A very special relationship: the US and Saudi

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent

The United States and Saudi Arabia remain strong allies despite significant challenges in recent years, from 9/11 to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and the war in Yemen. Global Insight assesses what makes the ties that bind the two countries so remarkably resilient.

In the aftermath of the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, there was a flurry of reports that the longstanding US–Saudi relationship was entering uncharted territory. A few weeks later, what the Khashoggi murder has come down to is another testament to the apparently unshakable resilience of the 80-year-old relationship between the world’s most vibrant democracy and the Middle East’s largest absolute monarchy.

At the heart of the stamina of this relationship are major US equities in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia’s time-tested offering of economic and political carrots that help weather even the toughest of storms. The relationship survived the 1973 oil embargo, and even terrorist attack 9/11, in which 15 Saudis took part. Now, it is rebounding from the Khashoggi murder amid widespread outcry over the war in Yemen.

The Saudi ambassador who left Washington over the killing has now returned; a US ambassador to Riyadh has been nominated; and a former royal adviser suspected of playing a central role in the murder is back to his duties. Moreover, an American TV programme critical of the Kingdom was taken off streaming site Netflix; Washington approved $195m upgrades to Riyadh’s missile defences; and Riyadh is investing billions in the US.

Murder at the Embassy

Jamal Khashoggi, a 60-year-old Saudi journalist, was killed at his country’s consulate at the hands of at least 15 Saudi security operatives. The world reacted with deep revulsion as details of his killing and subsequent dismemberment trickled out.

After several iterations, Saudi Arabia admitted the killing under intense global pressure and promised to prosecute the ‘rogue’ culprits. Investigations by several international intelligence agencies, including the CIA, point the finger at 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) as the real force behind the operation.

Saudi Arabia continues to deny the involvement of high-ranking officials. Saud Al-Qahtani, MbS’ top confidante and advisor, is said to have been the key figure in the murder alongside MbS, but despite Saudi assurances, he still advises MbS and has been spotted on overseas trips to neighbouring Abu Dhabi.

Of all the countries publicly outraged over the murder, Saudi Arabia was most concerned about keeping one country on side: the US. The Al-Saud family’s rule over Saudi Arabia, in place since the founding of the Kingdom in 1932, relies heavily on US security guarantees and pledges to intervene if the desert kingdom is attacked. In return, the US receives lucrative perks and near compliance with its often controversial Middle East policies, which are mostly unpopular in the region.

The President’s assertion that it is possible to balance benefits to the US economy against the heinous behaviour of an ally doesn’t hold up to scrutiny

William Hartung
Center for International Policy, Washington

The extreme nature of the murder and the unprecedented media attention surrounding it looked to disrupt this arrangement. After all, the US was the one country that might have been expected to lead with a principled position: Khashoggi was a US resident, a writer for the highly influential US newspaper, the Washington Post, and a former Saudi embassy spokesperson with contacts and friends across America.

To heighten tensions further, MbS’ brother and Saudi ambassador to Washington, Khalid bin Salman, is believed to have played a role in luring Khashoggi to Turkey, where he was killed. If true, this would be interpreted, in the normal scheme of things, as a slap in the face of a close ally.

Initial anger

During the first few days, the crime indeed looked to be seriously testing US relations. Many in America called for firm action or, at a minimum, a change in how the country does business with the Saudis.

Humanitarian activists demonstrating in Makassar, Indonesia, hold a poster of Jamal Khashoggi, 18 October 2018

In October, several top US business leaders boycotted a high-profile gathering in Saudi Arabia. US senators were not shy of passing a measure blaming MbS for the murder, alongside a separate resolution calling for an end to US aid in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has turned into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The US media incessantly called for punitive measures, and President Donald Trump initially threatened ‘severe punishment’ for the perpetrators.

But Trump, perhaps unsurprisingly given his business background, has since made it public that commercial interests are more important than rights or legal issues when it comes US–Saudi relations. Trump quickly made a U-turn and said he will not sacrifice lucrative deals with the cash-rich Kingdom. That alone immediately put the Saudis, lush with petro-dollars, in their favourite comfort zone: namely, business deals in which they are the side controlling the cash flow.

