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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 2018, as well as for other misdeeds—particularly Saudi intervention in the brutal war in Yemen that has turned that country into the world’s foremost humanitarian disaster.

The recklessness of MBS, as he is known, has been abetted by the Trump administration, which has boasted of its special relationship with the young de facto ruler (his father, King Salman, is in poor health, and MBS enjoys great latitude) and has avoided criticizing him for his misadventures. Yet Democratic contenders for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination are lining up to see who can Saudi-bash the loudest. The Democrats’ outrage has been further fueled by the suspicion that behind the president’s uncritical embrace of the Saudis are his hopes for personal enrichment from the relationship—a reasonable surmise in light of the Saudi habit of booking entire floors of his Washington hotel when delegations come to town. As the de facto alliance approaches its seventy-fifth anniversary, some American policymakers and scholars are questioning whether it still makes sense for the US.

For a long time, it clearly did. The first major breach came during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Washington rushed arms to Israel that helped it reverse the Arab states’ surprise attack. Angered by the US action, King Faisal, probably Ibn Saud’s shrewdest son, succeeded in pressing most OPEC nations to cut oil production at a time of increasing global demand. Although the US imported little oil from the Persian Gulf, prices almost quadrupled. Long gas lines made the rift in the relationship a daily reality for Americans; over the next two years, US GDP fell 6 percent.

The oil cuts ended after Khalid bin Abdulaziz succeeded Faisal, who was assassinated by a deranged nephew in 1975, and Jimmy Carter became president in 1977. A new channel of cooperation was established: covert intelligence operations. Shortly after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski enlisted Khalid’s support for a secret effort to arm and train the Afghan opposition. Acting as Washington’s off-the-books banker became a habit for the Saudis. Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser Robert McFarlane squeezed $32 million out of Riyadh to fund the Nicaraguan contras, though the Saudis were not pleased to find that they had been hornswoggled into a plot involving a secret US effort at rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, in their view the greatest threat to the kingdom. Saudi antipathy to Iran long preceded the 1979 Islamic revolution, which intensified it: although ethnic and Sunni–Shia divisions are partly responsible for the two countries’ mutual hostility, rivalry for control of the Persian Gulf region and its immense oil and gas deposits drives it, even though neither is remotely capable of subjugating the other.

During the years following the oil embargo, security concerns shaped the US–Saudi relationship. The invasion of Afghanistan exacerbated fears that the USSR would seize control of the Persian Gulf and cut off the flow of oil. The Carter Doctrine identified the region as a vital interest for the United States and pledged to defend it with force. After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, President George H.W. Bush offered to station US forces in the kingdom—forces that eventually evicted Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

It would be difficult to overstate Saudi reliance on the US security guarantee, despite the country’s slow push to remove US forces from the kingdom following the terrorist attack on a US Air Force barracks near Dhahran Air Base in 1996. That bombing, directed and financed by Iran, heightened Saudi fears of being drawn into a conflict between the US and Iran, while the size and visibility of the US presence were seen as potentially provocative to Saudis, for whom reliance on foreign troops raised questions about the competence and integrity of the monarchy.

Years of multibillion-dollar arms purchases did not incline the al-Sauds to invest in recruiting and training a competent military. (These purchases were more about strengthening the relationship with Washington by recycling petrodollars, pacifying the Saudi military elite by supplying it with top-tier weaponry, and sending to hostile neighbors signals of the US security guarantee implied by these arms transfers than about building real military capacity.) They feared the kind of ambitious generals who ran Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Pakistan, and sought a close defense relationship with the US and a coup-proof military instead.

A second crisis reshaped the relationship after the September 11 attacks. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis, and Osama bin Laden was a scion of one of the country’s wealthiest nonroyal families. The superannuated princes who ran the country could barely acknowledge that their citizens were involved—some pointed the finger at Israel—until attacks in Riyadh in 2003 gave them an opportunity to present themselves as fellow targets of radical Islamists, and they quickly pivoted into being allies in the US war on terror. US intelligence chiefs forged close ties to Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the highly capable, pro-American counterterrorism chief.

