To most objective observers it must surely appear that the Saudi government murdered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul. But it is possible that we may never have absolute proof of the involvement of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS as he is widely known. This is in no small part because there is nothing under way that remotely resembles a professional and impartial investigation. The notion that the Saudis can be trusted to carry out such an inquiry would be laughable, but for the gruesome circumstances.
Less clear is why the crown prince would have ordered such an action even if one concludes he believed he could get away with it. It may have stemmed from his unhappiness with a journalist who regularly criticised the regime for insufficient reform. He may have sought to make an example of him to send a message to other would-be critics. There is also the view that the alleged killing may have stemmed from political infighting, as Mr Khashoggi was thought to be tied to elements of the royal family who lost out when MbS jumped the queue and consolidated present and future power in his own hands.
The most important question now facing the US and other governments is how to respond. So far President Donald Trump appears determined to let the Saudis and the crown prince off the hook. This is entirely consistent with his foreign policy of standing by strongmen and accepting their word — be it Vladimir Putin’s assurances that Russia never interfered in the 2016 US presidential election or Kim Jong Un’s promise he will rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons. If Ronald Reagan stood for the maxim “trust but verify”, Mr Trump embodies “trust and look away”.
The president claims the US must stand by MbS because his country is an important and valuable ally that buys significant amounts of arms, is helpful in Syria and in the fight against terrorism, and is a partner versus Iran. Saudi Arabia still produces about one out of every 10 barrels of oil in the world. Its investments are large and important to a number of businesses and projects.
This is all true, but it overlooks the fact that the impulsive and reckless crown prince often does things that harm or fail to help US interests.
The war in Yemen, arguably Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam, is a humanitarian and strategic disaster. MbS’s effort to destabilise Qatar has weakened a country that is home to the principal US military base in the region. There was also the bizarre kidnapping and detention of Lebanon’s prime minister in 2017. And the Saudis failed to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.
Moreover, the fate of Mr Khashoggi will make it much more difficult to line up international support to pressure Iran. Riyadh will appear to many to be at least as much of a problem as Tehran. MbS may be something of a reformer, but he is also an autocrat. The only reform acceptable to him is that which he controls and directs. Sadly, recent events could make it more difficult for him to carry out the reform his country so clearly needs.
The choices facing the US and other governments are not easy. They are the latest example of the foreign policy predicament of having to deal with flawed leaders of important countries. Principle and interests inevitably collide, as they often did during the cold war and when it came to dealing with the Shah’s Iran in the 1970s.
There are, however, some lessons from these experiences that suggest what could and should be done. First, it would be wise to distinguish between Saudi Arabia and MbS. This would argue for holding off anything that smacks of an unconditional embrace of MbS. There should be no invites to the White House or Downing Street.
Nor should it be business as usual for the business community. Chief executives, shareholders and workers should reconsider partnering with the government in Riyadh as long as MbS is in charge. The Trump administration or, failing that, the US Congress should place constraints on the use of American-supplied military equipment and intelligence. This is long overdue in the case of the misguided war in Yemen, but better late than never.
Fourth, governments should publicly press for an independent and unconstrained investigation of what happened in Istanbul. We should not be distracted by any Saudi attempt to scapegoat the “rogue elements” the government may well claim to be responsible.
Last, it could prove counter-productive and risky to call for the departure of the crown prince, who enjoys broad popularity at home. The alternative to him is not clear. Broad instability would serve the interests of no one.
But MbS has placed his own future in jeopardy, and other members of the royal family will come to understand that US and western support for him cannot be taken for granted. It is up to the Saudis to sort out their succession. It would be ironic if an action apparently carried out to strengthen his control over his country had just the opposite effect. But it is possible all the same.
This article was originally published in the Financial Times.