Reckless in Riyadh

Mohammad bin Salman
Mohammad bin Salman; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

In February 1945 Franklin Roosevelt, on his way home from the Yalta Conference—and just two months before his death—made a detour to Egypt to meet Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman al Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state. Historians recall that the Saudi monarch brought aboard the USS Quincy live sheep for roasting on deck and his astrologer, while the American president introduced the seventy-year-old king to ice cream and movies. Yet their concerns were serious: the United States sought guaranteed access to the oil that had been discovered in the kingdom seven years earlier; Ibn Saud, as he was known, wanted protection from a challenge to his family’s rule that would be backed—in his imagination—by Britain.

In the seventy-four years since it was conceived, the relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has shown remarkable durability. One reason for its resilience has been the ease with which it has evolved as the partners prospered and global politics changed. Riding a tide of oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has been transformed from a congeries of seminomadic tribes into one of the twenty largest economies in the world, while US involvement in regional security grew so dominant that for decades, analysts spoke of the pax Americana in the Middle East. The relationship has also lasted in no small measure because of American leaders’ disinclination to criticize the Saudis’ domestic policies, especially their disregard for human rights. Bruce Riedel, an adviser on the Middle East to four presidents, has noted that the sole instance of an American leader pressing the Saudis for internal change occurred in 1962, when, at the urging of John F. Kennedy, then crown prince Faisal reformed the judiciary, introduced free health care and education, and abolished slavery.

The White House has long directly overseen the US–Saudi relationship, as it has the US–Israel relationship, but generally not other bilateral ties. The Saudi leadership has never taken the US Congress or the State Department seriously and has always sought a direct link to the president. The CIA station in Riyadh exercises a high degree of control over dealings with the kingdom, guarding against intrusive diplomats with big ideas about promoting human rights and obliging the Saudi preference for secrecy. The arrangement works in a country where historically there has been almost no foreign press presence or civil society organizations. Saudi governance has traditionally been the preserve of a small number of aged princes. Among US policymakers and intelligence analysts, it is often said that no country is more opaque, except for North Korea.

Today this long-running accommodation may be crumbling as a result of the rise to power of the impetuous Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. US congressional leaders of both parties have expressed outrage at the thirty-three-year-old heir for his part in the murder in Istanbul of the journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi in October…


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