America’s delicate treatment of the Saudis persisted: for example, while the two countries were targeting terrorists, Washington said little about the enormous Saudi NGOs that spread their ultraconservative Wahhabi Islam around the globe. As the scholar Will McCants remarked, when it comes to Islamist extremism, “the Saudis are both the arsonists and the firefighters.” Still, the burgeoning ties among spies produced real benefits. At least two plots that could have killed significant numbers of Americans during the Obama administration were disrupted because of Saudi tips. American officials murmured approval when the Saudis took small steps to alleviate the plight of the country’s Shia minority or to promote women’s education and participation in the workforce, but their criticism of human rights abuses—torture and other mistreatment of government critics, harsh punishment of migrant workers, and mass beheadings, whether of Shia “terrorists” or common criminals—remained muted at best.

So what has gone wrong? Ties were strained during the Obama years by Saudi anger at Washington’s refusal to stand by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as his regime was upended by the Arab Spring; the tacit US approval of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose espousal of democracy implicitly challenged the Saudi political order; and the US refusal to intervene militarily in the civil war in Syria, where the Saudis were eager to see the Assad regime, Iran’s only long-term ally, removed from power, even if it meant backing radical Islamist fighters. From Riyadh’s perspective, this was to be payback for Iran’s swift rise in influence in Iraq after the US deposed Saddam Hussein and for the establishment of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

Saudi disappointment in the US was exacerbated by the diplomacy that led to the Iranian nuclear accord, which Riyadh saw as presaging a broader rapprochement with Iran and paving the way for a US departure from the Persian Gulf region. Tensions rose during this period because of Iran’s support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and fears of a Tehran-dominated “Shia crescent” stretching from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran. Saudi diplomats, led by then ambassador to the US Adel al-Jubair, disparaged Obama as a weak leader, when what they really deplored was his refusal to go along with hard-line Saudi hostility to Iran.

Further destabilization resulted from the death in 2015 of King Abdullah, who had reigned for ten years after a decade as crown prince and de facto ruler during the long illness of his half-brother and predecessor, Fahd. Salman, the sixth son of Ibn Saud to ascend the throne, did so in the traditional manner, having been designated crown prince by Abdullah and a council of senior princes. But the new king and his favorite son, Mohammad, quickly showed themselves to be little beholden to tradition. Unlike many princes of his generation and even the preceding one, MBS had been schooled entirely in Saudi Arabia. In January 2015 he was appointed minister of defense after Salman’s ascent and made second-in-line to the throne.

Less than two months later, MBS committed Saudi-led coalition forces to a military campaign against the Houthi rebels who had captured Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. But his expectations of a short and glorious war evaporated: it has become the kingdom’s largest and longest military commitment. This intervention was a sharp departure from the kingdom’s habit of arming others while keeping its own forces in the barracks, but that was not all that was new. The Saudi court rapidly began an unprecedented effort to centralize power, eliminating numerous government bodies that had been controlled by leading princes and replacing them with committees staffed with nonroyal technocrats loyal to MBS.

These changes were part of a larger attempt to brand the new rulers as reformists who would tackle Saudi Arabia’s looming challenges: dramatic population growth (from less than 3.5 million at the time of Abdulaziz’s death in 1953 to about ten times that today), an economy wholly dependent on fossil fuels, and an unskilled workforce accustomed to generous benefits that are fast becoming unaffordable. In 2016 MBS rolled out Vision 2030, a far-reaching plan to modernize and diversify the Saudi economy.

At first, Vision 2030 gave MBS a real sheen. Donald Trump broke with tradition and made the first overseas trip of his presidency to Riyadh instead of visiting democratic allies. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “I never thought I’d live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia.” He praised MBS for rolling back the power of the country’s clerical establishment and proclaimed, “Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for [his] anticorruption drive.” During a visit to the US in April 2018, MBS was feted by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and, at a dinner party hosted by Rupert Murdoch, entertained by the actors Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman, before having an audience with Oprah Winfrey.

