It’s appealing to believe that Saudi Arabia used to be better than this. Doing so allows us to absolve ourselves of our responsibility for helping to create the current monster.
The conventional wisdom goes something like this: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who is effectively ruling the kingdom — is a young whippersnapper who doesn’t understand yet that he can’t do exactly what he wants, when he wants. Once he does, though, he will be the great Gulf Arab reformer the world desperately needs.
In this view, reports of his abuses of power merely reflect the growing pains of a monarch who, in all likelihood, will be around for many years to come. So why not get on board?
Meanwhile, as my colleague David Ignatius expertly captures in his recent essay on Washington-Riyadh relations, the Saudis are trying to spread the message that the royal family realizes it has run afoul of its American patrons and wants to make amends. Current tensions are no big deal — nothing more than a blip in more than seven decades of mutually beneficial relations between Washington and Riyadh.
None of this, however, is true.
The Saudi royal family is known for great excess not only in the use of its incredible wealth but also in how its members exert power over their subjects. The only difference between the crown prince and his predecessors seems to be that he believes that his authority knows no bounds, literally, and is not confined to the borders of his family’s kingdom.
Mohammed bin Salman hardly came from nowhere. Since 2015, when he became Saudi Arabia’s minister of defense, he has been one of the region’s most recognizable hotheads.
Crucially, despite a growing international backlash against his aggressive and erratic behavior, he’s not showing any real signs that he believes his worldview needs altering. If anything, he continues to push the limits of rational leadership.
Recent events tell the story of an autocrat who shows little regard for borders or international law. This past weekend, several reports painted a vivid portrait of Mohammed bin Salman’s character — from the alleged hacking of Post owner Jeff Bezos’s cellphone to a leaked document about the horrific treatment of Saudi political prisoners. The latter showed especially clearly what Saudi citizens can expect if they take the crown prince’s talk of reform seriously.
In fact, though, little of this behavior represents a radical departure from the past. The insane and unjustifiable war on Yemen, the jailing without due process of everyone from fellow princes to women’s rights activists, and the murder of Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi fit neatly into a long-established pattern.
We’ve known about the reality of Saudi Arabia and the forces it has helped to fuel since at least Sept. 12, 2001. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens; U.S. congressional investigators revealed ties between the terrorists and well-connected supporters in the kingdom.
The relationship has been on shaky grounds for years. But Saudi money — in the form of investment in U.S. business as well as in our policy institutions — has helped to greenlight the Saudis’ worst tendencies. It’s time to put that to an end.
We must stop the era of Saudi impunity. Trump’s failure to do so is one of his worst yet.
For now the Saudi Embassy remains open. Prince Khalid bin Salman, the crown prince’s brother (and deputy defense minister), is still welcome in town. He met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just last week.
A growing number of U.S. lawmakers, though, are beginning to reassess the relationship. The current pushback in Congress is not new. It’s been quietly bubbling for years. The difference is that it can now be discussed in the open, with a frankness and a vehemence we’ve never really seen before.
Weakening Saudi influence in the Middle East — but also in Washington — was a core, but unspoken, goal of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Officials in the previous administration understood the status quo was untenable. The hubris of the Saudi royal family is not a new phenomenon.
One need not be in favor of the brutal regime in Tehran to understand that the regime right across the Persian Gulf is capable of acts just as sinister. Both are atrocious on human rights, wield enormous leverage in the form of their massive energy reserves, have aided terrorist groups that have targeted the United States and our allies, and have shown unending desire to extend their spheres of influence.
Traditionally, one of the two sides has learned to use its ample resources to whitewash its many transgressions in an effort to be seen as a benign or even positive force in a restive part of the world. The other has failed miserably to capture anything close to sympathy from the international community.
Ultimately, though, this is a moment of reckoning for the United States. For years, we’ve been presented with a false choice among potential partners in the Gulf. When our leaders say that we have to pick either Riyadh or Tehran, don’t believe them. The real answer should be “none of the above.”