The Hill | ROBERT JORDAN: In the wake of the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia are at the lowest point since the 9/11 attacks. I arrived in Riyadh as the new United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia a month in the aftermath of that tragedy 17 years ago.
My first question to Prince Salman, at the time governor and now king, was “How could it be that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis?” His answer astonished me as he said, “There were no Saudis involved in the attacks. It was an Israeli plot, orchestrated by the Mossad.” Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi interior minister, gave me the same answer. It was not until I met with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, that I got a straight answer and a commitment to cooperate in our investigation.
Working together in going after Al Qaeda, however, was difficult to implement. It took almost two years to achieve significant alignment in fighting terrorism and its financing in the Kingdom. Meanwhile, Saudis bristled angrily at the negative media coverage and the highly critical commentary from American politicians and religious figures. Relations reached a low point from which we gradually emerged. One of the journalists who helped me understand the dynamics of Saudi society and the influence of religious extremism was Jamal Khashoggi.
In the weeks since his murder it has been equally difficult to get a straight answer from the Saudis. Responses have morphed from outright denial that he died in the consulate to a “rogue operation” that accidentally went wrong, to admission of premeditated murder, all with a firewall carefully constructed around Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Nearly all American commentators, including General Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have pointed a finger at Mohammed Bin Salman, concluding that his style of micromanagement and brutal disdain for dissent make it inconceivable that he was not directly involved in the murder plot. Even President Trump has opined that the crown prince is the one in charge of “running things” in the government.
Mohammed Bin Salman owns nearly all of the policy failures of the Kingdom over the last two years. From the failed war in Yemen to the blockade of Qatar and the destruction of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the incarceration of Saudi princes and oligarchs in the Ritz Carlton last year, the abduction of the prime minister of Lebanon, the stalled public offering of the stock in Saudi Aramco, and the jailing of mild nonviolent dissenters, including women who simply wanted the right to drive, these are hardly achievements that enhance the resume of one who would be king. The horrific Khashoggi murder must be seen in this context.
American policymakers are faced with a difficult decision. When a key ally goes off the rails and lunges toward becoming a rogue state, the alliance is severely tested. It is important to remember that the alliance is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, not Mohammed Bin Salman personally. We faced a similar challenge after 9/11 with tepid cooperation in going after Al Qaeda and launching airstrikes on Afghanistan from a Saudi air base. It was a time of serious and candid talks with Saudi leadership.
The Khashoggi affair reminds us that alliances do not necessarily last forever, and even common interests can change over time. Alliances also can evolve into more distant and transactional relationships when common interests are diminished in light of egregious conduct by one of the allies. This may be such a time. The only American response to the grotesque barbarism of the Saudi hit team and its leaders thus far has been to cancel the visas of the assassination squad. Those affected may be disappointed to lose their opportunities to visit Disney World, but this is hardly the stuff of robust diplomacy by a world superpower. Leaders in Congress have properly invoked the Global Magnitsky Act, which requires a government investigation of the affair and a decision whether the Saudis have committed an extrajudicial killing or torture, essentially already admitted by their government. Sanctions are then mandated.
This crisis may also provide an opportunity. A pause in arms sales negotiations is in order. Apparently no actual sales agreements have been consummated except for a Lockheed Martin helicopter sale. Arms sale negotiations can take years, so no critical path appears jeopardized. A pause in American assistance in the war in Yemen should likewise be mandated, providing time for a reality check on the rationale and likelihood of success, along with better understanding of the political objective, if any. A further reality check is in order regarding the blockade of Qatar. Surely there is room for negotiation without imposing an existential threat upon the Saudis. Scaling back visas, restricting investments, and pausing military training also might be on the table.
American leaders need to remind the Saudis that they need the United States more than the United States needs them, and they are not the senior partner in this relationship. The frank discussions that we must pursue should also include insistence on the much touted transition to a more “moderate” form of Islam. Despite glowing public relations spiels promising this moderation, we see a pernicious spread of intolerant Wahhabi Islam into South Asia, undoubtedly financed by the Saudis.
The private sector also has a role to play. The withdrawal of many senior attendees from the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh was an important first step. Business leaders are increasingly sensitive to shareholders and boards of directors insisting on corporate social responsibility. Avoidance of reputational damage should be a priority.
Finally, the United States needs a closer diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia in these troubled times. We have not had an official ambassador to the Kingdom for almost two years. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has pledged to bolster our diplomatic corps and restore “swagger” to the State Department. Saudi Arabia would be a good place to start.
Robert W. Jordan served as the United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003. He is now a diplomat in residence at the John Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University in Texas and the author of “Desert Diplomat: Inside Saudi Arabia Following 9/11.”