End the Noxious U.S.-Saudi Relationship
The Saudi reformers have allies in Washington, but they will lose them if they aren’t transparent about Jamal Khashoggi’s fate.
If the latest outrage from Mohammed bin Salman changes anything, it should at the very least put an end to the absurd description of the crown prince and his allies as “reformers” once and for all. Reformer is a label that Western pundits and politicians use to describe foreign leaders when they want to express approval and support. It is often not intended to be an accurate statement about the leader’s record, but rather serves to distract from the worst parts of that record in order to sell the leader to Western audiences. Foreign leaders know that they can win a lot of supporters in the West just by saying the right things about a handful of issues, and as long as they keep up appearances their Western boosters will overlook or even defend the worst excesses.
All Mohammed bin Salman had to do was talk about moderate Islam and diversifying the Saudi economy and then emphasize his hatred for Iran, and his fans were immediately hooked by the promise of what he might do in the future. In return, they studiously ignored the many horrible things he was doing in the present, they shifted blame for the war on Yemen to others, or they made lame attempts to spin his purge as an “anti-corruption drive.” The problem for his fans was that Mohammed bin Salman’s pattern of reckless behavior didn’t stop and wasn’t limited only to his foreign policy debacles. The cruelty and incompetence that the Saudi coalition has displayed in the war on Yemen have been replicated in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs as well. The kingdom’s intensifying repression and arbitrary arrests have scared off foreign investment, caused massive capital flight, and exposed the makeover that pro-Saudi P.R. firms have tried to give the kingdom as the sham that it always was.
The crown prince has already proven himself to be an impetuous, clumsy, inept, and brutal ruler, and no one should have any illusions at this point about what the Saudi government is going to be like as long as he is in power. The war on Yemen was the earliest, biggest, and most destructive proof of this, and there have been many more examples in the last three and a half years. By itself, Khashoggi’s murder should severely strain relations between Saudi Arabia and its Western patrons. As the latest in a string of outrages and crimes, it should force a serious reassessment of the current relationship that the U.S. has with Riyadh. That relationship is noxious, and it can’t be allowed to continue in its current form. We know in advance that the Trump administration will do the bare minimum it can get away with in response to the Saudi government’s murder of a journalist and U.S. resident, but this crime may be flagrant and appalling enough to turn many more members of Congress against supporting and arming the Saudis.