US must impose a price on Saudis, but one with a clear purpose

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The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has dominated international attention for weeks. Sadly, his death may have more impact on Saudi Arabia and its future than did his articles for the Washington Post.  In the best case, where his killing was not ordered but was the result of overzealous Saudi operatives, there is still something grievously wrong with a policy designed to silence dissidents or critics, either by rendition or intimidation.

As important as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s efforts to modernize the kingdom, and to reconcile Islam with modernity, may be, the killing of Khashoggi and the kingdom’s shifting stories cross the line. Nothing justifies them. The blowback against the kingdom is warranted and there needs to be a price.{mosads}

I say this as someone who believes that the U.S. government and private sector both have a strong stake in the success of the crown prince’s policy of transforming Saudi Arabia. That is why I have worked with or advised a variety of organizations to develop U.S.-Saudi business interests. The crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan did not promise democracy but did promise far-reaching social and economic changes. These changes, particularly those that required discrediting the strict and intolerant Wahhabi interpretation of Islam — an interpretation that has exported and fueled al Qaeda, ISIS and extremism throughout the Middle East and beyond — is very much in American interests. Similarly, creating a successful model of development for the Arab Middle East has long been needed to counter radical efforts — whether Islamist or secular — that promise progress and justice and always produce the opposite.

The Trump administration may focus less on these factors and more on others: our common interests to counter the Iranian determination to dominate the region, and our economic and business interests in the kingdom. Its definition of our interests has led the Trump administration to try to manage the fallout from the Khashoggi killing. Yes, we have a reason to preserve our relationship with Saudi Arabia. And, yes, given the reality that the crown prince, known as MbS, may be effectively running the kingdom for years to come, the administration must find a way to safeguard our ongoing interests.

But we also have an interest in preserving certain global norms — including those that reject, without exception, assassinating citizens in other countries or luring a journalist or a critic to a consulate either to kill or coerce them. That is surely also an important interest. Moreover, MbS, especially if he is going to be ruling Saudi Arabia for decades, must understand that this kind of behavior comes with a high cost — and can destroy the very objectives he has for the kingdom.

No doubt, he sees the opposition to his transformational objectives, especially from members of the royal family and the clerical establishment, as justifying a crackdown on all dissent. The irony is that by denying all dissent, he puts greater pressure on himself to demonstrate immediate success. But near-term success will prove exceedingly difficult, given the need to overhaul an educational system geared toward rote learning not problem solving, to socialize different work habits, and to change restrictive social and cultural mores.

In such circumstances, outside investment becomes even more urgent — and yet, acts like the killing of Khashoggi that raise reputational risks also cast doubt on the trustworthiness and stability of the kingdom and make attracting capital much harder. Moreover, while providing new forms of entertainment — movies, concerts, theme parks — provide an outlet for young people, they are not sufficient to achieve his transformational aims: Young people also need space to think, talk, assemble. And smart leadership would understand that, in a time of genuine transformation, there must be room to release tensions and frustrations.

Maybe experience will yield such understanding. For now, the Trump administration must impose a price but with a clear purpose; it should be less to punish Saudi Arabia and more to convince the king and MbS that there must be a change in behavior.

To that end, the administration should do more than revoke visas or impose sanctions on the individuals involved in the killing. It should:

  • Require a full accounting of what happened and an end to stories that shift almost daily. Even if the orders given were just a rendition or mafia-style intimidation effort, why were 15 people sent? Why was a forensic doctor included in the group?
  • Insist that international observers be permitted to attend the trials of those being prosecuted, to show the kingdom is not hiding anything.
  • Convey to the king and MbS that, henceforth, we will be louder and tougher about their crackdowns on dissent and dissidents.  
  • Suspend the delivery of offensive weapons to the kingdom, especially those that have been used to such terrible effect in Yemen. We should no longer support their air operations in Yemen, even as we increase our provision of defensive, anti-missile missiles to counter the rockets fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia.  (The message is that we will be there for Saudi defensive needs but will not support the way the conflict in Yemen is being conducted.)
  • Act to settle the imbroglio with Qatar by telling the King we will make a proposal and expect the Saudis (and the Qataris) to accept it.
  • Insist on creating a “no-surprises” channel in which decisions that could affect us and the Saudis are discussed prior to taking them. Yes, having an empowered U.S. ambassador in Riyadh with consistent and timely access could be an alternative means for preventing impulsive, ill-considered actions, but more systematic discussions of high level officials can make sure neither side surprises the other and policies become more considered.

Clearly, the Trump administration must act in what the Saudi Minister of Energy, Khalid al-Falih, has now publicly acknowledged “are difficult days” and a crisis the Saudis are going through. Not responding is not an option. Even as the administration seeks to preserve the U.S.-Saudi relationship, it must make the king and MbS understand that the risks are high for Saudi Arabia if it does not change the way it operates.

Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.

Tags Dennis Ross Foreign relations of Saudi Arabia House of Saud Jamal Khashoggi Killing of Jamal Khashoggi Mohammad bin Salman Saudi Arabia

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