The U.S. Needs a Reset in its Relations with Saudi Arabia
Fifteen months ago in Riyadh, I met Mohammed bin Salman, who was then deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, for the first time. During that meeting, I heard bin Salman say something I had never heard an Arab leader admit before — that Islamist extremism is a problem within Islam and must be solved by Muslims with the help of Western democracies. At the time, I never would have thought the crown prince would be implicated in the gruesome murder of a journalist.
After becoming crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman began implementing much-needed social reforms in Saudi Arabia, including allowing women to drive and reopening movie theaters for the first time in decades. The next time I met him in Washington, he explained the importance of these reforms for revitalizing Saudi society and the economy. After all, a prosperous Saudi Arabia is very much in America’s interest. Like so many other Western officials, I had hopes that he would lead Saudi Arabia in a positive new direction free from oppression and political persecution.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has largely destroyed those hopes.
Freedom of the press underpins free societies around the world. Unfortunately, acts of violence and intimidation against journalists, such as Khashoggi’s atrocious murder, are all too common. As of Dec. 14, 34 journalists have been killed in retaliation for their work in 2018, according for the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly double the number in 2017. The United States must not only unequivocally support international press freedom but also condemn all leaders who intimidate, imprison or murder journalists and dissidents, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Sanctioning any Saudi official involved in Khashoggi’s murder is the right decision and reaffirms America’s commitment to human rights and civil liberties.
Now we face the challenge of balancing those values with U.S. security needs in the Gulf region. The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been an important part of our foreign policy in the Middle East for more than 70 years. Today, Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf are crucial allies in the fight against terrorism, as well as efforts to counter the rogue and destabilizing regime in Iran. They are doing both in Yemen, where the Saudis and Emiratis are fighting al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and a rebel group backed by Iran. In the past three years, the Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched more than 130 Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles at Saudi cities. The Houthi advance has also raised the possibility that a hostile rebel group could seize power on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.
At the same time, the war has also created a serious humanitarian crisis with appalling civilian casualties, the destruction of hospitals, schools and water supplies, and more than 8 million people in need of emergency food aid. Here, too, we must urge both sides to do the right thing.
The Saudi government must change its policies, or the United States will find it impossible to stand behind a regime that has joined the ranks of states willing to murder those who disagree with or criticize its policies. If the crown prince and the government of Saudi Arabia do not change course, then King Salman, the leader of Saudi Arabia, must rethink who should be his successor.
In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder, there must be dramatic and demonstrated change in policy in Riyadh. First and foremost, we need meaningful commitments from the Saudis that they will respect human rights. This will require frank conversations between U.S. officials and their Saudi counterparts. The crown prince should immediately release all imprisoned dissidents, including Raif Badawi, Samar Badawi and other women’s rights activists who were arrested earlier this year. The Saudis also must follow through on holding all of the officials involved in Khashoggi’s murder accountable.
In Yemen, meanwhile, diplomatic cooperation with the U.N. special envoy must continue to bring an end to the war and resulting humanitarian crisis. The recent cease-fire in the port of Hodeidah, a crucial entry point for humanitarian aid, is a welcome first step to relieving the suffering of the Yemeni people. Any work on a potential peace settlement must safeguard the well-being of Yemenis while preventing Iran or any terrorist groups from gaining a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula. Finally, Congress should require that future arms sales to Saudi Arabia be preconditioned on real social and human rights progress. Such a policy will take into account the importance of Saudi Arabia to our interests in the region while also standing up for our values.
Saudi Arabia is a crucial ally in the Middle East, supporting U.S. efforts to fight terrorism and halt the ambitions of a hostile and increasingly aggressive Iran. But the murder of Jamal Khashoggi represented a blatant disregard for human rights and an unfortunate reversal from the hopes many of us had for the new Saudi leader. The crown prince and his government must change course, or there will need to be new Saudi leadership if the close, decades-long cooperation between Washington and Riyadh is to continue.