From that day forward, calls in Washington for a more principled position taking into consideration wider rights and justice issues were in vain. ‘The President’s assertion that it is possible to balance benefits to the US economy against the heinous behaviour of an ally doesn’t hold up to scrutiny,’ says William Hartung in an analysis for the Washington-based Center for International Policy. ‘No economic benefit, no matter how large, can justify continuing to arm a regime that has not only killed a journalist in the most brutal way imaginable, but has killed thousands of civilians in indiscriminate bombing attacks in Yemen, many of them with US-supplied bombs and aircraft.’

Back to business

The Saudis and the Americans, particularly under Trump, have been cementing their already strong relationship for use in testing moments such as this. ‘In strategic terms, there’s no question that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is crucial to US interests in the Middle East, no matter who sits in the Oval Office,’ says Federica D’Alessandra, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee. ‘What else this relationship is stacked against – in terms of values, agendas, policies and strategies – and how much weight is given to other factors is what varies depending on the President, but certainly not in absolute terms.’

In addition to massive arms deals, worth $110bn at the last count, there has been a pivot in Washington away from Obama-era policies that favoured dialogue with Riyadh’s regional enemy, Iran, and towards confrontations, which the Saudis prefer. That brought the two countries even closer. The Saudis, who once spearheaded boycotts of Israel, have shown more openness towards the previously taboo issue of a deal with the country. Riyadh openly embraces views espoused by those on the right of the US political spectrum, which make up the majority of President Trump’s supporters, that political Islamic groups, even non-violent ones, should be wiped out.

And, when US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met with MbS in October, at the height of the uproar over Khashoggi’s murder, talks focused mainly on terrorist financing, implementing Iran sanctions and Saudi economic issues.

This was reciprocated as reliably as ever. In late January, the world’s largest energy company, Saudi oil giant Aramco, announced it was ready to pour billions of dollars into the US natural gas sector. The company’s Chief Executive Amin Nasser told Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos that his company will invest more than $10bn into Motiva, its largest US refinery. And that was only the first instalment as part of ten-year plan to invest a total of $150bn in natural gas.

The dance continued. On 8 February, the White House ignored a deadline from Congress to report on findings as to whether MbS was indeed behind the Khashoggi murder. The Senate had requested that the Trump administration come up with a specific determination on the Crown Prince under the the Magnitsky Act, originally passed by Congress in response to the murder of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail.

President Trump went a step further, threatening to veto any measures passed by the Democrats, who now control the House and have vowed to end US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The White House says US troops are not physically fighting in Yemen and that assistance such as intelligence and logistical support do not require legislative approval.

All that courtship after the Khashoggi murder led the Saudi state-run media, on the defensive only weeks ago, to call the winners – and justice is not among them. Relations were out of a critical stage and Saudi newspaper Al-Youm ran headlines like: ‘US-Saudi Relations are Fortified Politically and Strategically’.

The impact of a young prince

But despite the speedy rebound in US–Saudi relations, there’s one major factor Washington may be under-estimating: the Crown Prince himself. Since MbS came into office, relations have faced unprecedented issues.

Immediately after he rose to power in 2015 – with a little nudge from his father, King Salman – MbS struck a close relationship with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Of the same age and with a shared penchant for business, both positioned themselves as linchpins of Trump’s Middle East policies. But, just as quickly, MbS began to leave his fingerprints on policies both foreign and domestic, portraying a tendency for adventurism, uncalculated moves and an absolute certainty of impunity when it comes to US reprisal.

Early in 2015, he launched a war on Yemen, the region’s poorest nation, almost overnight. In 2017, he imposed a siege on neighbouring Qatar and came close to invading the natural gas-rich peninsula. He then arrested members of his own family along with top officials who’d been close allies with Washington, managing to squeeze $100bn out of them against their will.

In April, MbS added to his crackdown a number of activists who’d campaigned for the right for women to drive. Reports from families of imprisoned women indicate they have been exposed to verbal abuse, torture and threats of rape.

