In order to avoid a rupture of U.S.-Saudi relations, President Biden refrained from including Mohammed bin Salman on the list of sanctioned Saudis after last month’s publication of the Director of National Intelligence report finding the crown prince had authorized the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. What message does this policy send to their counterparts and prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia and neighboring autocracies? If autocrats cannot be held accountable for their repression of peaceful dissent, ask human rights advocates, what’s the use of such dissent?
The administration argued it would use other economic, political and security means to curtail the crown prince’s ability to contact the White House directly whenever he wished. Biden has made it clear that his administration will deal with MBS only as the Saudi defense minister, despite the fact MBS remains the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
This position sends the wrong message to peaceful protesters and pro-democracy advocates in Saudi Arabia. They are now questioning the meaning of Biden’s “America is Back” phrase if human rights don’t take center stage in his policy toward the kingdom. Resetting U.S.-Saudi relations will ring hollow, they say, if MBS believes he got a pass on Khashoggi. According to a former ambassador to the region, Biden’s response to the intelligence report has made MBS a “de facto pariah.”
MBS has treated the people as subjects rather than citizens, expecting them to declare allegiance, but without the ability to hold him accountable. Like other autocrats, he has invoked the Islamic/tribal principle of bay’a, allegiance, but ignored the other part of this formula of governance, which is shura, or consultation. Unlike previous Saudi rulers, most who assumed the throne with the approval of senior members of the royal family according to acceptable succession traditions and rituals, MBS pushed himself to the apex of Saudi rule through economic largesse, and terror tactics against dissidents and perceived opponents and detractors within the upper echelons of the family.
In addition, MBS has used sophisticated technologies and brutal operatives to track, capture and kill dissidents, domestically and internationally.
MBS has also perpetuated the impression in Saudi Arabia that his vicious attacks on dissidents have been tolerated by some powerful foreign leaders, including former President Trump. Some of these leaders, in fact, have been reluctant to criticize his actions publicly because of perceived economic, security, geopolitical or counterterrorism considerations. The more bedazzled MBS became by the Trump administration’s support, the more power he sought within Saudi Arabia and the more brutal his methods became. His sycophantic media have even claimed that Biden’s decision not to punish him amounted to an “exoneration” of his involvement in the murder.
Although Saudi public opinion polls and anecdotal reports have suggested MBS currently enjoys significant popularity among Saudi youth, he will have to deal with the rising poverty and unemployment among these same youth.
As millions of young Saudis are unemployed or underemployed, many of the pro-reform activists are beginning to highlight the need for jobs, new employment initiatives and entrepreneurial start-ups. Many Saudi college graduates, activists say, still live at home and rely on their parents for support because they are unemployed or underemployed. They can’t get married or buy a house. What will the future of Saudi Arabia be if these conditions continue or deteriorate further?
Human rights and pro-reform activists in Saudi Arabia cannot hold public demonstrations freely, safely and without government repression. Regime security services frequently meet demonstrators with tear gas, beatings, deadly violence and arrests. Many are tried under “anti-terrorism” and “anti-state” laws. Pro-reform activists believe the intelligence report implicating MBS has neither deterred his behavior nor encouraged them to continue their human rights struggle.
If the Biden administration wants to put meat on the intelligence report’s bones, it should devise a simple, two-pronged approach . MBS should be told peaceful protesters should be allowed to raise their public demands for human rights and democratic reform freely and without regime harassment. He should also earmark a national fund for private, youth-driven entrepreneurial start-ups.
Two lessons have emerged from the 2011 Arab Spring: first, demands by Arab youth for justice, dignity and democracy are enduring despite entrenched autocratic regimes; and, second, relying on dictators and autocrats is problematic for U.S. foreign policy in the long run. The Biden administration would do well to send a discreet message to some senior princes in the ruling family that it is not necessarily inevitable or desirable, from Washington’s perspective, that MBS will succeed his father to the throne. Continued Al Saud rule is not beholden to any one specific prince.
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version was published on ResponsibleStatecraft.org