Everything You Think You Know About Mohammad bin Salman is Wrong
Thomas Friedman of The New York Times called him the voice of Saudi Arabia’s “silent majority” and a “reformer.” President Trump has praised his relationship with the young ruler. Effusive praise and great expectations have been bestowed upon Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his short time as Saudi Arabia’s head of state. Yet MBS, as he has become known colloquially, has been no benevolent figure. He has been no savior of the Middle East, and no ally of progress and human rights. Yet as he builds his throne from lies and deceits and the skulls and blood of his political enemies, as well as dissidents and even innocent Yemeni schoolchildren, as he defies such crucial liberal values as state sovereignty and due process, the United States stands by his regime and gives him a green light to continue to repress and murder around the world.
To his credit, MBS’s initial rise to power could easily have been mistaken for a desire for reform, and liberal thinkers and policymakers, desperate to find a unicorn, a true liberal reformer in the Middle East, were eager to hop on the bandwagon. After decades of campaigning and even prison time, Saudi women were finally granted the right to drive in late 2017. This monumental victory for the women’s rights movement in the kingdom empowered many to fully participate in the Saudi economy for the first time and was lauded by the State Department and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
However, we know now that that was not the full story, as has been the case with much of MBS’s Vision 2030 plan to modernize Saudi society. The driving ban, the last of its kind on the face of the planet, has been a subject of protest since at least 1990. Yet for the activists who risked their lives and their reputations going to jail and being smeared by the state, the victory is incomplete. That is because at least 11 leaders of the women’s rights movement were detained by the state a month prior to the announcement. State-linked media and social media smeared the women as traitors and promoted conspiracy theories that they were foreign actors conspiring to undermine the state. Some of these women have been referred to the Specialized Criminal Court, potentially facing up to 20 years in prison, while others have been placed under travel restrictions and forced into silence. “On the one hand the crown prince is promoting himself as a reformer and as a progressive, and on the other hand he has intensified this crackdown on dissent, on free speech, on allowing any form of free thought in the kingdom. You can’t rebrand yourself as a reformer if you are arresting peaceful activists simply because they are calling for reforms,” points out Samah Hadid of Amnesty International. The hypocrisy is amazing, albeit not staggering in light of the crown prince’s full record.
This is not to say that MBS has failed entirely to reform his country. He has begun to allow women to attend sporting events and has made strides to reduce the influence of the religious police. Yet even as he promotes a reformist vision of his domestic initiatives, those initiatives often seek only to protect himself, such as when Saudi police arrested 11 princes and scores of businessmen and officials. MBS claimed that it was a crackdown on corruption, but the sheer number of arrests and the fact that the members of the royal family were held in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton without anything that could even loosely be interpreted as the presumption of innocence or due process sure makes it look like a purge that served to eliminate MBS’s challengers and cement his authority. This appears all the more likely given that members of his own family have cast doubt on his leadership in foreign affairs.
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Some eyes, like those of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rand Paul (R-KY), began to open and recognize the brutality and precariousness of the bin Salman regime in 2016 during the most recent and ongoing Yemeni Civil War. U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen began in 2015 under President Obama when the U.S. provided targeting assistance and refueling for Saudi air strikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the absence of a congressional authorization to enter into hostilities. The unilateral intervention was meant to demonstrate to the Gulf monarchies (the Saudis and the UAE) that the United States was not abandoning its strategic alliance after the Iran nuclear agreement and to the world that the U.S. would not stand by as the rebels took down the internationally recognized government of the Arab world’s poorest state. The administration had no idea what it was getting itself into, and they had no idea just how sinister the intentions of MBS were.
