The grisly murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian security agents, and the kingdom’s admission that the killing was premeditated, predictably set off worldwide speculation about the possible impact the case will have on relations between the kingdom and its longtime partner and protector, the United States.
Khashoggi, self-exiled from his native country because Saudi government had made his position untenable, lived in the United States, wrote columns for the Washington Post, and was widely known and respected among diplomats and journalists. His death commanded attention.
It was inevitable that some members of Congress and outraged media commentators would call for a strong American response. After all, the United States is no longer dependent on Saudi oil, so why should it still do business as usual with an increasingly autocratic and oppressive regime? Even Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man widely believed to have ordered the hit on Khashoggi, denounced the crime as “heinous.”
Mohammed bin Salman as an individual may have forfeited the admiration he had earned for his energy and domestic social liberalization, but his country and the United States can be expected to remain close.
Could the United States, which claims to stand for human rights and freedom of the press everywhere, gloss over a savage killing for which the Saudi government, at some level if not the crown prince himself, was clearly responsible? The answer is probably yes, regardless of President Trump’s criticism of the “worst cover-up in history” and business executives declining to show up at the kingdom’s international investment conference in Riyadh.
Mohammed bin Salman as an individual may have forfeited the admiration he had earned for his energy and domestic social liberalization, but his country and the United States can be expected to remain close. Both countries have too much at stake to risk a serious breach in their economic and security relationship. Pragmatic considerations will prevail over the moral outrage, as they always have.
In the 73 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz al-Saud forged the improbable partnership between two societies that had nothing common, the United States has never allowed the fate of any individual or group, or any other human rights issue, to jeopardize the relationship.
Saudi Arabia’s deplorable human rights record is hardly a secret in Washington. Every year, the State Department’s worldwide human rights report flogs the Saudis over arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, restrictions on religious freedom, torture of prisoners, constraints on the press, and abuse of the country’s Shia minority.
But those reports never affect strategic or economic policy, as evidenced by the fact that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have met with the crown prince since Khashoggi’s death. The jovial demeanor Pompeo displayed as he and Mohammed posed for photographs was hardly that of an angry critic.
Even President Jimmy Carter, who in the 1970s made human rights a cornerstone of his foreign policy, was deferential to the Saudis because he wanted something from them that was more important than fair trials or the status of women: he wanted their endorsement, or at least acceptance, of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s Middle East peace initiative and the Camp David accords. He didn’t get it, but that did not stop him from working closely with Saudi Arabia to challenge the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, another issue that was more urgent than human rights.
The kingdom is a proudly patriarchal, conservative, and religious society that believes its way is God’s way. It is not apologetic about its customs or practices.
Ever since the administration of President Harry S. Truman in the early 1950s, U.S. policy toward the kingdom has been consistent: we are in Saudi Arabia for economic and strategic reasons, we are not there to tell them how to manage their internal affairs or organize their society, however odious we may find some of their ways.
Truman’s State Department put that policy in writing: “Saudi Arabia as a long way to go to meet the social standards and responsibilities of other nations, but is trying very hard to improve itself and it has done well” despite a “serious internal obstacle in the fanatical religious opposition to change and the growth of Western influences.
It behooves us, therefore, to applaud what Saudi Arabia has done and is doing, and not criticize it for what it has not yet been able to do.” That policy statement recognized that Saudi Arabia has never been amenable to tutelage from outsiders about human rights issues. The kingdom is a proudly patriarchal, conservative, and religious society that believes its way is God’s way.
It is not apologetic about its customs or practices. That attitude was vividly displayed in August when Saudi Arabia responded to a routine call from Canada for the release of a detained activist by recalling its ambassador, canceling the national airline’s flights to Canada, and relocating Saudi students from Canadian universities to other countries.
Understanding that prickly attitude, the United States has generally deferred to the Saudis on internal affairs, making possible an enduring bilateral relationship that both countries have found useful. Which is likely to continue. The Trump administration’s imposition of visa restrictions on Saudi agents already detained in the Khashoggi case is a token gesture that Saudi Arabia has shown to tolerate.
This is not to say that bilateral relations have always been positive. Over the seven-plus decades of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, both countries have sometimes made decisions or adopted policies that infuriated the other.
American military commanders have been telling Congress for years that Saudi Arabia is a critical link in the network of American military operations all across the Middle East.
The Saudis, for example, were outraged when Truman recognized Israel immediately after it declared independence in 1948, and they objected strongly when the U.S. invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Americans were angry when Saudi Arabia joined the Arab oil embargo during the 1973 Middle East war when the kingdom secretly purchased nuclear-capable Chinese missiles in 1988, and of course when most of the hijackers in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks turned out to be Saudi citizens.