The sheen faded quickly, though, as it became clear that MBS’s notion of reform owed less to Western norms than to Xi Jinping and the Chinese policy of pushing for economic growth without permitting the expansion of political freedoms. There has been a degree of limited liberalization, but in MBS’s view, reforms must be granted by the crown, not elicited, let alone demanded, by his subjects. Hence the imprisonment of women who pressed for the right to drive and for a relaxation of the “guardianship laws” that give men control over the lives of the women in their families—the very measures that MBS had endorsed and, to some extent, enacted. Despite the reforms, there has also been an increase in the pace of executions. Several are now planned for well-known Sunni clerics who, though previously incarcerated for opposing royal policies, were viewed as too popular to be treated more harshly.

In June 2017 MBS was named crown prince, replacing Salman’s nephew Muhammad bin Nayef. The following November, he had at least two hundred of the country’s wealthiest men, including a number of the kingdom’s wealthiest princes, rounded up and held in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel for what turned out to be an extended “anti-corruption” shakedown. When the last of the captives were released or transferred to a prison several months later—some, including the son of King Abdullah, are still incarcerated—the government reported that it had recovered more than $106 billion from them.

MBS’s foreign policy—even beyond the bloodletting in Yemen—has astonished diplomats and Saudi watchers. In the summer of 2017, just after Trump’s visit and with the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Riyadh began a blockade of neighboring Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and Iran, and appeared poised to invade the world’s only other Wahhabi state. The confrontation has destroyed in all but name the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional association the US helped create in 1981 to strengthen defenses against Iran. In December 2017 the Saudis hosted Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri. On a morning when he thought he was going on a trip to the desert with MBS, he was separated from his bodyguards and forced to read a statement of resignation on television—his tolerance for Hezbollah had angered the Saudis. Only after multiple world leaders demanded his release could he fly back to Beirut, where he rescinded the resignation.

When Canada protested the imprisonment of the Saudi human rights blogger Raif Badawi and his sister Samar in the summer of 2018, Riyadh recalled its ambassador to Ottawa, expelled Canada’s ambassador, and blocked trade and cut off flights between the countries. More recently, the Saudis have pumped money into the Sudanese military to help it put down the demonstrations that toppled the longtime strongman Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April. Saudi officials also appear to be supporting the campaign of the Benghazi-based Libyan general Khalifa Haftar against the UN-backed government in Tripoli—a campaign backed, in an extraordinary turnaround, by President Trump.

Equally astonishing has been the kingdom’s open embrace of Israel. In 2015 a retired Saudi general, Anwar Eshki, participated in a discussion of Israeli and Saudi mutual interests with Dore Gold, a right-wing Israeli former diplomat, at the Council on Foreign Relations’ office in Washington; in 2017 Saudi media broadcast a lengthy interview with then Israeli chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot. In November 2018 Israeli media leaked a diplomatic cable from the country’s foreign ministry instructing its embassies worldwide to advocate for Saudi foreign policy objectives, especially vis-à-vis Iran. And Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended MBS for his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder—in which the Saudi go-between with Israel, General Ahmed Asiri, was implicated. It has also been widely reported that the Trump administration expects the Saudis to fund an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement; according to MBS, the Palestinians should either accept it or “shut up.”

Although all this has been a dramatic departure from decades of practice—in their meeting aboard the USS Quincy, Ibn Saud requested assurances from FDR that the US would oppose the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine—there is evidence that at least some Saudis think the time for it has come. They have long been advised by their public relations firms in Washington and by US diplomats to soften the kingdom’s stance toward Israel so that Congress would be more tolerant of objectionable Saudi policies. But for MBS, this change is as much the result of a shared enmity with Iran and affinity for a fellow authoritarian in Jerusalem as it is a lobbying strategy. He has affirmed more forthrightly than any other Saudi leader Israel’s right to exist and has criticized the Palestinians for failing to make peace. Intelligence cooperation between the two countries appears to have increased dramatically. Yet for Washington, the new attitude cannot be taken for granted. The opacity of the kingdom’s politics makes it impossible to know how other parts of Saudi society view overt ties with Israel, or the use to which opponents of MBS might put this change in policy should they choose to challenge his legitimacy.

