The Khashoggi Affair: A Welcome Reframing from Washington to Riyadh

An American report has accused the Saudi crown prince of approving the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. By making this document public, a document that Donald Trump had deemed classified, Joe Biden has let Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman know there will be a price to pay for his autocratic impulses.

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia who ruled from 1982 to 1995 used to say, “after Allah, we can count on the United States.” This was never more true than during Donald Trump’s administration. During his four years in the White House, the former American president gave free rein to the Saudi royal family, particularly its crown prince known as “MBS.”

Trump turned a blind eye to Saudi military intervention in Yemen, the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the arrests of feminist activists. He encouraged the blockade of Qatar, another disastrous move by the eldest son of the Saudi king. Trump even cleared the slate when it came to the assassination of journalist and dissident Khashoggi in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, for which the CIA, in a report, blamed the son of King Salman.

By deciding to publish this document on Friday, Feb. 26, a document his predecessor was quick to classify, Biden let MBS know that he would have a price to pay for his autocratic impulses. This move, following the freeze of several contracts for arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the end of U.S. support for Saudi operations in Yemen, is a welcome rewriting of the Washington-Riyadh relationship.

The new U.S. president has no plans to dislodge the crown prince from the line of succession. The hypercentralization of power assumed by MBS in recent years, contrary to the traditionally collegial functioning of the monarchy, has made it more or less untouchable.

The publication of the Khashoggi report also does not indicate a split between the two allies. The new administration is committed to continuing to provide the kingdom with the defensive weapons it needs to counter missiles and drones launched against its territory by Yemen’s Houthi militias and other pro-Iranian operatives in the Middle East.

A Game of Delicate Diplomacy

This episode is less of a spectacle than it would appear. First, it is a testament to the declining importance of Saudi Arabia to the United States. The pact made between Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud at the end of World War II during the famous meeting aboard the USS Quincy was based on an exchange of services: American protection for Riyadh and a stable oil market for Washington. With the rise of shale gas in the United States, this founding “deal” has lost its value.

Biden expects less brutal governance from Saudi Arabia. The Democratic president knows he will not turn MBS into a paragon of virtue. He just needs his main Arab ally to be more presentable and play the multilateralism game.

As he prepares to negotiate an agreement concerning the U.S. nuclear program with Iran, Biden is also trying to protect himself in the case of any unpleasant surprises. A blow to MBS could deter him from thwarting Biden’s efforts in what will undoubtedly be a delicate game of diplomacy.

The crown prince would be well advised to hear the message. Alongside the crises of authoritarianism, he has launched an ambitious program for the economic and societal modernization of his country. This initiative requires a level of foreign investment and popular support that Saudi Arabia is now far from getting. If he is to give his plan a chance to succeed, MBS must transform his realm of fear into one of righteous law.

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