By F. Gregory Gause III
Oct. 12, 2018
It’s been more than a week since the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared from the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, and it’s still not clear what happened to him. What is clear, however, is that the official Saudi story that he left the building freely isn’t believable.
Whatever occurred, it’s also clear that the Khashoggi affair is just the latest sign of Saudi Arabia’s growing recklessness under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Yet more chaos is the last thing the Middle East needs, and it hardly serves America’s objectives in the region.
The Saudi-American relationship has never been based on shared political values. Since it began in earnest in the 1930s, it has been driven by oil and security, and so also by a desire for some measure of stability in the Middle East. Each side has at times strayed from that core goal, notably, in the case of the United States, with the 2003 Iraq War. Yet both Washington and Riyadh have generally preferred maintaining a degree of quiet in the region, if only because that kept the oil flowing and challengers to the American order — the Soviet Union, Iran, Saddam Hussein — at bay. But Saudi foreign policy now threatens that common interest: M.B.S., as the crown prince is known, is a disrupter.
When he first aimed those impulses at shaking up Saudi domestic politics — disempowering the religious establishment, permitting women to drive, opening up Saudi social life, moving the economy away from its overdependence on oil — M.B.S. won plaudits in the West. But when it comes to foreign policy, his approach has failed and it’s dangerous.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began a boycott against Qatar, another Persian Gulf monarchy, for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and maintaining ties with Turkey and Iran. Far from bringing the Qataris to heel, the embargo has driven them closer to Ankara and Tehran, and may complicate American efforts to isolate Iran.
Last November, Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon, a longtime Saudi ally, announced his resignation while on a visit to Riyadh — only to rescind it later, after he had returned to Lebanon. He had been coerced to step down by the Saudi government, which apparently hoped to precipitate a crisis in Lebanese politics and reduce the increasing influence of the Shiite organization Hezbollah. The gambit backfired: Especially after a good showing in Lebanon’s elections earlier this year, Hezbollah is stronger than ever.
Most consequential is the war in Yemen. In 2015, a Saudi-Emirati coalition intervened to prevent the Houthis, an Iran-allied rebel faction, from gaining control of the country. But those forces have yet to dislodge the Houthis from any of the major cities in northern Yemen, and in the meantime the country’s situation overall has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations. The continued chaos offers Iran a low-cost opportunity to drain Saudi resources, and it opens up new possibilities for Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to take root in Yemen.
M.B.S.’s overly ambitious and misguided foreign policy initiatives have left Saudi Arabia weaker and the region less stable, undermining American objectives. The same goes for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. He was no real threat to M.B.S., but now his suspected abduction and murder by Saudi officials in Istanbul is worsening Saudi Arabia’s relations with Turkey, a major regional power, at a time when the two countries should be looking for common ground to limit Iran’s clout in Syria.
Yet Mr. Trump has made no effort to restrain M.B.S.’s adventurism. The two men’s apparent closeness is not the cause of the prince’s recklessness; for example, Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen while Barack Obama was still president. But the Trump administration’s full-throated endorsement of M.B.S. is hurting America’s interests.
Mr. Trump initially supported the Saudi-Emirati boycott of Qatar, undercutting the efforts of his own administration to defuse the confrontation. (He seems to have come around, but after the divisions had become even more entrenched.) He continues to support the Saudi position on Yemen, despite the war’s colossal humanitarian toll and mounting opposition to it in the United States Congress.
With Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, it’s time for Mr. Trump to call M.B.S. to account. The Saudi ambassador to the United States has denied any Saudi involvement in the journalist’s plight. If that proves to be untrue, Washington needs to send him home.
The president claims to have a personal connection with M.B.S.? Instead of trying to jawbone the Saudis to cut oil prices by a few dollars per barrel, he should use whatever leverage he has to convince Riyadh to act more responsibly — in Yemen, regarding Qatar and with Turkey, in order to contain the effects of the war in Syria and limit Iran’s reach there and in Iraq.
The United States needs a stable Saudi Arabia, as well as a Saudi Arabia that isn’t destabilizing the Middle East.
F. Gregory Gause III is the head of the International Affairs Department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.