What kind of damage is MBS doing to the Saudi state? Three factors were long thought to be essential to preserving al-Saud rule: generous distribution of oil revenues as part of the authoritarian bargain between the royals and their subjects, which might be described as no taxation, no representation; the backing of an outside power, which, in the case of the United States, has endured since Roosevelt’s meeting with Ibn Saud; and family cohesion, which had been cultivated over a century of consensual decision-making by senior princes.

Trump with Mohammad bin Salman at the White House, March 2018
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
President Trump with Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (left) at the White House, March 2018

MBS’s changes have done little to alter the kingdom’s political economy, although it is being reshaped, to a degree, through Vision 2030 reforms. Nor have they diminished the importance of US support, as demonstrated by MBS’s courtship of the Trump family and Riyadh’s lavish spending on American public relations firms, universities, and think tanks, which have at times been co-opted through generous contributions and endowments. The historical commitment to cohesion and consensus within the royal family, however, has apparently been abandoned. Thus far, the rapidity and brutality of MBS’s seizure of power appear to have preempted open dissent. Yet over the long term, his lack of judgment, defiance of tradition, and exceedingly narrow circle of advisers could make him vulnerable to isolation, tunnel vision, loss of elite support, and, finally, popular opposition. He could occupy the throne for decades, however, before dissatisfaction turns into effective resistance.

The crown prince’s economic reforms may also be suffering from a growing anxiety about his reign. Vision 2030 is based on the belief that Saudi Arabia must attract foreign investment, yet capital inflows plummeted in 2017 and have only recently begun to inch back up. Progress on diversifying the economy is halting at best, and efforts to induce Saudis to take the jobs of foreign workers—1.5 million have left the country—have yet to show results. The kingdom’s leaders are confident that its oil industry will remain profitable for decades to come: estimates of Saudi oil deposits continue to grow, while the profitability of ARAMCO, the state oil company, swells: last year it took in $111 billion. But low oil prices could make it difficult for the Saudis to continue to pay for extensive social benefits—hence the urgency of diversifying the economy.

MBS’s missteps have now imperiled the US embrace that constituted one of the pillars of Saudi rule. Americans have never particularly liked Saudi Arabia. Its use of oil as a weapon in 1973, spectacles of public executions and reports of other human rights violations, suspicions that Saudi leaders were complicit in the September 11 attacks, and a widespread distaste for Islam have combined in a popular image of a corrupt, cruel, anti-Semitic absolute monarchy. Gallup polls over many years have shown that the majority of respondents have held unfavorable views of the kingdom. It was only during Desert Storm, when Washington went out of its way to portray Saudi Arabia as a valiant ally in the campaign to liberate Kuwait, that expressions of a very favorable view broke into the double digits—11 percent. For the most part, it has hovered around 5 percent.

Yet the relationship between Jared Kushner and MBS is evidence of the kingdom’s enduring influence in Washington despite the growing revulsion against the crown prince. This resembles the chummy relationship between the George W. Bush White House and Bandar bin Sultan, the son of Saudi Arabia’s former defense minister and the ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005. Endowed with essentially unlimited resources owing to his father’s rapacious corruption, Bandar courted the rich and famous. He had a winning personality and the brio of the fighter pilot he had been as a young man, and he flattered and seduced senior bureaucrats. The photo of Bandar, Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice lounging on the White House balcony shortly after the September 11 attacks illustrates the cozy intimacy that then prevailed.

