The Saudis managed to ride out, and recover, the damage done to their reputation by the September 11attacks. Will the Khashoggi disappearance prove harder to overcome?
The US-Saudi alliance has been an enduring feature of the Middle East security system since the end of the second World War. Regimes have fallen and borders have changed over the decades, but the Saudi kingdom has withstood the tumult and so has its partnership with Washington.
That is, at least until recently.
The disappearance—and apparent murder—of Saudi journalist and activist Jamal Khashoggi adds fresh strain to a relationship that has been fraught since the Obama administration.
CNN and other news channels report that Saudi Arabia will accept responsibility for Khashoggi’s apparent death, claiming that it was an accident that occurred during an interrogation.
Should the Saudis move forward with this explanation, it would be met with skepticism. Riyadh’s acceptance of responsibility, however, would be sufficient to ease tensions with both Washington and Ankara caused by the Khashoggi affair, providing the off-ramp they all clearly seek.
America and Saudi Arabia have little choice but to continue their alliance. But it will no longer be business as usual.
The Saudis are facing their greatest reputational crisis in the United States since 9/11. Its efforts to rebrand itself as a dynamic, innovative, and reforming country have been dealt a fatal blow. And it is essentially at war with a major US newspaper – a paper that speaks directly to Washington insiders. But Riyadh still has a network of supporters—both new and old—it can rely on in Washington to get what it wants.
An old alliance faces disruption
Riyadh has remained, until recently, a status quo, conservative force aimed at maintaining regional stability and order.
The Saudis opposed the spread of communism and revolutionary pan-Arabism, Iran’s revolutionary brand of Islam, and the expansionism of Baathist Iraq. As the world’s largest exporter of oil for most of the past half-century, Riyadh—with the exception of the 1973 Arab oil embargo—has served as a critical force for stabilising oil markets and, by extension, the global economy.
But, during the Obama administration, the Saudis lost their air of indispensability. Barack Obama put little effort into cultivating a relationship with then-King Abdullah. His administration’s embrace of the Arab Spring, especially protest movements in Egypt and (at least initially) Bahrain, shook the Saudis.
Obama’s half-hearted support for the Syrian opposition combined with his efforts to diplomatically engage Iran, culminating in the nuclear deal, sent a message to the Saudis that a new order was emerging. Not only would the Saudis no longer be the strategic partners to the extent they once were, but Washington was also pivoting toward Tehran.
Saudi anxiety grew even as Washington shored up Riyadh’s security with arms sales to the tune of over $100 billion and provided essential support for the Saudi-led Yemen war.
The rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or “MBS” in 2015 and election of President Donald Trump in 2016, brought a whirlwind of disruption to the regional and world order. MBS, like Trump, picked a host of battles within and without: combatting the old guard, discarding traditions of consensus, and taking on Iran.
MBS has attempted to weaken the social control of the Salafi establishment. He has restrained the religious police and opened up public space to women and entertainment in ways not seen in decades in his country.
The Saudi crown prince essentially adopted the Dubai playbook, marketing his country as a new center for entertainment and technological innovation. He also promised reform: a great leap forward in the Saudisation of the labor force, phasing out subsidies, and introducing a value-added tax.
The image-building effort began to work. MBS got all the friends money could buy in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and New York’s art world and major private equity players.
His muscular posture toward Iran also gained the backing of hardliners in Washington, including staunch supporters of the state of Israel opposed to both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
This new pro-Saudi coalition was far more diverse in many ways than its traditional grey-haired alliance of old State Department Arabists, current and former Pentagon and CIA officials, leading defense contractors, energy industry executives, and ranking members of Congress.
MBS still had his fair share of critics in the West, including the news side of The New York Times. The US Central Intelligence Agency also never quite seemed to develop faith in him after he ousted his cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince. And outrage over Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war slowly grew in Congress, particularly among progressive Democrats like Ro Khanna, Chris Murphy, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.
Riyadh gains new adversaries but some new friends will stick with it—for now
With the prevailing opinion that Saudi security personnel murdered Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has lost its unnatural partners in liberal Hollywood and Silicon Valley. For major industry players on America’s west coast, the cultural gap was already steep and now the reputational costs are just too high.
No public relations professional can undo the damage Riyadh has done to itself in the US media.
The Washington Post has already gone on an activist bent in the era of Trump. With the apparent killing of Post columnist Khashoggi, the paper’s editors and staff are now taking to the airwaves and social media, railing against Riyadh. The Saudi government has effectively picked a battle with Washington’s paper of record, and that war has bled onto US cable news channels CNN and MSNBC.
What Saudi Arabia risks now—much like Israel—is becoming a country that once had bipartisan support in the United States (at least among elected officials) to one that now only has support among the American right.
US policy toward Saudi Arabia is being seen through America’s partisan divide. Those who oppose Trump will oppose MBS too.
The bipartisan congressional consensus in favor of Saudi Arabia will continue to fray. The apparent killing of Khashoggi will hasten an ongoing process that has also been shaped by rising progressivism in the Democratic party, which is beyond Riyadh’s control.
We are now in the heat of the US midterm elections. After November, the campaign season for the 2020 elections will effectively begin. The Yemen war will face tougher congressional scrutiny—especially by contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Pro-Israeli voices and anti-Iran hardliners in Washington, however, will stick with Riyadh.
This is a critical juncture for their campaign to force Iran to agree to a tougher nuclear deal and roll back its regional influence. This is impossible without Saudi Arabia, with its influence over oil production and pricing.
Primary sanctions have damaged the Iranian economy. Secondary Iran-related sanctions will take effect in November. Saudi influence over oil markets may be vital to efforts to dissuade or prevent the European Union and India from continuing energy trade with Iran. Gulf Arab financial support is also critical to buttress anti-regime groups in Iran.
Many of those who are not enthusiastic about Saudi Arabia’s direction under MBS will still encourage caution so as to not weaken or isolate Riyadh. The country is vital to the stability of the region and the global economy. And so we may see conversations emerge in Washington about how to restrain or sideline MBS. But attempting such an effort could very well open up a Pandora’s Box.
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