddling Saudi Arabia for decades, to take a firm line in containing further misadventures. If the U.S. doesn’t try the full tool kit of approaches, then it is condoning MBS’s wet work and assuring that worse is yet to come.

It is worth remembering that Mohammed bin Salman was able to charm Western elites because people were genuinely excited about his efforts to transform the kingdom socially and economically. In hindsight, his promises seem incongruous if not grotesque. But one point is clear: Saudi Arabia desperately needs the reform that the young prince once held out as a promise.  

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