The American-Saudi strategic relationship, which began in the 1940s, has reached a critical juncture and should be reset. The two central premises that underpinned the relationship included Saudi Arabia selling its oil to the United States in large quantities at reasonable prices. In return, the United States would protect the survival of the kingdom under the rule of the Al Saud family.
In addition, the United States looked to Saudi Arabia over the years to help maintain regional stability in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. Washington also expected Saudi Arabia to push for favorable production and pricing policies through the OPEC cartel.
This relationship has evolved over time as regional threats and challenges became more ominous and more complex. Saudi leadership succession and an intermittent power struggle among different factions of the Al Saud ruling family, which is currently happening regarding Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), has thrust the United States into the uncomfortable position of taking sides among the competing factions.
As MbS’ hold on power has become more precarious because of the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it is time to take another look at this special relationship. Such a review would raise several questions. If the United States no longer relies significantly on Saudi oil, should Washington continue to cling to the old oil-for-security formula? As the international community demands that Khashoggi’s Saudi murderers be brought to justice, can the United States afford to ignore being linked to MbS’ culpability in this “premeditated crime”?
Regionally, should Washington maintain this relationship in the midst of MbS’s illegal siege on Qatar and his disastrous Saudi war in Yemen? How long can the United States afford to tell the world that values of justice, human rights, and freedom of dissent no longer matter and that bloody autocrats, like MbS, are free to act without accountability? Should the personal relationship between MbS and Jared Kushner be the default substitute for America’s strategic relations with the region?
American presidents have accepted that Saudi kings ascend to the throne through the system of ijma’ or consensus and bay’a or allegiance within the Saudi ruling family. Although undemocratic by Western standards, this tribal system has maintained relative stability in the kingdom. American policymakers have tolerated the Saudi governing principle, despite its absolute rule, as long as it maintained family harmony within Al Saud and domestic stability.
MbS has upended this traditional practice by usurping power from his senior and more experienced relatives within the family with no regard for the tribal-religious governing tradition of the kingdom. He has jettisoned family rule in favor of a strongman autocracy leading to mistrust and uncertainty.
His power grab and repression have put American-Saudi relations at risk. MbS feels empowered by his close relationship to the Trump White House. Is Washington becoming complicit in the rise of an MbS-driven absolutism in Riyadh? Will America bring about the collapse of Saudi Arabia in order to save MbS?
Saudi Arabia might be too big to fail but certainly not MbS. If the Trump administration fails to act, what role should Congress play in curbing MbS’ insatiable thirst for power, bellicosity toward Qatar and his bloody war in Yemen?
The Trump administration’s announcement that sanctions will be imposed on 17 Saudis involved in Khashoggi’s murder is no more than a slap on the wrist of the crown prince. It is inconceivable that MbS wasn’t aware of the operation to murder Khashoggi, as the recently leaked CIA report asserts. He should be held accountable. Sanctions don’t cut it.
MbS has become a liability for U.S.-Saudi relations, which are more critical than any one leader, especially one like MbS who has usurped power. If the Saudi royal family wants to maintain the relationship with the United States, King Salman should work with the Al Saud family council to devise a new succession plan that would remove MbS from power. American-Saudi relations should not be derailed by a power-hungry young prince who seems to be taking advantage of an ailing king and an amenable president.
Emile Nakhleh is a retired senior intelligence service officer and was awarded the Director’s Medal while at the CIA. A longer version of this article was originally published on LobeLog.