Slain Saudi columnist upends 'Davos in the Desert'

Slain Saudi columnist upends 'Davos in the Desert'
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This week was to be Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s (MbS) triumph. The second annual Future Investment Initiative, the so-called "Davos in the Desert," was to bring to Riyadh the titans of international business, finance, government and media to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a global political and economic powerhouse.

The celebration was an homage to MbS’s reform agenda — Vision 2030 — that features Saudi economic diversification and social liberalization. Vision 2030 is the vehicle that is meant to plant MbS’s feet firmly on the path to decades of rule over Saudi Arabia.

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Instead, Davos in the Desert is a second casualty of the brutal killing of U.S. resident and Washington Post opinion writer Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month.

Rather than reporting on the high-powered participants trekking to Riyadh to honor MbS’s achievements, media coverage of the conference has been filled with news about the business and government celebrities who have decided to stay home.

One of the last figures to drop out was U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who delayed his decision until hearing from Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump names handbag designer as ambassador to South Africa Senators return to Washington intent on action against Saudis State Department believes missing U.S. journalist is alive in Syria: report MORE, who returned late last week from an urgent trip to Riyadh and Ankara focused on fact-finding in the Khashoggi killing.

Mnuchin’s slow response, days after many senior business and finance figures had announced their decision to stay away from the conference, should come as no surprise.

The Saudi government’s responsibility for Khashoggi’s cold-blooded killing, finally acknowledged officially only last Friday, confronts the administration with a major dilemma. In fact, it’s a nightmare for the Trump administration.

The problem isn’t that anyone was under any illusion about the nature of the Saudi regime. Certainly, Saudi Arabia’s long history of human rights abuses, the arrest and imprisonment of peaceful political activists and dissidents, medieval punishments and denial of fundamental civil liberties is well known to all.  

The kidnapping and extortion of billions of dollars from dozens of senior business and government leaders only reinforced the government’s reputation for authoritarian excess.

Compounding the list of concerns are Saudi Arabia’s botched military campaign in Yemen that has exacerbated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and it’s unprovoked political and economic assault on neighboring Qatar.

But for American policymakers, acknowledging the nature of the Saudi regime and Saudi society has to be balanced against cooperating with the Saudis in the areas where the two countries share obvious interests. This balancing act is not unique to the Trump administration.

While U.S. reliance on Saudi oil has undoubtedly diminished over the years, as long as the U.S. sees benefit in sustaining a prosperous global economy, the stability in global energy markets that Saudi Arabia provides is a necessity.

Moreover, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have cooperated for decades in promoting regional security. From the Cold War struggle to contain Soviet expansionism to turning back Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait, the two countries have partnered in our common battles.

For the Trump administration, the goal of promoting regional security has boiled down to three core pillars: defeating violent extremist groups; confronting Iran’s hegemonic ambitions; and achieving progress in the Israeli-Palestinian account.

Realistically or not, the administration views Saudi Arabia as its essential partner in achieving all three of those objectives.

Moreover, President TrumpDonald John TrumpMeet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time Avenatti denies domestic violence allegations: 'I have never struck a woman' Trump names handbag designer as ambassador to South Africa MORE has repeatedly cited Saudi Arabia’s potential investments in U.S. industry and the economy as a critical factor in fulfilling his domestic economic promises. His starry-eyed expectations about Saudi weapons purchases and investments are vastly exaggerated.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has certainly been a major customer of the U.S. defense industry for many years — and Saudi purchases have the secondary benefit of bringing down production costs, thus generating major savings on weapons for the U.S. military — while other U.S. businesses from entertainment and media to financial services have eyed the affluent Saudi market hungrily.

Like its predecessors, the Trump administration has struggled with finding the right balance in managing relations with the Saudis. Given his regional priorities as well as his determination to prove that he is the polar opposite of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaO'Rourke receives invite to visit Iowa from Democratic Party in Des Moines Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Mattis defends border deployment during visit to troops | Bolton aide exits WH after clash with first lady | House blocks Yemen war resolution | Report warns of erosion in US military superiority Mattis defends border deployment, likens it to 1916 effort against Pancho Villa MORE, President Trump has emphasized the positive aspects of the U.S.-Saudi relationship while pushing back against criticism of the Saudi record.

Protecting the relationship remains his priority, hence the president’s reluctance to speak out clearly about the Khashoggi killing. For his part, Steve Mnuchin will still travel to Riyadh this week to attend a separate conference on countering terror finance — certainly not the high profile event that MbS wants, but a sign that the administration continues to see Saudi Arabia as an essential partner.  

But the killing in Istanbul may prove to be the event that tips the balance toward a more cautious approach to the Saudi leadership, especially as MbS himself is implicated in the plan to kill Khashoggi. Despite his resistance, the president has been forced to respond to the bipartisan fury that Kahshoggi’s killing has triggered.

While the fact that Congress is not in session right now gives the administration a bit of breathing space, and it can hope that the anger cools over the next weeks, the credibility of the Saudi regime and its reliability as a U.S. partner will almost certainly come in for a new round of debate when Congress returns after the midterm elections.  

Gerald M. Feierstein was the United States ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama from September 2010 to October 2013. He is currently the director for government relations, policy and programs at the Middle East Institute.