Since the election of President Trump, the Americans have become more entrenched in Yemen, with the introduction of Army Green Berets on the ground, American bombs used in the war, and training of Saudi pilots by American contractors on American soil. As the American presence has increased, the Saudis have become emboldened, leading a bombing campaign that has flagrantly ignored human rights and led to unprecedented suffering. Mere statistics cannot do the evil perpetrated by the coalition with the assistance of the United States, nor will the recitation of these statistics bring justice to those who suffer. But in all, these American allies have been accused by UN human rights experts of such heinous and indefensible war crimes and crimes against humanity as torture, enforced disappearances, recruiting of children, and aerial strikes that indiscriminately targeted civilians in such innocuous and sacred places as houses, markets, funerals, weddings, civilian boats, and hospitals. In fact, even as the war has created the largest cholera outbreak in modern human history, the coalition bombed a cholera treatment facility. Lest the depravity and indiscriminate force end there, in the summer of 2018, Saudi bombers dropped an American-supplied, Lockheed Martin-made bomb on a school bus, killing 40 innocent children and eleven adults. The UN also argues that these errors are not at all abnormal, estimating that as many as one in three Saudi airstrikes are hitting civilian targets.
The statistics of the war in Yemen are as staggering as they are heartbreaking, as unfortunate as they are critical of the Saudi coalition. In the past year and a half, more than 1.2 million suspected cases of cholera and 2,515 deaths have been reported in Yemen, according to a World Health Organization spokesman. UNICEF says that 30 percent of those infected have been children, with 1.8 million more currently at risk of contracting the lethal disease due to malnutrition. This was exacerbated by the coalition air strikes that took out a critical sanitation facility and water station in an area where the WHO says only half of all health facilities are functional. Save the Children estimates that the Saudi coalition strikes against these targets doubled the frequency of cases within a single month. Furthermore, food insecurity may be an even larger problem. A full two-thirds of the Yemeni population (18 million people) are food insecure, with more than a quarter of the population severely food insecure. It is also estimated that as many as 85,000 Yemeni children have starved to death. At some point, the United States government must ask itself whether the evils perpetrated by the Houthi rebels are vastly more evil than the ones it is helping to inflict on the Yemeni people, and a proper reading of the situation would find no equivalence between the Houthi actions and the Saudi coalitions crimes and no justification for continued American support for this brutal war of MBS’s design.
Yet it took the loss of one of America’s own for that reflection to come. By the day, more and more anecdotal evidence is coming to light that places the responsibility of the assassination of Turkish-American Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi squarely on the shoulders of the Saudi Arabian government upon the order of the crown prince. At first, the Saudi government told the world that Khashoggi, a frequent critic of the regime, disappeared mysteriously after leaving the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents related to his upcoming wedding. Over time, the story evolved to the point where the Saudi attorney general declared that Turkish investigators informed the Saudis that Khashoggi had been killed in a premeditated act of murder. This refuted the latest in a string of ludicrous Saudi explanations, including one declaring that Khashoggi was killed in a one-on-fifteen spur of the moment fist fight. Apparently the Saudis believed they could get away with the tall tale that a 59-year-old man chose to fight 15 random men and fist fought despite evidence that he had no fists due to being dismembered and beheaded with a bone saw during his murder and put in a box. It’s just like my mother always told me: never bring a bone saw to a fist fight.
In all seriousness, now that we know damn well that the dog did not eat the crown prince’s homework, and CIA director Gina Haspel (no stranger to torture herself) has allegedly listened to Turkish tapes that recorded Khashoggi’s death, it is time to come to the likely conclusion that the Saudi government and MBS (short now for Mister Bone Saw) at best covered up the murder of an American and at worst directed and carried out the assassination in the supposed safe haven of a consulate. For too long, the United States has stood by and propped up the Saudi monarchy in the name of oil and security in spite of the fact that the Saudis have committed some of the most atrocious human rights infractions imaginable, carried out war crimes in Yemen, and behaved in a destabilizing and reckless manner in the Middle East. It is time to hold the regime accountable, Jared Kushner’s personal investments and relationships be damned.
Technically, the Trump Administration has already taken some action already in response to the murder. Visas have been revoked by the U.S. for those implicated in the killing, but this measure does almost nothing because 18 of the 21 suspects were already under arrest by the Saudi government. Targeted sanctions have been placed on some of the alleged perpetrators below the crown prince, but most of them have already been sentenced to death by the Saudi government. Freezing the assets of people who are already on death row does absolutely nothing. It’s like if the NFL banned the Browns from playing in the Super Bowl, or MLB banned the Orioles from the World Series last year. Not only does it do nothing, it essentially does less than nothing and passes the buck and gives cover to the bloodthirsty and insecure despot who ordered the operation. If Saudi Arabia murders or covers up the murder of an American journalist and gets hit with only a slap on the wrist again, it will be a green light to bin Salman that the meek U.S. will not prevent him from doing whatever he wants. Given that millions of people are already dying because of his actions thus far, that is a terrifying preposition that will undoubtedly undermine regional stability, international norms, and freedom around the world.
