US must proceed with caution on Saudi Arabia

Reno Gazette Journal November 25, 2018

Washington Post Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in early October. Khashoggi, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, is a former friend and advisor to the royal family and has self-exiled in the US since 2017. He has often been critical of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the 32-year old son of King Salman. Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate but never left. After denying knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Saudis finally admitted that he was killed in the consulate. More recent reports suggest that his murder was directly ordered by MBS.

While there has been bipartisan outcry in response to this atrocity and a demand for a strong response, any action by the US should be based on a clear-eyed cost-benefit analysis. The killing of Khashoggi is clearly a heinous act by MBS, and it certainly warrants a strong response. It is, however, important that we understand our priorities and goals for the region before we finalize a course of action. Since MBS became the second in command to the King, Saudi Arabia has implemented significant reforms. Cultural reforms include removal of the ban on women drivers, first ever concert by a female singer and restricting the powers of religious police. From a market standpoint, the Kingdom is diversifying its economy by expanding into non-oil sectors and announcing plans to list the shares of state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco. While these may seem like small tweaks to most Americans, these are seismic shifts in that region.

Most importantly, the Kingdom is fully aligned with the US, and our key ally Israel, in our goal to minimize the influence of Iran in the Middle East. Iran is a predominantly Shiite country and Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni country. The divisions between those two Muslim sects run deep and the US needs to leverage those divisions to ensure that Iran does not continue to pose a threat. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, as we all know, is a major oil producer. Recently, as the US imposed sanctions on Iran, Saudi Arabia agreed to increase oil production to offset the drop in oil exports from Iran due to the sanctions. It would serve us well to know that a major rift with Saudi Arabia, and any further disruption in oil production and exports would mean higher oil prices, which strengthens Putin’s hand as he gets to make a killing out of his oil exports. The relationship with Saudi Arabia at this point of time is too important for the US to help maintain stability and balance in that region.

One final point: American values need to be balanced with American interests. Our values are the barometer that steer the ship of freedom. American interests dictate that we navigate the choppy waters of international diplomacy. This doesn’t mean turning a blind eye towards atrocities, it merely means that our response is aligned with our long-term plans for the region. In the case of MBS, the US should proceed with moderate punishment in public, but dress-down MBS in private, and let him know that the consequences will be severe if there is one more transgression. The nomination of Gardnerville, NV resident and former CENTCOM Commander General John Abizaid as ambassador to Saudi Arabia is a step in that direction.