In the spring of 2012, I made an extended visit to Saudi Arabia to report on the effects of the Arab Spring there. The arch-conservative oil monarchy was pursuing a robust counter-revolution, but the uprisings had brought new energy to reformers across the region. I was curious to see how Saudis themselves saw their country’s future.
Among the many people I spoke with was Jamal Khashoggi, at the time an unusually well-connected journalist with an irrepressibly optimistic outlook. I also met the prominent reform cleric Salman al-Ouda, who had 14 million Twitter followers; Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the pro-Western billionaire investor; Hatoon al-Fassi, a brilliant historian who viewed the liberated women of pre-Islamic Arabia as a model for change in her own society; Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a US-educated economics professor; Waleed Abu al-Khair, a Jeddah lawyer; and the young blogger Eman Fahad al-Nafjan.
Men and women, young and old, deeply religious and secular: they came from very different places in Saudi life. Some, like Khashoggi, were at the heart of the establishment; others saw themselves as true oppositionists. What nearly all of them shared was an interest in social and political reform—and the belief that the United States would support them in that end. It did not.
In the years since my visit, every one of them has been detained, put on trial, jailed, chased into exile, or worse. Al-Nafjan and al-Fassi have been arrested for defending women’s rights. Prince Alwaleed was among the Saudi businessmen forced to hand over huge sums of money to the government after being locked up for months at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh last winter. Al-Qahtani and al-Khair are serving long prison sentences; al-Ouda may face the death penalty. Until this month, none of their cases had aroused much concern from the US government.
How much has changed with what Turkish intelligence officials now describe as the ISIS-like torture and beheading of Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Amid an exceptional wave of outrage and fury, veteran US diplomats have declared a fundamental rupture in US–Saudi relations, lawmakers have called for punitive sanctions, and leading CEOs are boycotting the country. “Everything we did to Putin, I want to do to Saudi Arabia,” Senator Lindsey Graham said last week.
But the brazen killing did not occur in isolation. If it was the “game-changer” that many see, it was also the latest, most extreme manifestation of a repressive regime that has acted with virtual impunity while maintaining enviably close ties to Washington. The Saudis did what they did because they assumed they could get away with it.
Indeed, even as Washington has crowed about the crown prince’s big plans for his country, he has ruthlessly eroded the already limited space for criticism and dissent in the Kingdom. Not only dissidents but mainstream academics, princes, and even women who dare to talk about their rights have been subject to extreme repression—both inside and outside the country. In May, Loujain al-Hathloul, a twenty-eight-year-old Saudi advocate for women’s driving rights, was detained in Abu Dhabi, put on a plane, and rendered to Saudi Arabia, where she was jailed.
To many Western observers, the Khashoggi affair points to the anomalous nature of the current leaders in Riyadh and Washington. On one side is thirty-three-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, the inexperienced and authoritarian hotspur who is now the overwhelming power-broker of the Saudi regime; on the other side is President Trump, a blustery real-estate mogul who admires strongmen, has few qualms about human rights, and has given MBS unalloyed support.
“Saudi Arabia’s growing assertiveness is driven in part by the political cover it receives from its special relationship with the current US administration,” Stratfor, the geopolitical intelligence forecasting group, reported after the Khashoggi killing.
The present leadership aside, there is nothing very new about the special relationship. The George W. Bush administration maintained close ties to Riyadh, despite the involvement of fifteen Saudis in the September 11 attacks and the pervasive influence of Saudi-funded Islamism on jihadist movements around the globe. The Obama administration was even more assiduous in courting the Saudis. According to a Congressional Research Service study, between 2010 and 2015 the US concluded a record $111 billion in arms deals with the Kingdom, notwithstanding a Saudi crackdown on peaceful protesters in neighboring Bahrain and a Saudi-backed military coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected government.
And it was during the Obama years that MBS and his father, King Salman, ascended to power. Notably, the Obama administration did not flinch when MBS launched the disastrous Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015, apparently without consulting the White House. Sustained by US arms sales, the brutal Saudi-led offensive has killed tens of thousands of civilians and pushed millions of children to the brink of starvation, creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In August, UN investigators issued a report accusing the Saudis and other parties in the conflict of possible war crimes. Even as the UN findings were coming out, the Republican-led Senate rejected a measure to cut off US military support in next year’s defense appropriations bill.
During my reporting in the Kingdom after the Arab Spring, I learned first hand what the unshakeable US–Saudi partnership meant for Saudi Arabia’s own citizens. At the time, the Obama administration had given support to popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and many Saudis I met hoped that their own, far more modest reform efforts would win support, too.
In Riyadh, Mohammad al-Qahtani, the economics professor, told me about the pioneering human rights organization he had co-founded and his efforts to document a series of little-noted protests that had taken place—and been speedily quashed—inside the Kingdom. When I asked if he feared arrest, he said not.