Kushner’s bond with MBS similarly reflects class affinity, shared financial interests, and their self-conceptions as men who matter. In policy, it reflects a disregard for human rights, a desire to curtail Iranian influence across the region and to see the clerical regime in Tehran crippled or replaced, and an impulse to recast Middle Eastern politics not just by humbling Iran but by cutting the Gordian knot of Israeli–Palestinian animosity. Their relationship also embodies the self-dealing crony capitalism that keeps Middle Eastern regimes—and increasingly the United States—afloat. One result is the subversion of American strategic interests through bilateral deals that favor the financial interests of their ruling elites.

A case in point, according to an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, is an ongoing secret Trump administration effort to supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear power plants, despite the opposition of its own lawyers and strategic planners. The Saudi plan to develop nuclear power had been circulating for several years and on its face is uncontroversial. Saudi oil is best sold on the hard currency markets, while domestic power needs, especially for electricity and desalinization, could be better met by nuclear energy (but even better met by solar power). Russia, China, and South Korea are competing for lucrative nuclear power–related construction contracts in the kingdom. Westinghouse Electric—which declared bankruptcy in 2017 owing to the high cost of its reactor design but has since emerged from it—has been seeking a contract to build nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia, but US firms are subject to stringent export restrictions designed to prevent foreign countries from using US-built reactors to produce nuclear fuel, which could be used for weapons. The Saudis, however, have insisted that they want to produce their own nuclear fuel; they turned to lobbyists in Washington to make their case and pressed it more strongly after Trump became president.

Saudi interests have meshed with Trump family financial dealings. In 2007 Kushner’s company bought 666 Fifth Avenue in New York City, a poorly timed and disastrously negotiated deal that eventually placed him in serious financial jeopardy. In 2018 Brookfield Asset Management Inc., an investment company with around $330 billion of assets under management, including real estate, renewable power, infrastructure, and private equity, took a $1.1 billion lease on the property, bailing Kushner out. Brookfield also now owns Westinghouse Electric. To make matters murkier, the disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn, while an adviser to the Trump campaign—and apparently during his brief tenure at the White House and after his departure—was deeply involved in the lobbying effort to approve the sale of reactors to the Saudis, although the extent of his formal participation remains unclear, and he presumably stood to make a great deal of money if the deal went through.

This would be a dangerous move. MBS pledged in a television interview last year to secure a nuclear weapons capability if Iran were to do so. A Saudi capacity would almost certainly provoke Iran to acquire its own. Two new and adversarial nuclear powers separated by one hundred miles of Persian Gulf waters are an alarming prospect. The construction of a facility for producing ballistic missiles in the kingdom has also provoked suspicion of Saudi nuclear aims. The Trump administration has said that it will enforce the restrictions governing the transfer of nuclear technology, while cautioning that if they are deemed unacceptable by the kingdom, the Russians or Chinese will construct Saudi reactors instead.

In the US, outrage at the murder of Khashoggi continues to be strong. In Senate testimony last November, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo derided senators for “caterwauling” about human rights when the Iranian wolf was at the door. Secretary of Defense James Mattis denied that there was a “smoking gun” that indisputably proved the crown prince had ordered Khashoggi’s death, but the circumstantial evidence was convincing enough for Congress to dismiss his assessment as a cover-up and for the Senate to pass a resolution holding MBS personally responsible.

The question of how to punish the kingdom and distance the US from it is not easily answered. Washington has already sanctioned most of the individuals identified by the Saudis or others as having been implicated in the plot to murder Khashoggi by freezing their assets and barring Americans from doing business with them, though it has balked at targeting MBS, whose denials of involvement are wholly unpersuasive. The Treasury Department also did not sanction General Asiri, MBS’s confidant and the former deputy head of Saudi intelligence. In the meantime, dismay in Washington has not induced caution in MBS. The US intelligence community recently exercised its “duty to warn” three regime opponents that their lives were at risk.

