President Trump can, and must, stabilize US-Saudi relations

President Trump can, and must, stabilize US-Saudi relations
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Following meetings last week with military and intelligence leaders, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE signaled his frustration with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a resident of Virginia. He asked for a bipartisan recommendation from Congress on how the United States should respond.

Some Americans might wonder, “Why should I care about the murder of a Saudi journalist?” The answer is that we must care — and respond to — this premeditated, state-sponsored criminal act because it challenges who we are as a nation. Nothing less than America’s standing in the world is at stake.

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President Trump campaigned on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” America’s greatness stems from its unwavering commitment to, and upholding of, principles and values such as respect for human rights, religious tolerance and the free expression of one’s opinions. These values are what make America an exceptional country. If left unanswered, this brutal murder would severely weaken our standing in the world.

In 2009, when the Iranian people took to the streets to overthrow the Islamic regime, their slogan was: “Obama, Obama, are you with us or against us?” They did not shout the same to Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Germany’s Angela Merkel. The truth is, people around the world look to America as their beacon of hope.

Irrespective of personal views that led him to become a dissident, Jamal Khashoggi was a patriotic journalist who cared deeply about the welfare of Saudi Arabia. The weight of available evidence suggests that his criticism of the prince known as MbS made Khashoggi a target. As a nation, we should be saddened, but not surprised, when our adversaries murder their opponents. We’ve seen it happen in Russia, North Korea and Iran — but unlike Saudi Arabia, these countries are not America’s allies.

Saudi Arabia has been an American ally for over 70 years. The country’s stability matters to the global economy because Saudi Arabia remains the world’s largest exporter of crude oil (though the United States is close behind). Even if its crown prince shows he is reckless and irresponsible, Saudi Arabia must remain a key Middle Eastern ally of the United States.

With a goal of asking for the crown prince’s demotion, President Trump and congressional leaders should collectively ask King Salman to organize the Allegiance Council that former King Abdullah put into place for succession purposes. There are wise, responsible and reform-oriented royal family members who could immediately step into the shoes of MbS and work with the king on shared U.S.-Saudi priorities.

These include:

  • Ending the war in Yemen, an MbS-led coalition. America cannot stand by while innocent Yemenis are slaughtered by indiscriminate Saudi air strikes;
  • Lifting the blockade of Qatar that MbS instituted in 2017 because; Qatar is home to America’s largest pre-positioning base in the world;
  • Working with Israeli and Palestinian leadership to forge a lasting peace agreement;
  • Unfreezing the assets of those unfairly arrested last year by MbS and allowing their freedom of movement, including visiting the United States;
  • Committing to helping the Iranian people rid themselves of the mullahs, a regime that has murdered Americans, including an attack on Saudi soil.  

There has been talk that President Trump’s approach to foreign policy is “transactional,” and his critics argue that he is fixated on an illusory $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. His critics may have a valid argument, but President Trump’s mandate is to create as many good-paying jobs as possible for American workers. In this case, however, with America’s international prestige on the line, congressional leaders should impress upon the president that no amount of money is worth America’s credibility on the world stage.

This does not mean that the president has to give up on securing $110 billion for the U.S. economy. He can discuss two alternatives with King Salman — first, that Saudi Arabia invest $110 billion into America’s infrastructure projects that have a rate of return of around 12 percent annually; or second, that Saudi Arabia purchase $110 billion in solar panels and battery storage equipment from American manufacturers in states such as Florida, Nevada and Georgia.

In the interest of stabilizing U.S.-Saudi relations, congressional leaders must recommend to President Trump that he forcefully inject American values of free expression into our important, enduring ties with Saudi Arabia.

Rob Sobhani, Ph.D., is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings, which works with a range of companies and investors in the United States, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. A former professor at Georgetown University, he has written several books, including, “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence,” and has worked with the King Abdullah Foundation on humanitarian and other projects.