“My organization is well known. If they do anything, word will get out in the US and the international community and they will be embarrassed,” he said. A few weeks after I met him, he was charged with sedition; in March 2013, he was sentenced to ten years in prison.
In Jeddah, I met the young human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, who, bridling at the lack of political space in the Kingdom, had imaginatively launched an informal weekly discussion group in his own home. Constantly harassed by the authorities, he was already banned from travel abroad. But he had recently published an article in The Washington Post about his efforts and he assumed the US State Department would intervene if he were detained. In 2014, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
At the time, Jamal Khashoggi did not face trouble with the authorities. On the contrary, he knew many Saudi officials and senior members of the royal family. But he, too, longed to see the monarchy embrace greater openness, and he was particularly excited about Al Arab, a private Arabic-language news channel he was planning in Bahrain with backing from Prince Alwaleed. As he described it, the station would aim to provide a quality alternative to Al Jazeera, offering hard-hitting Western-style news journalism and open debate. It would also draw on an innovative partnership with Bloomberg news.
When the station launched in February 2015, however, it was shut down almost immediately by the Bahraini government for airing the views of an opposition figure. The US government made no move to protest the silencing of this bold, Saudi-run liberal media venture.
Shortly after I met al-Qahtani and al-Khair, I asked President Obama’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James B. Smith, if the US could help men like them. He explained that human rights were not one of the pillars of the US–Saudi relationship. The ambassador was not being controversial. Since its legendary enshrining by President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz more than seventy years ago, the terms of the unlikely Washington–Riyadh alliance have been clear: in exchange for unfettered access to Saudi oil, the world’s leading advanced democracy would guarantee the security of the world’s most hidebound monarchy. Almost nothing else mattered.
In earlier decades, however, Washington was not shy about using the alliance to promote liberalization. Through the mid-1960s, successive US administrations pushed the monarchy to make modernizing reforms, and in 1962, President Kennedy persuaded the Kingdom to abolish slavery. So active was the State Department in urging the Kingdom to open up politically that King Faisal asked then-US Ambassador Hermann Eilts, “Does the US want Saudi Arabia to become another Berkeley campus?”
All this came to an end with the specter of Arab nationalism and then the 1973 oil embargo. The US needed a reliable partner in Riyadh, regardless of its political coloration. And with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Saudis’ ultraconservative religious establishment became a convenient engine for the US-backed mujahideen.
Paradoxically, the Saudis proved equally indispensable in counterterrorism efforts after September 11, since it was on their soil that extremists like Osama bin Laden had germinated and the US needed Saudi cooperation to hunt them down. At the same time, the monarchy provided a formidable bulwark against Iran, as well as an almost bottomless market for the US defense industry. In return for all that, Washington was more than willing to look the other way when it came to human rights abuses and a political ice age inside the Kingdom.
At least since the Arab Spring, however, the extraordinary price of this Faustian bargain has been hard to ignore. “We’re an enabler of a system that encourages authoritarianism,” Bruce Riedel, a former Middle East adviser to several US administrations, told me. “And there are consequences to that.”
America’s failure to take a stand against the ruthless treatment of reformers like al-Qahtani and al-Khair has increasingly put us on the wrong side of history. Even aside from our moral standing in the world order, US support for Saudi adventures like the invasion of Bahrain or the campaign in Yemen have done nothing to serve American strategic interests. In his recent book Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR, Riedel argues that Washington would do better to treat the Saudi monarchy like Russia and China in the late phases of Communism: engage on areas of common interest, but push back on reform and call them out for human rights abuses.
As the Khashoggi affair brings grimly into focus, though, the US has neglected the internal affairs of the Kingdom for so long that it may now be difficult to turn back the clock. “The Saudis are less concerned about US views than ever before,” the former US diplomat Gerald M. Feierstein told The New York Times last week. He added that it was not merely a matter of the Trump White House; the Kingdom no longer thinks it needs the approval of any US administration for its actions.
Even so, President Trump appears as keen to let MBS off the hook as the crown prince is to evade responsibility. Rolling out everything from a “rogue killers” theory to bizarre comparisons with Brett Kavanaugh, the president has made clear his desire to protect US arms deals and cordon off the Saudi leadership. Now that a New York Times report has definitively linked the Istanbul kill squad to MBS’s inner circle—amid ever more damning evidence of the crime itself—the gambit looks increasingly naked. But with the president’s Iran policy at stake, even an angry Congress may be reluctant to take more drastic steps against Riyadh. If that is the case, the barbaric assassination of Khashoggi may go down as a different kind of game-changer: not the end of the US–Saudi relationship, but the moment when it was exposed for what it really is.