After those attacks, and after an armed uprising by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that began in 2003, many American residents left the kingdom and did not return. Many Saudi students at American universities went home. By that time, the close tutor-pupil relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia was already waning because the Saudis were increasingly capable of taking care of themselves: they had electricity, water, modern cities, and an increasingly educated workforce.
They no longer needed American companies for all their big infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, after an inevitable period of strain and suspicion following the 9/11 attacks, the relationship stabilized and survived, if mostly on a less personal level compared to early years.
Most American troops were withdrawn from Saudi Arabia after the country served as a staging ground for the invasion of Iraq. But the United States remains deeply enmeshed in all aspects of Saudi national security: military supply and training, intelligence and counter-terrorism operations, and cyber warfare.
When President George W. Bush visited Riyadh in 2008, the two countries created a Joint Commission on Infrastructure and Border Protection to secure oil fields, desalination plants, and other critical facilities against attack or sabotage, whether by Iran or by domestic militants.
One result was the creation of new Saudi paramilitary unit, the 35,000-man Facilities Security Force, which is trained and equipped by Americans, as the National Guard has been since the 1970s and the regular armed forces since the 1950s. American military commanders have been telling Congress for years that Saudi Arabia is a critical link in the network of American military operations all across the Middle East.
The overall trade in goods and services between the United States and Saudi Arabia exceeded $45 billion in 2017, according to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Those security relationships remain in place, and neither country is interested in disrupting them over the fate of an individual. President Trump made that clear almost as soon as it became clear that the Saudi government was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Trump said he did not want to cut off billions of dollars in pending weapons sales because doing so would result in lost jobs in the U.S. defense industry. Nor is the economic traffic between the two countries limited to military commerce: the two countries are major investors in each other.
Sadara Chemical Co. for example, one of the largest chemical processing facilities anywhere, is a joint venture between Dow Chemical Co. and Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. In another joint venture, created in 2009, Alcoa and the Saudi state mining company created the world’s largest ore-to-finished project aluminium factory.
Mars, the giant candy and snack company, opened a new factory at Rabigh, on the Red Sea Coast, in 2014. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has increased its investments in the United States, including a large stake in Uber. China has been the biggest foreign buyer of Saudi oil since 2009, but the economic ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia are no longer a function of the oil business.
The overall trade in goods and services between the United States and Saudi Arabia exceeded $45 billion in 2017, according to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Those business and security relationships are likely to continue indefinitely except in the unlikely event of a change of government in Riyadh. That does not mean, however, that the high esteem with which Trump administration held the Saudi crown prince before the Khashoggi affair has not been diminished.
It is widely recognized in Washington that the impetuous, ambitious prince, is responsible for strategic and tactical blunders that have not benefitted his country or the United States: the blockade of neighboring Qatar, home to the largest U.S. military base in the Gulf, a move that disrupted U.S. military planning and operations; the absurd spat with Canada; and a failed commitment to privatize part of the state oil company.
As for the crown prince, the consensus among Saudi Arabia experts in Washington is that his position, and his eventual accession to the throne, are not in jeopardy because he has ruthlessly neutralized all potential opponents in the ruling family.
And then there is the prince’s war in Yemen, which the United States continues to support with ammunition, intelligence and logistical assistance for a Saudi-led bombing campaign. That campaign has brought famine, destruction, and mass death to what was already the Arab world’s poorest country, with no clear objective and no end in sight. Before the Khashoggi affair, some members of Congress were already uncomfortable with U.S. participation in that fruitless conflict.
When Congress resumes work after the mid-term U.S. elections in November, there may be a growing chorus of members seeking to cut off that military assistance. If Congress does that and President Trump consents, it will be Washington’s only serious move against Saudi Arabia. What Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States that revealed Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s death, will do about it remains to be seen.
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As for the crown prince, the consensus among Saudi Arabia experts in Washington is that his position, and his eventual accession to the throne, are not in jeopardy because he has ruthlessly neutralized all potential opponents in the ruling family. He has full control of all security forces, which formerly reported to different princes. But as a person, he has now damaged goods in Washington. He can expect a long wait before his next friendly one-on-one meeting with a president of the United States.
Thomas W. Lippman is a journalist and author, specializing in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia–United States relations. A graduate of Columbia University. Lippman spent more than 30 years with The Washington Post as a writer, editor, and diplomatic correspondent. He is currently serving as an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.