There are a number of policies that the Administration could take that would, if taken simultaneously, could send a clear message to Saudi Arabia that its recklessness will not be met with American fecklessness. First, because the assassination took place on the soil of a NATO ally, the nations of NATO should jointly seek an independent and international investigation approved by the United Nations. Ordering this investigation through the Security Council, the General Assembly, or the Human Rights Council will bring legitimacy to the investigative process rather than the Saudis playing the role of O.J. Simpson allegedly spending the rest of his life looking for Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown’s real killer. The Saudis may raise concerns about sovereignty, but the pressure of an international coalition and the fact that their claim is completely invalid given that they just killed a resident of another country on foreign diplomatic soil will counter it.
Secondly, the U.S. could end the sale of arms to the Saudis. This would be a major blow and a wake-up call to the regime. Despite being the fourth largest spender on defense products in the world, the Saudi military is bloated, disorganized, and just not very effective. It is in fact better suited for the 20th century’s more conventional wars than the proxy war in Yemen, according to experts. As one of the world’s largest arms importers, Saudi Arabia relies heavily on America and NATO nations for defense. Just last year, President Trump visited the kingdom and claimed dubiously to have approved a $110 billion sale of arms to the Saudis. Germany’s Angela Merkel has already called on NATO allies to halt their arms sales to the kingdom until the killing of Khashoggi is explained to the world. As a torch bearer for press freedom around the world and the country of residence of Mr. Khashoggi, the U.S. must be ready to match that commitment now, and double down on it given the revelation that American bombs are being used by the Saudis to kill Yemeni civilians. Some would claim that the decades of close ties with the kingdom would make ending arms sales unlikely, but there is already evidence of strong, tangible support in Congress. A Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Senate resolution to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen got 44 votes on the floor, some of them from Republicans. The new Sanders-Lee Senate resolution to end the war in Yemen just passed with 63 votes, although it will likely die in the House. The escalation of tensions would figure to only increase the likelihood of passage. In light of this policy, the U.S. should also end the practice of training Saudi pilots on American soil. For once, America has leverage in the Middle East. It’s time to put it to work.
In the wake of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, the conditions that Saudi political prisoners, like the women’s rights activists, are under in detention will naturally be scrutinized. The U.S. should use its bully pulpit to call for their release to ensure their safety and pressure the Saudi government to follow up on its supposed commitments to advancing women’s rights.
Finally, if Nuremberg taught the world anything, it is that those who carry out unlawful orders are not immune from justice. Therefore, it is pertinent that the U.S. further punish those arrested by imposing targeted sanctions via the Magnitsky Act, sending a clear message that criminals will be held accountable, but that the U.S. will not inflict indiscriminate or undue damage to the people at-large of Saudi Arabia.
For decades, the United States has offered unwavering military support to an enemy of the international human rights regime, an architect of escalating Middle East tensions, and a potential state sponsor of terror against the U.S. in exchange for oil. Yet no Saudi ruler’s foreign policy has threatened more people in more ways more brazenly than that of Mohammed bin Salman. In light of his most hostile act yet towards the U.S., it is time for the American government to put its foot down and take a stand. American foreign policy has often been conducted to deal with the Middle East it has, and not the one it wants.
For the first time in a while, the U.S. can help the moral arc of the universe bend a bit more toward justice in the Middle East. In his final column, Jamal Khashoggi wrote, “We need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.” May the United States honor his memory and shine a light on the injustices perpetrated by the crown prince against his people today so that we may empower those same people tomorrow to address their problems and make peace.
Over time, the crown prince’s actions became more bold, and not in a good way. Last November, bin Salman borderline kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, held him hostage and forced him to resign. This rash action received no backlash, condemnation, or even acknowledgement from an American administration known for kidnapping immigrant children from their parents.