He also picked a fight with Canada. After a mildly worded tweet from the Canadian government in August calling for the release of imprisoned Saudi rights activists and reformists, MbS ordered hundreds of Saudi students out of Canada.

A month later, MbS ordered his ministries to find a way out of all Canadian business deals, stopped national airlines flights to the country and froze all future business agreements.

Saudi Arabia needs the US more than the US needs Saudi Arabia. I’m not sure why the Trump administration refuses to have that “tough love” discussion

John Vernon
Former Co-Chair, IBA Human Rights Law Committee

The last (but by no means least) dramatic aspect of the young Prince’s by now well-established adventurism was the Khashoggi murder in October. ‘Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the brutal murder of Khashoggi cast a harsh light on the Kingdom’s unsavoury pattern of domestic abuses under King Salman, including arbitrary arrests and detentions of prominent business and government leaders, civil society activists, women activists and dissident religious leaders,’ says Gerald Feierstein, Senior Vice President of the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

MbS appears to have been emboldened by the perception that Trump’s White House is likely to remain avowedly pro-Saudi as long as lucrative business deals are on the table. For the two years of his presidency, Trump has insisted on viewing Riyadh in almost purely financial terms, refraining from exerting leverage on Riyadh over risky political issues. When former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threw his country’s weight behind attempts to stop Riyadh from invading Qatar, Trump later fired him.

Saudi and Emirati media took credit for the move. ‘Of course, Saudi Arabia, like many other countries that engage in serious violations of human rights, might feel they can act unchallenged, especially when they are shielded by powerful allies such as the US,’ says D’Alessandra, who is Executive Director of the Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security. ‘And it is not just economic power, but also strategic interest that’s at stake in a lot of these relationships.’

This obviously has major implications for the rule of law and could also run counter to US interests. ‘This administration has made no secret that arms sales and Saudi’s support on its hard line with regional rival Iran have been priorities that stack up higher than holding the Kingdom accountable.’ says D’Alessandra. ‘It undermines the US’s own national security interests. Some in Congress agree this is reckless behaviour.’

US President Donald Trump holds a chart of military hardware sales as he welcomes Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office, Washington, US, 20 March 2018 REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

D’Alessandra refers to Congress triggering measures under the Magnitsky Act, and notes a bipartisan bill proposed to block arms sales to Riyadh and impose sanctions on those deemed responsible for the murder as proof of the unpopularity of the White House policies towards Saudi Arabia.

The Trump administration has had no ambassador in Riyadh for the past two years. This has helped give MbS direct access to President Trump through Kushner. It has also deprived Washington of an early warning system to anticipate future Saudi moves. Now, after Khashoggi’s death and Congressional uproar, the US is sending a top diplomat.

In late January, Trump nominated neither a diplomat or an Arabist, as has been the case in the past, but John Abizaid, a former US Army General who oversaw the country’s occupation of Iraq and military operations across the Middle East. Despite his Lebanese roots, it is not clear what influence Abizaid will have on Riyadh or what difference he’ll make in a relationship currently defined almost exclusively by Trump, Kushner and MbS.

‘Saudi Arabia needs the US more than the US needs Saudi Arabia,’ says John Vernon, former Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee. ‘I’m not sure why the Trump administration refuses to have that “tough love” discussion, but one can only surmise. The discussion needs to be something along the lines of “No more surprises; no more government-sanctioned murders; stop the conflicts in Yemen and Qatar; take up your own security efforts; and stop the oppression of women and human rights dissidents in your country.” If they refuse to co-operate, they should be treated as second-tier relationships like Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey. They should start now because 2020 is coming and the US is no longer as dependent on Saudi’s natural resources.’

But, by being a key security ally in the face of Iran and Sunni Islamic groups, with remarkable economic largesse and possible ties with Israel an additional enticing prospect, the Saudi elite, headed by MbS, are convinced they can get away with murder – both literally and metaphorically. And, while MbS remains such a significant shadow hanging over the relations, it’s worryingly unclear when, and how, the next surprise might strike.

Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at emekay@stanford.edu