Saudi Arabia Post the Khashoggi Tragedy

WASHINGTON – The killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has left the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in its weakest diplomatic position since the horrific terror attacks of September 11. Khashoggi’s murder followed a series of Saudi missteps that had already left many questioning the country’s trajectory, including the arrests of women activists, the Saudi-German and Saudi-Canadian diplomatic crises, and the imbroglio surrounding Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri. Additionally, the kingdom’s critical failure to clearly communicate the rationale behind and the objectives for both the Qatar boycott and the Yemen war—the latter of which has exacted a catastrophic humanitarian toll—has vastly compounded these errors in the eyes of the global community.

Talk about diplomatically isolating Saudi Arabia, along with the presumptuous call to remove Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), however, is neither realistic nor prudent. As a member of the G20 and one of the world’s leading oil producers, the kingdom is a linchpin in the global economy and energy market. Washington’s ongoing efforts to maximize the economic pressure placed on Iran are contingent on Riyadh’s maximizing its oil output. And politically, the kingdom represents one of the last bastions of stability in an anarchic Middle East. Saudi Arabia is also, as CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel reiterated earlier this week, “an extraordinarily important security partner.” It is also a vital intelligence asset in the wars against al-Qaeda and ISIS and a key buffer in the effort to contain the Islamic Republic’s policy of revolutionary expansionism.

Revisiting the royal succession not only would upend an appointment that has finally put to rest years of political uncertainty over the generational transfer of power within the royal family but also may place at risk the essential reforms that MBS has successfully pushed through, because any successor would likely overturn many of these reforms to gain support from the clerical class and other disgruntled elements of society. These reforms include dramatically reducing elite expectations regarding access to privilege and patronage—and the associated corruption—which the admittedly controversial Ritz Carlton detentions achieved. Also included is the unpopular but critically important decision to remove or restructure wasteful energy and utility subsidies that cost the state billions of dollars it can no longer afford. Then there is the historically unprecedented crackdown on the reactionary clerical class that paved the way for the end of the women’s driving ban, enabled women’s economic and professional empowerment, and moderated the critically important messages that the kingdom’s clerics present to their own people and the rest of the Muslim world. These are concrete and historically significant achievements that must be preserved if the kingdom is to continue its transition into the twenty-first century.

However, in the aftermath of the understandable global outrage at the Khashoggi murder, something will clearly have to give. Within Saudi Arabia, there are already important signs of change. The officials who ordered this criminal and almost laughably incompetent outrage were also MBS’s most aggressive advisors and were particularly uncompromising toward domestic dissent. They have now been fired. This has created more space for moderate and calm-headed voices around the crown prince. This positive step should now be reinforced by a move toward opening more avenues for public debate in the media, particularly on economic and social issues inside the country. In addition, women activists and other moderate critics of the government should be released from prison as soon as possible.

Here it is important to remind everybody that, whatever labels Western pundits and politicians may have ascribed to him, the crown prince has never pretended to be a political reformer. He is the crown prince of an absolute monarchy who understands that economic and social transformation is essential to safeguarding the future of his country and who believes that such change in a deeply polarized country like Saudi Arabia can only come from the top.

Internationally, there is a real opportunity now to solve two of the region’s thorniest political crises in Yemen and Qatar provided that the international community recognizes and moves to address the kingdom’s legitimate security concerns. The Yemen war has been incompetently executed by the Saudi military, which has exacerbated Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and provoked worldwide condemnation. The Saudi government will have to prioritize ending this war one way or another. The United Nations and the United States can greatly accelerate this process by working jointly to ensure Iran no longer continues to assist and resupply the Houthis in its effort to create a Hezbollah-like structure on Saudi Arabia’s southern borders. Whatever errors the Saudi-led coalition may have committed in Yemen, the international community has to stop its cynical approach of shouting for an immediate end to the war while making no effort to recognize legitimate Saudi security concerns, much less deploy resources to help bring the conflict to a just resolution.

The Qatar crisis should also be put to rest. Here, the United States can help by agreeing to countersign an updated version of the 2014 agreement in which the Qatari emir committed to end his country’s interference in its neighbors’ internal affairs and to cease funding individuals and organizations bent on undermining the security of Qatar’s neighbors. Washington can bring about a swift resolution to this embarrassing affair by overseeing compliance with this accord on the part of all five countries involved in the dispute and agreeing to impose sanctions on any country that subsequently violates its statutes.

The crown prince is certainly not a Jeffersonian democrat. However, history shows us that nations are at their most vulnerable during moments of transition, and this is particularly the case for a kingdom as deeply polarized as Saudi Arabia, which is surrounded by peril in the form of Sunni jihadi and Iran-supported Shia jihadi movements committed to its downfall. Weak leadership at these critical inflection points can engender state collapse. In 1917, Czar Nicholas’s feeble response to the chaos enveloping him resulted in the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the arrival of Bolshevism. Sixty-two years later, the shah’s equally anemic response to a developing Iranian revolution enabled Ayatollah Khomeini’s disastrous takeover. MBS, whatever his faults may be, is not weak. He is a hard and resolute leader in a very hard and dangerous neighborhood. The importance of such strength cannot be underestimated, although it certainly needs to be tempered by wise counsel.

Published on the Arabia Foundation website in December 2018.