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Pompeo and the Prince

The relationship should serve as a reminder for the U.S. to disentangle itself from the Middle East.

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(Photo credit MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s enthusiasm for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia illustrates the worst of U.S. foreign policy. As secretary of state under President Donald Trump, Pompeo acted as if he were a mob consigliere for the KSA’s Mohammed “Slice‘n’Dice” bin Salman. Even the CIA blamed MbS for the murder and dismemberment of U.S. resident and dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Yet Pompeo continued to visit Riyadh, defending the Saudi royals from criticism of their selfish criminality and ostentatious brutality.

Currently on the road promoting his memoirs, Pompeo, an avowed Christian and human rights advocate, dismissed Khashoggi’s murder. Observed Pompeo of the murder victim: the latter was a journalist “to the extent that I, and many other public figures are journalists. We sometimes get our writing published, but we also do other things.” Khashoggi didn’t deserve to die, allowed Pompeo, but the murder was no biggie in his view. After all, Pompeo argued, the crown prince “will prove to be one of the most important leaders of his time, a truly historic figure on the world stage.” No doubt, MbS has triggered a dramatic social transformation of the Kingdom, which the royals long ruled like the Taliban with cash. Indeed, in the space of just a few years, superficially, Saudi Arabia seems almost like a normal country.

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Louise Callaghan of the Times of London has offered a fascinating look at the new KSA:

Over the past half-decade the kingdom has undergone a social and economic transformation so dramatic it is without comparison. Changes to the law and relaxations of strict societal codes have allowed women to divorce in online courts against their husbands’ wishes; travel without permission from their male guardian; wear jeans and T-shirts; drive. Young Saudi men and women make lattes in Starbucks side by side, drive taxis, write code for tech companies. Alcohol and drugs are banned, but—like anywhere else in the world—there are ways of finding them, and it seems to be becoming easier.

Understandably, the young in particular are relieved to escape seventh-century Islamic rule. Alas, that liberation has provided cover for the crown prince to construct an even more brutal political tyranny and extirpate any faith other than Islam. Observed Callaghan: “The festivals, the parties, the loosened social restrictions all come at a price: complete obedience and devotion to MBS. Pledge loyalty to him and he will protect you. Wrong him, or even fail to be enthusiastic enough in your support of his transformational project, and you’re at risk.”

The Kingdom languishes near the bottom of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index, scoring just 7 out of a possible 100 in terms of civil and political freedom:

Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. Women and religious minorities face extensive discrimination in law and in practice. Working conditions for the large expatriate labor force are often exploitative.

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The Kingdom as ruled by Pompeo’s “historic” figure is more repressive than China, Russia, and Iran. True, the KSA is not the very worst, with North Korea, Eritrea, and Turkmenistan falling slightly further into Freedom House’s cellar. Nevertheless, the Kingdom has it all, including the totalitarian vanishing act: “One by one, poor or rich, city dweller or villager, people are disappearing in Saudi Arabia—taken to detention centers or prisons. Sometimes their names are publicized, sometimes they vanish without a word,” observed Callaghan.

Even the seemingly unimportant and unexceptional, including foreigners, are not safe. For instance, wrote Callaghan, “Saad Ibrahim Almadi, a 72-year-old American citizen with Saudi origins, was arrested in 2021 when he arrived in the kingdom for what was supposed to be a two-week trip. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison for a number of charges including terrorism and trying to destabilize Saudi Arabia.” His crime, according to his son, were a few tweets critical of the Saudi government.

Indeed, given the enormity of MbS’s crimes, it is difficult to believe that Pompeo believes his own rhetoric. Likely more important is Pompeo’s appreciation of the benefits of catering to the crown prince’s whims. For instance, the Saudi royal family’s Washington minions made the case that selling the munitions that did the killing was good business. Pompeo agreed and, reported the New York Times, “met with other top administration officials and discussed declaring an emergency to release the arms—something that had occurred only rarely in the past. Soon after, they decided to fast-track the sales... .”

Pompeo justified his decision based on Iranian support for Yemeni insurgents, but it was Saudi Arabia that internationalized an internal conflict running back decades. MbS casually invaded Yemen to reinstall a friendly puppet regime in a campaign expected to last a few weeks. However, Riyadh largely lost the ensuing conflict, which continues eight bloody years later. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in this needless war, underwritten by the U.S. Last week, the United Nations announced it needed to raise $4.3 billion for humanitarian aid for Yemen: An incredible 21.6 million people, two-thirds of the population, are dependent on outside assistance.

Yemen is MbS’s most grotesque crime—he launched the war before seizing the position of crown prince, ousting and later “disappearing” his cousin. However, that is not Riyadh’s only criminal and destructive foreign policy. The Kingdom kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, underwrote radical jihadist insurgents in Syria, launched a diplomatic and economic assault against Qatar (with military invasion barely averted), and sent troops to back Bahrain’s dictatorial, minority Sunni monarchy against Shia democracy advocates. It’s quite a record.

What conceivable justification is there for turning the U.S. into a supplicant to such a regime? The justification long was oil, but energy is an increasingly diverse global market. Moreover, the licentious, lascivious, and luxurious Saudi royals must sell oil to survive. Without it, MbS couldn’t afford his palaces, yachts, and Rembrandts. The same incentive would apply to anyone who overthrew the royals, though self-preservation appears to be the one task they take seriously.

The other traditional reason for embracing—alongside presidential hand-holding and kissing—Riyadh’s rulers was to indirectly support Israel. However, the latter is a regional superpower and had developed a discreet security relationship with the Gulf monarchies to counter Iran. This is no justification for the U.S. to underwrite Saudi tyranny.

Today there are fears of Russia and China supplanting America in the Kingdom. But so what? Riyadh’s cooperation with Russia, a major oil producer, is inevitable. So is trade with China, the world’s most important trading nation and major oil buyer. If Moscow and Beijing want to offer the KSA security guarantees, Washington should celebrate shifting the royal deadweight from Uncle Sam’s shoulders. Alas, neither Russia nor China is stupid enough to do so. They prefer to leave the burden on America.

After the embarrassing humiliation of President Joe Biden begging MbS to hike oil production, it should be obvious that Washington has no special influence in Riyadh. President Donald Trump deserves credit for refusing to start a war with Iran for the royals. Unfortunately, Biden appears to have abandoned his plan to penalize MbS and reevaluate the U.S.-Saudi relationship, despite his promises. Instead of continuing to treat U.S. military personnel as royal bodyguards, Washington should establish a normal relationship, at least as normal as possible.

That process should start with the end of arms sales and service support for existing U.S. weapons in the Saudi arsenal. Three successive administrations have made the American people accomplices to the war in Yemen. Washington’s highest priority toward the Kingdom today should be ending the humanitarian horror.

The Biden administration also should encourage Riyadh to take over responsibility for its and the region’s defense. That should include the Saudis and Emiratis, in particular, seeking to normalize relations with Iran. The latter poses no military threat to America, which should exit the Sunni-Shia contest. (The latest public protests in Iran give hope of a democratic transformation, but past U.S. policy has been an obstacle and Washington has few practical means to advance that end today.) Commercial relationships, oil and other, should continue with Saudi Arabia, as well as support for freedom reforms. The U.S. should be particularly insistent when its citizens are jailed for activities conducted while in America.

Pompeo’s embrace of the Saudis offers a welcome reminder of the desperate need for Uncle Sam to disentangle from the Mideast’s many conflicts. Despite claims from the Kingdom’s D.C. lobby, Riyadh is not a vital ally of America; indeed, Saudi Arabia is no ally at all. Washington should stop empowering a regime that more often undermines than advances U.S. interests in the region.