Analysts have heralded the Khashoggi scandal—the mysterious killing of Saudi-born Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October—as the biggest rift in U.S.-Saudi relations since the September 11 attacks. The truth is, as repugnant as this crime was, it was simply the latest play in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) aggressive domestic and foreign policy.
In November 2017, MbS carried out a wide-ranging anti-corruption purge, which included detaining dozens of royals, business leaders, and billionaires at the Ritz Carleton in Riyadh. The next month, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was detained in the Saudi royal offices and given a prewritten resignation speech, which he then was made to read on Saudi television. In August 2018, there was the diplomatic brouhaha that ensued between the Canadians and the Saudis over Ottawa’s criticism of the jailing of Saudi rights activists. If those examples weren’t enough evidence of MbS’ reckless gambit, one might consider the travesty of the 3+ year proxy war being carried out by Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen—one of the worst humanitarian crisis to date, according to the United Nations.
The mistake is to think that Washington knows and understands its longtime ally. Saudi Arabia has changed drastically over the past several decades, as has the region it inhabits. What’s more, it has finally made the long-awaited generational change from the sons of Abdulaziz Al Saud to the grandson of the first monarch and founder of Saudi Arabia in all but name. But most importantly, Mohammad bin Salman is not of the old guard. He is doing things his way, and there is not much to stop him. The idea that Saudi Arabia was once ruled by consensus but now has all of the state’s power concentrated in the hands of one would-be king underestimates the role of Saudi kings in the past. MbS’ hand is freer, but not free. And the kings of old indeed had considerations, but the ruler of the House of Saud still reigned supreme. All this is to say that the current amount of power being wielded by MBS does not eclipse that of all his predecessors, though they may be more brash and lacking discretion.
Also, to look at the recklessness or the failures in a vacuum is inadvisable because it would lead one to believe that MbS does not have the support of the vast majority of Saudis—to the extent that it even matters in this region. The youth bulge, unemployment, and the collective bridling under the reigns of religious conservativism have been at the fore of his mind and his initiatives. Preparing the next generations of Saudis to compete in the global market; preparing financially for the end of the era of Saudi oil; dismantling the grip of Saudi clerics on society; and granting women greater freedoms such as the right to drive unaccompanied have gone a long way to win over segments of society. But don’t mistake these initiatives for benevolence. In fact, quite the opposite is true. MbS seems prepared to see his vision brought to life using all the means he has at his disposal.
There are those who argue that the Khashoggi affair and ensuing “bilateral rift” has given the U.S. greater leverage to push for an end to the Yemen campaign and extra ammunition to end the embargo of Qatar, which the United States desperately needs in order to box in Iran after the November 4 reinstatement of sanctions. In terms of the former, October saw a slew of comments from high-ranking U.S. officials calling for a cessation of hostilities in Yemen. For example, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis declared at an event at the US Institute of Peace in Washington: “Thirty days from now we want to see everybody around a peace table based on a ceasefire, based on a pullback from the border and then based on ceasing dropping of bombs.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed these sentiments saying, “The United States calls on all parties to support UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in Yemen.” Despite these calls, what is the United States prepared to do if the 30 days pass and the conflict in Yemen still rages on? In terms of the latter, the failed embargo of Qatar has done little except encourage Doha to reroute its imports and get closer to Tehran. Not only was Qatar able to bypasses the land block via sea lanes by diverting its food imports through the Port of Bushehr in Iran and ferrying them in, but also in the fall of 2017, Qatar signed a trilateral agreement with Iran and Turkey to boost trade amid the Saudi-led blockade. This resulted in Iran’s exports to Qatar reaching $248 million per year—a 140% growth.
To think that the United States has the ability to reign in its longtime ally in Riyadh is a naïve miscalculation. Domestically, like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have become partisan issues—a situation that more often than not leads to mixed messages and political immobility. In the Saudi case in particular, personal relationships between MbS, the U.S. President, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner muddy the waters further. Internationally, as American Enterprise Institute’s Karen E. Young pointed out earlier this month, shunning countries and creating consequences for egregious behavior is a policy that is often applied unevenly; just look at how the United States gives China a pass on similar human rights violations. She noted aptly, “There is a false dichotomy between supporting the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and therefore creating a 40-year reign of terror, and following a more values-driven foreign policy to undermine and shun him with the expectation of a change in leadership.” The United States has had a poor record of enticing or even compelling this type of top-level behavioral change for at least the past several decades, but specifically since the 2011 Arab Uprisings. The current isolationist trend in the United States only adds to the notion that the United States government currently has no appetite for stirring the international pot.
What is more likely in the end is that this diplomatic kerfuffle will be eclipsed by the next big story, and as the title of this piece implies, the Khashoggi scandal won’t change much.