Trump's love affair with Mohammed bin Salman must end

Trump's love affair with Mohammed bin Salman must end
Comment: The US Senate and the press are vital tools in pressuring Trump to change his tune on Saudi Arabia, writes Imad K. Harb.
5 min read
22 Oct, 2018
Trump has shown an embarrassing reluctance to call for a serious investigation [Anadolu]
The cold-blooded murder of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has developed into a cataclysmic event, and will likely continue to send shockwaves through the fraught field of long-term American-Saudi relations.

From the White House to relevant executive agencies to Congress and the press, Khashoggi's assassination is unlikely to fade from debate any time soon. How the journalist's murder will impact President Trump's agenda - whatever it is - in the Middle East, however, remains to be seen.  

As confidence in the rationality of Saudi decision-making recedes, it becomes more difficult for the Trump administration to continue relying on Riyadh to play a role in that agenda.

More pointedly, the administration may soon discover that it is better off with someone other than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) at the helm of the Saudi ship.

Such a scenario would obviously fly in the face of the current status quo; President Trump's admiration for MbS, his financial ties to the Kingdom and his son-in-law Jared Kushner's close relationship with the crown prince. These factors make the president's relationship with Saudi Arabia more personal than institutional, and his position on the Khashoggi affair even more stark and controversial.

Indeed, the president's position since 2 October has shown an embarrassing reluctance to call for a serious investigation into Saudi responsibility for Khashoggi's killing. He has also offered potential 'get outs', by floating the idea of "rogue killers", absolving the Saudi leadership and giving Riyadh more time to cover up the Istanbul crime.

But with an overwhelming body of evidence piling up that points to the Saudi leadership's responsibility - specifically Mohammed bin Salman - two essential US institutions are now pivotal for correcting the errant politics of the president.

Congress as an institutional check

As a repository of public political opinion in Washington and around the country, US Congress has over the last two weeks shown that it opposes the president on the Khashoggi affair. In fact, some very close allies of Mr Trump went on record to declare their consternation about Khashoggi's assassination:

Two essential US institutions are now pivotal for correcting the errant politics of the president

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) - long-time friend and defender of Saudi Arabia and the president - declared that he is ready to "sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia" and that MbS is a "wrecking ball" and "a rogue crown prince".

Other Republican senators such as Marco Rubio (Florida) and Jeff Flake (Arizona) voiced similar views, with the former calling for a full revision of American-Saudi relations and worrying about US credibility on human rights.

Citing the congressional Magnitsky Act, Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan (R-WI) was open to levying sanctions on Saudi Arabia, if it was proven to be responsible for Khashoggi's killing.

On the Democratic side, Senator Patrick Leahy issued a statement calling for treating "the Saudi royal family as the criminal enterprise that it is" if indeed the Saudi government had tortured and killed Khashoggi. From his perch on the Senate's Judiciary and Appropriations Committees, he obviously spoke for the Democratic caucus.

Criticism of the Saudi war in Yemen has been a staple of Democratic, Independent, and some Republican senators' action, as Chris Murphy (D-CT), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Mike Lee (R-UT), among others have demonstrated. Much of the criticism concerning the war in Yemen has also been channeled into the Khashoggi killing.

In fact, legislation in the US Senate in March 2018 against providing assistance to the Saudi war effort there failed only relatively narrowly, with a vote of 55-44. It could very well pass today if put to the test in light of current conditions.

In other words, the lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership after the Khashoggi murder will likely prompt a re-evaluation of American relations with Saudi Arabia. While it is too early yet to discern how future events may unfold, calls for a radical change in the current Saudi leadership may quicken and become too hard to ignore.

The press as the public conscience

News coverage and opinion pieces in Washington and around the country have clearly swung against Saudi Arabia, depriving it of the already scant support it may have had among the American public.

In its latest editorial on October 18 on the subject, The New York Times editorial board reminded readers that besides being a "heinous murder", Khashoggi's killing is a crime against the United States. While acknowledging the importance of US relations with Saudi Arabia, the board still demanded a severe response against its leadership.

On the same day, The Washington Postto which Khashoggi contributed a column, published an article by its editorial board enumerating the many examples of Mohammed bin Salman's regressive policies.

Read more: Murder in the Saudi consulate: Inside Jamal Khashoggi's killing

Additionally, other media personalities and outlets as well as businessmen expressed their consternation by pulling out of a "Davos in the Desert" flagship conference hosted by Saudi Arabia. The message should be clear that the world will no longer tolerate what is seen as lawlessness and disregard for basic freedoms and respect for human rights.

With the outcry in Congress and on the pages of newspapers, President Trump may not be able to continue to buy time before he has to do something about Khashoggi's murder. After all, a weakened Saudi Arabia under the glaring light of domestic and international attention will not serve his legacy or interests.

Calls for a radical change in the current Saudi leadership may quicken and become too hard to ignore

In the end, Trump and his administration may find no way out of demanding a radical change in the Saudi leadership.

A recent Reuters report suggests that Saudi King Salman - technically the ultimate authority in the Kingdom – has apparently taken things in Saudi Arabia into his own hands. It can only be hoped that MbS' days may indeed, be numbered.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.

Follow us on Twitter: @The_NewArab