The Saudis have also opened their checkbook to support U.S. aid initiatives in the Middle East. In response to American prodding, they have offered $100 million in reconstruction assistance to Syria. This is a welcome step, but they could be doing much more, as, for example, they’ve been doing in Iraq.
It is hard to assess the value of Saudi counterterrorism cooperation because most of it operates under a cloak of secrecy. Whatever contributions Saudis make in intelligence sharing and law enforcement, though, serve Saudi interests. They are not being proffered as favors to the United States. The same is generally true for Saudi energy policy, where decisions on oil production and exports are largely driven by market forces and the kingdom’s own needs.
Against these modest gains, MbS’s mistakes weigh heavily. A Saudi-led military coalition is waging an inhumane campaign against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen, giving al-Qaeda and ISIS greater room to maneuver and handing Iran greater opportunities to spread its influence in Yemen. The wanton killing and destruction, much of it done with U.S. military support, has further sullied America’s reputation. The Saudis have resisted attempts by the United Nations to broker a political settlement of the dispute, as well as UN investigative efforts to establish accountability for possible Saudi war crimes.
The administration’s efforts to turn the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into an effective anti-Iranian coalition have foundered over the bitter and unnecessary fight that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have picked with Qatar. Their joint blockade of Qatar pushed the gulf state to strengthen its ties with Iran, and has greatly complicated administration efforts to confront the Iranian challenge in the region by turning the GCC into a more military force and forming a new “Middle East Strategic Alliance.” The Saudis have made a number of unreasonable demands on Qatar while rejecting U.S. efforts to resolve the dispute.
The Saudis have also dampened Kushner’s hopes of making the “deal of the century.” King Salman made it clear to the White House that Saudi Arabia will not support the new American Middle East peace plan unless it explicitly designates East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state, a demand Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is likely to reject.There was always too much magical thinking in the Trump administration’s conception of what the Saudis would do to reach out to Israel and pressure the Palestinians when it came to peacemaking. Now, in the wake of the Khashoggi affair, Saudi decision making on this and other issues may become even more inward looking.
All of this helps explain why the Saudi role in the disappearance of Khashoggi is such a critical inflection point in U.S.-Saudi relations. Unlike 9/11, where there was no compelling evidence that the senior Saudi leadership had foreknowledge of or played a role in the attacks, the killing of Khashoggi could not have taken place without the express approval of the crown prince. Even if those looking for a way to defuse this crisis believe it can be dismissed as a rogue operation and those who perpetrated the killing can be handed over for trial (most likely magical thinking), nobody would ever believe that MbS didn’t bear responsibility for the affair. This single act—the culmination of a series of repressive actions against women activists, journalists, and family members—will make it nearly impossible to continue to mask the obvious: MbS may be committed to serious reform, but it will be directed from the top down by a ruthless and inexperienced leader who brooks no criticism or dissent and who’s prepared to go to murderous lengths to eliminate any opposition. The message to Saudis who believed they could criticize MbS with impunity is that no one can protect them. If the allegations of Khashoggi’s horrific killing are confirmed, it will mark MbS permanently and make it impossible for the administration to tout his reformist credentials.