US-Saudi ties, a year after Khashoggi's death

US-Saudi ties, a year after Khashoggi's death
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One year on from the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, what progress has been made in repairing the relationship between Riyadh and Washington? His body still has not been found, and a trial of those allegedly involved has yet to reach a verdict. But Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MbS, told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that, although he didn’t order the killing, “As a leader, I take full responsibility.”

Such words may be enough for some but probably are not enough for many in the U.S. Congress. The CIA concluded that MbS almost certainly ordered the execution, a judgment of the intelligence agency that, perhaps perversely, people who usually might be skeptical now find utterly believable.

On the credit side of the ledger, MbS still wins points for taking on the Saudi establishment and stopping the kingdom’s support for, or at least apparent indifference toward, extremist Islam. There also is determination to get out of the rut of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, about which he has spoken behind not-fully-closed doors in terms of Israeli-Saudi technological cooperation.

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Yet, this has to be balanced against problems of which Khashoggi is merely one of several headlines. Social progress in the kingdom runs in parallel with a litany of human rights abuses, of which the most prominent is the continued detention of driver-activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who had the temerity to live tweet her escapades until her arrest. According to her family, she is still held because she is not prepared to be videoed saying she was not tortured or abused in prison.

Another detainee is blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam.” Fifty lashes have been inflicted so far. The fact that the sentence was given and partially carried out during the reign of King Abdullah, the predecessor of MbS’s father, King Salman, may prompt some to ask what better way of showing change in the kingdom than by letting him go. But that logic does not appear to work with MbS, who therefore cannot even take credit for suspending the lashing part of the sentence.

To use an adjective from a Financial Times editorial describing the Saudi heir to the throne, MbS is “headstrong.” He also is resolute, not apparently given to changing his mind. Hence, his determination to press on with the initial public offering of stock in the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil company, even after its vulnerabilities were exposed in the mid-September attack on its Abqaiq processing plant, an attack ascribed to Iran. So, is his lofty acceptance of leadership responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder by a dozen of so of “the 3 million people who work for me” going to be as much as we get in way of closure?

In his CBS interview, MbS emphasized the threat of Iran and said of U.S.-Saudi ties that “the relationship is much larger than” Khashoggi’s murder. Perhaps unintentionally, he may have wandered into another quagmire. Congress and the American public, as well as international opinion, is at best uncertain about U.S. policy towards Iran, if not openly critical. And, now, President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE is trying to avoid a military confrontation even as it suggests weakness to Iran.

MbS’s lack of reflection is matched by the speed of unexpected events in the kingdom. On Saturday, a fire started at lunchtime in the Jeddah train station of the high-speed rail service started last year between the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The official Saudi Press Agency reported hours later that the fire was “under control.” In reality, the huge building had been gutted. No cause of the fire has been announced yet, so Iranian sabotage is a possibility, the logic of that being to damage the kingdom’s ability to look after Muslim pilgrims.

It’s going to be interesting to see the extent to which MbS’s acceptance of responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder is heard amid all the anniversary articles and their ghastly details of his dismemberment.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.