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Has Mohammed bin Salman finally gone too far?

- October 16, 2018
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Cliff Owen/AP)

The unexplained disappearance and presumed killing of Jamal Khashoggi brings attention to the security crackdown in Saudi Arabia since Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”) became crown prince in June 2017. Successive waves of arrests targeted journalists, writers, clerics, business executives and, most recently, women’s rights advocates. Concern that he also was a target drove Khashoggi into self-imposed exile in the United States last summer. Khashoggi — a Washington Post columnist — wrote articles that portrayed a very different narrative than the one pushed by the legions of Saudi boosters in the West.

Khashoggi’s presence in the Washington area, his insight derived from decades of flitting in and out of the Saudi elite, and his easygoing, scholarly manner made him a go-to source for policymakers and journalists alike. The ruling circle around MBS was presented with the specter of the regime’s highest-profile and best-connected critic operating in the heart of the one Western capital in which it most wanted to drive the conversation.

Khashoggi’s connections to influential Saudis

For many years, the notion that Khashoggi would turn into the Saudi regime’s most-wanted opponent would have seemed inconceivable as he built a career as a journalist and an operative in close connection to the Saudi ruling establishment. Khashoggi worked closely on media initiatives with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire businessman detained in the November roundup of dozens of influential business executives and ruling-family members by MBS.

Khashoggi also advised Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, the former longtime head of Saudi intelligence who served as Saudi ambassador to Britain and then the United States in the 2000s. Proximity to the royal family went back generations — Khashoggi’s grandfather served as personal physician to Saudi Arabia’s founding king.

Controversies from 2003

Khashoggi’s relationship with the Saudi elite was, however, more nuanced and complicated, and there were several instances during his career when he incurred the authorities’ displeasure because of things he said or did. In 2003, he was fired as editor in chief of al-Watan newspaper after just 54 days after an argument between an al-Watan journalist and the powerful interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz.

Khashoggi’s tenure as the director of the Al-Arab News Channel — set up by Alwaleed and headquartered in Bahrain in a show of post-Arab Spring solidarity — was even shorter: The channel’s programing was suspended after its first day of operation for airing an interview with a Bahraini opposition politician. In December 2016, Saudi authorities banned Khashoggi from writing and publishing articles, allegedly after he made comments in the United States critical of president-elect Donald Trump.

MBS draws closer to Trump administration

His proximity to the inner core of Saudi power structures meant that Khashoggi’s presence in Washington represented a credible counter to the image presented by MBS. The entourage around the prince invested heavily in burnishing MBS’s credentials with the Trump White House as it took office and in driving the agenda on Persian Gulf affairs, including the war in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar, both associated closely with MBS and Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, his crown princely counterpart in Abu Dhabi. The fact that Khashoggi had a voice and, in The Post, a megaphone to share his dissenting views made him a powerful irritant, particularly at a time of mounting questioning of MBS’s approach to domestic and international policymaking.

Why has Khashoggi’s disappearance galvanized opinion so quickly and in such contrast to the much slower buildup of opposition to MBS’s many other mistimed ventures, which include, of course, more than 10,000 war dead in Yemen? Whoever made the decision to abduct or eliminate Khashoggi appears to have miscalculated or completely failed to anticipate the human-impact factor that is sweeping away Beltway goodwill toward Saudi Arabia and inflicting enormous reputational damage on the kingdom.

The future of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia

The pressure on Saudi Arabia and MBS, in particular, throws further doubt on the Trump administration’s approach to Middle East policy, as much of it was based on a close partnership with Saudi Arabia. The Middle East peace plan that Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, has reportedly spent months developing is believed to have relied on the cooperation of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in securing Palestinian and Arab support. President Trump publicly called for the Saudis to choose New York for the listing of 5 percent of Saudi Aramco and bragged repeatedly about the $110 billion arms deal he claims to have brokered during his visit to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in 2017.

The White House’s closeness to MBS has been controversial as the crown prince has made one mistake after another and has delivered little result, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz overrode MBS to reaffirm Saudi support for the Palestinians and condemn the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem, and the Aramco listing has been put on ice.

Members of Congress who viewed classified material related to the Khashoggi case have been the loudest in their outrage and unanimous in calls for a firm response, with influential Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) going so far as to refer to a “game-changer” in U.S.-Saudi relations. This will make it harder for the White House to rely on Saudi protestations of ignorance and any Saudi-Turkish agreement that tries to sweep Khashoggi’s disappearance under the carpet.

Investigative journalists have a habit of piecing developments together, and if irrefutable evidence emerges that ties elements of the Saudi leadership to a decision to snatch and grab Khashoggi, dead or alive, political calls for sanctions against the perpetrators may be deafening. Regardless of whether the midterm elections produce a Congress more or less favorable to the White House, the bipartisan condemnation of Khashoggi’s disappearance and the determination of the Beltway media to find out what happened to one of their own mean that simply reverting to a “business-as-usual” approach probably won’t be an option.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is the fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.