Ending US support for the war in Yemen has been the goal of a bipartisan coalition in Congress, and the unpopularity of the Saudi campaign led Mattis to curtail important elements of the US assistance program in 2018, including air refueling of Saudi jets. President Trump, who has made extravagant and false claims about Riyadh wanting to buy $100 billion in arms, seems determined to thwart legislative action to curtail military aid to the Saudis. Earlier this year, Congress approved legislation demanding a halt to all such aid, including most weapons sales, logistics, and intelligence support, but it was unable to override Trump’s veto.

The White House recently announced its intent to proceed with $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan by invoking a seldom-used clause in the Arms Export Control Act that allows the executive branch to bypass Congress in emergency circumstances. This has infuriated legislators, who have vowed to prevent the sales, though it is doubtful that they can do so. As the White House builds up forces in the Persian Gulf and prepares for a possible confrontation with Iran, it is determined to avoid punishing its friends in the kingdom.

In consequence neither the Trump administration nor Congress has much leverage over the crown prince. Eight million barrels of oil per day generate enough cash to pay for a public relations campaign that casts Khashoggi as a dangerous Islamist and Saudi Arabia as an indispensable partner of the US. President Trump has frequently called MBS a “great ally.” More broadly, international interest in sanctioning him or his regime is uneven. Vladimir Putin’s support has been vigorous, while the French and British are unwilling to forgo lucrative arms sales to the kingdom. Germany has been the lone exception, halting all arms exports to Riyadh since Khashoggi’s murder.

Stirred up by the controversy surrounding the secret nuclear deal-making and the execution in April of thirty-seven Saudis, most of them Shias, on terrorism charges, Congress will continue to protest. Despite the unusual degree of bipartisan agreement on the issue—and Senator Lindsey Graham’s unusual break with Trump over renewed arms sales to the kingdom—this is unlikely to have any real effect. Significant action, if there is any, will come only when the White House changes occupants.

How far might a Democratic administration go toward redefining US ties with Saudi Arabia? Bureaucratic resistance from within the defense and intelligence establishments could be significant, and oil companies and financial institutions have been clear about their long-term support for the relationship. Yet MBS has tilted so far toward the Republican Party that some Democrats will see no reason not to push for substantive change. Their argument will be strengthened by the somewhat diminished US reliance on Saudi oil—as a result of the rise in domestic production—and by American weariness of costly engagement in the region.* Saudi encouragement for the US to take armed action against Iran will add to the alienation growing among Democrats, whose leading candidates for the party’s presidential nomination want the US to rejoin the nuclear agreement repudiated by Trump.

The Trump administration has embraced the Saudi hard line against Iran, but Democrats remain justifiably critical of a policy that seems designed to drive Tehran to abrogate the nuclear accord that it continues to abide by. If a Democratic president is elected in 2020 and decides to lift sanctions on Iran and restore US adherence to the nuclear deal, that would have a profound impact on Riyadh. Its reaction, as well as the likely caution of a new administration, will have a significant effect on any effort to reshape the US–Saudi relationship.

—May 30, 2019


The consulting firms Booz Allen Hamilton and McKinsey have disputed the description in an earlier version of this article of their work in Saudi Arabia. Booz Allen has previously trained some members of the Saudi navy but has stated, according to The New York Times, that it has “provided no support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.” McKinsey did not, as the article stated, “develop” Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan, although some recommendations and objectives in the plan originated in a report done by McKinsey. What the article referred to as McKinsey’s briefing the Saudi government on “dissidents within the kingdom” was a study of public reaction to austerity measures in Saudi Arabia and was prepared solely for the firm’s internal use. In a statement McKinsey said that it was “horrified by the possibility, however remote, that [this document] could have been misused in any way,” not, as the article stated, that it was “horrified” that the document “might have facilitated a crackdown” on dissidents.

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    The US now produces more oil than Saudi Arabia, and with exploitation of the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, which is probably bigger than the kingdom’s Ghawar oilfield, that amount could yet rise. US concerns regarding Persian Gulf oil were originally about sustaining European postwar reconstruction, then supplying NATO allies; more recently the worry has been the effect of a drop in Persian Gulf oil production on world fuel prices.