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End the Noxious Saudi Relationship Now

President Donald Trump speaks with Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Spencer Ackerman reports on an attempted kidnapping of a Saudi government critic here in the U.S. in 2018 that was thwarted by the FBI:

A suspected agent of the Saudi government attempted to kidnap a regime critic on American soil, according to the critic and multiple U.S. and foreign sources familiar with the episode. The young Saudi man says the FBI saved him from becoming the next Jamal Khashoggi.

Abdulrahman Almutairi is a 27-year-old comedian and former student at the University of San Diego with a big social-media presence. After Almutairi used social media to criticize the powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over the October 2018 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post contributor Khashoggi, an unidentified Saudi man accompanied Almutairi’s father on a flight to collect Almutairi against his will and bring him back to Saudi Arabia, according to The Daily Beast’s sources.

The Saudi government cannot abide critics from their own country, especially when they have large followings online, but in trying to stifle and kill them they are doing far more damage to their government’s reputation than anything else could have done. The crown prince’s recklessness and ham-fistedness are useful in that they make it harder for Saudi government defenders in U.S. think tanks and newspapers to cover for them. The fact that they were willing to follow up the Khashoggi murder with an abduction on U.S. soil shows that the Saudi government believes they can act with complete impunity.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Saudi agents are willing to try to abduct critics of the government here on U.S. soil. After all, as my colleague Kelley Vlahos discussed in a recent post, this is the same government that helps Saudi nationals suspected of violent crimes to escape U.S. jurisdiction:

Thanks to a law quietly passed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and signed by President Trump in December, we now know that the Saudi government has helped an untold number of its citizens committing crimes here in the U.S. flee back to the Kingdom before facing justice.

This includes Saudis accused of assault, rape and manslaughter, including the 2013 hit-and-run of a 15-year-old girl. It is done, press reports indicate, right under the noses of the FBI, Homeland Security, and “other agencies,” who have not intervened, ostensively because of the special security relationship between the two countries.

If a government is prepared to work against U.S. law enforcement and abet the flight of accused murderers and rapists, it isn’t going to worry about committing other crimes against their own citizens on American soil. Fortunately for Mr. Almutairi, the Saudi government wasn’t allowed to get away with what they were planning in this case. The attempted kidnapping of Almutairi fits in with the Saudi government’s intensified efforts to crack down on dissent and stamping out criticism of the government among Saudis living abroad:

“Abduction is part and parcel of the way the Saudi government has operated for many years,” said Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur. But until MBS became crown prince two years ago, “most victims were part of the royal family. It appears now that their kidnapping attempts are expanding.” Being a Saudi dissident living in America is no protection, she warned: “Absolutely, they will keep trying to lure people in the United States. The only reason why they haven’t succeeded is because the U.S. intelligence agencies are doing their job.”

The crown prince has presided over intensifying authoritarianism and repression in his country, and he has shown that he has no respect for international law or the jurisdiction of other countries in carrying out his vendettas against his critics. He is not going to “learn” or “evolve,” but will continue committing the same abuses for as long as he is in a position of authority. Mohammed bin Salman may very well be on the Saudi throne for decades to come, but no matter how long he is king he should have to do that without the benefit of continued U.S. indulgence and protection. The U.S.-Saudi relationship as it exists today should be brought to an end as quickly as possible. The current administration has neither the courage nor the wisdom to do that, but maybe the next one will.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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