Mohammed bin Salman: Too Big to Fail
A month after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, an international consensus is emerging about how to respond: deplore the crime, demand justice, but don’t cut ties with the kingdom. In particular, don’t cut off Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man widely believed to have ordered the killing of the dissident journalist.
The ambitious, impetuous crown prince, known as MbS, is probably damaged goods as a person. He’s unlikely to receive another lavish welcome in Silicon Valley any time soon. But he has become the diplomatic equivalent of some big banks: too big to fail.
In Washington, the Khashoggi affair has become a catalyst for a reassessment of Saudi Arabia’s relentless war in Yemen and its futile boycott of neighboring Qatar. But no leader of any major country has announced a decision to blackball the prince or cut commercial or strategic ties with his country. Nor are such leaders calling directly on King Salman to remove his son from his powerful posts or curtail his responsibilities. The prospect of instability in the kingdom has spooked many officials and analysts who fear the consequences of an overt power struggle in the ruling family.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has suspended weapons sales to await the outcome of Saudi Arabia’s investigation of the murder. That sounds like strong action, but it’s a whitewash. The chances that the investigation will conclude that MbS was responsible for Khashoggi’s death are close to zero, and nobody else whom the inquiry may blame carries much importance to outsiders.
French president Emmanuel Macron said that he had called King Salman to ask that the full facts about the crime be disclosed. But Macron also said that it makes no sense to cut off weapons sales. Doing so would be “pure demagoguery,” he said. Those who committed the crime may face sanctions, he said, but the sale of weapons “has nothing to do with Mr. Khashoggi. One shouldn’t mix everything up.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a similar note, saying that Saudi Arabia’s regional efforts to contain Iran are the overriding issue. “What happened in the Istanbul consulate was horrendous and it should be duly dealt with,” he said. “Yet at the same time I say it, it is very important for the stability of the world, for the region and for the world, that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”
Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while blasting Saudi Arabia for a crime committed in his country, pulled his punches against the crown prince. “We know the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government,” he wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post. “I do not believe for a second that King Salman, the custodian of the holy mosques, ordered the hit on Khashoggi. Therefore, I have no reason to believe that his murder reflected Saudi Arabia’s official policy.” He refrained from mentioning MbS. But if King Salman did not give the order and it “came from the highest levels of the Saudi government,” who else but the crown prince could it have been? As angry as he has appeared throughout the month since the killing, Erdogan said that he “would like to stress that Turkey and Saudi Arabia enjoy friendly relations,” despite their differences on other issues, such as the Qatar boycott.
Trump Administration Response
President Trump and senior officials in his administration have walked this fine line almost from the beginning, criticizing the crime and promising to sanction those found responsible but stressing the value of the longstanding U.S. strategic and economic ties to the kingdom. Trump denounced what he called “the worst cover-up ever,” but he has said repeatedly that he does not want to curtail arms sales because doing so would cut jobs for American workers. The administration has largely shrugged off calls for strong action from some members of Congress.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Trump “has made very clear not only do we have important commercial relationships, but important strategic relationships, national security relationships with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we intend to make sure that those relationships remain intact.”
“There’s no change with any military relationship we have with Saudi Arabia,” the commander of U.S. military forces in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, said last week. “From the military perspective, I characterize the relationship as strong, deep, and I think a beneficial one for us. They have been a—they’re an extraordinarily important security partner in the region.”
In comments to Defense One magazine, Votel said:
Saudi Arabia is an extraordinarily influential and important leader of the Arab world within the region. And for that particular reason, other partners in the region often look to Saudi Arabia for a lead, for leadership, direction, and how they approach broader security concerns. So, a nation that plays that role in the region is important to us because it contributes to the interests that we have in the region: of addressing terrorism and preventing it from coming to our shores, of promoting stability in the area, of promoting freedom of navigation.
Independent commentators in academia and the media have for the most part accepted such arguments, decrying Khashoggi’s killing while acknowledging Saudi Arabia’s strategic and economic importance. They know that the United States has never put its relationship with Saudi Arabia on the line over any human rights issue or over the fate of any individual. Some economic or strategic goal always overrides human rights considerations.
Last week a delegation of prominent evangelical Christians from the United States provided a good example, meeting with the crown prince in Riyadh. Their purpose, they said, was not to endorse him personally but to seek a loosening of restrictions on religious practice in the strictly Muslim kingdom. In a statement, they said:
It was a historic moment for the Saudi Crown Prince to openly welcome Evangelical Christian leaders to the Palace. We were encouraged by the candor of the two-hour conversation with him today. We discussed his “Vision 2030” plan [for economic restructuring], the region, Islam and Christianity. Without question, this is a season of tremendous change in the Middle East, and therefore we have been grateful for the opportunity to meet in-person with key Arab leaders to understand their goals and to ask direct questions. We look forward to building upon these relationships and continuing the dialogue.
Karen E. Young, who studies economic trends in the Gulf region at the American Enterprise Institute, said that it would be a mistake to disrupt the crown prince’s tenure because his economic restructuring plan is too important to the entire region and to American investors, who may have money at stake without being aware of it through their investments in “emerging market” funds. She wrote recently: The direction of the Saudi economy is a bellwether not just for the Middle East, but also of America’s and the world’s. The fate of the Saudi economy is more and more entangled with that of its Gulf neighbors and international investors. In fact, many Americans and Europeans may be surprised to find that they too are invested in Saudi Arabia. Recently, Saudi Arabia and some of its Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, neighbors have been included in international bond indexes and a prominent equity market index.
As for what the people of Saudi Arabia think, there is no way for outsiders to obtain a definitive answer. As happens in every crisis or time of tension, rumors have swirled about unhappiness within the ruling family about MbS and his policies, but the same rumors surfaced when he was completing his purge of royal rivals and his consolidation of power last year.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the United States, told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that his compatriots have rallied to the crown prince because of all the criticism from outside. “People who think there’s going to be any change in the succession are wrong,” Turki said. “The more criticism there is of the crown prince, the more popular he is in the kingdom.”
Perhaps the best hints about the current state of play in Riyadh came last week from Ali Shihabi, president of the Arabia Foundation in Washington, who is widely understood to reflect official thinking.
He wrote that Khashoggi’s murder “has left the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in its weakest diplomatic position since the horrific terror attacks of September 11.” He said it was the latest in a series of blunders that have undermined Saudi Arabia’s standing in the world, including the Yemen war, the Qatar boycott, the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the arrest of several well-known women who had advocated the right to drive.
Nevertheless, he wrote, it is futile to contemplate isolating Saudi Arabia because of its economic power and its oil resources, which take on added importance with the U.S. imposition of sanctions on Iranian exports. In addition, he wrote,
Revisiting the royal succession not only would upend an appointment that has finally put to rest years of political uncertainty over the generational transfer of power within the royal family but also may place at risk the essential reforms that MbS has successfully pushed through, because any successor would likely overturn many of these reforms to gain support from the clerical class and other disgruntled elements of society.
But according to Shihabi, that does not mean there will not be significant change in Riyadh:
In the aftermath of the understandable global outrage at the Khashoggi murder, something will clearly have to give. Within Saudi Arabia, there are already important signs of change. The officials who ordered this criminal and almost laughably incompetent outrage were also MbS’s most aggressive advisors and were particularly uncompromising toward domestic dissent. They have now been fired. This has created more space for moderate and calm-headed voices around the crown prince. This positive step should now be reinforced by a move toward opening more avenues for public debate in the media, particularly on economic and social issues inside the country. In addition, women activists and other moderate critics of the government should be released from prison as soon as possible.
On that, Jamal Khashoggi would have agreed with him.