Chas W. Freeman, Jr.
Ambassador Freeman, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer, is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University. He served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 1989-92. From 1997 to 2009, he was president and chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. The following are updated remarks from his presentation at the Center for the National Interest, November 2, 2018, Washington, DC.
We are still coming to understand the impact of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. I considered him a friend. No one deserves to die as he apparently did. The incident is in every respect repellent.
The operation that felled Jamal seems to have been intended to silence a critic of some aspects of Saudi domestic and foreign policy. It must surely have succeeded in intimidating other Saudis from speaking out, but, justifiably or not, it has raised questions about the kingdom’s rulers’ ability to exercise wise control of its agencies and officers. It has emboldened Saudi Arabia’s foreign critics, alarmed its potential foreign investors, and contributed to international pressure on it to end its blockade of Qatar and war in Yemen. It has handed Turkey a full deck of cards to play against the kingdom’s preeminent position in both the Dar al Islam and the Arab Gulf.
The murder has embarrassed the kingdom’s friends and stimulated renewed attacks on it by its foreign enemies and critics. Ironically, Jamal — who loved his homeland and approved of much, though not all, of the change its newest rulers have brought to it — would be appalled by the damage his death is doing to Saudi Arabia’s reputation and the difficulties this is creating for its continuing betterment.
Jamal supported the kingdom’s traditional Islamic constitutional practices. Despite caricatures to the contrary abroad, these precluded capricious one-man rule. The king felt obliged to consult with many others — other lineages of his family, prominent merchant families, noted religious scholars and experts — to verify a consensus that he could proclaim as a decision. He did not decide unilaterally. This system provided ample checks and balances against rash decisions. It also held the king accountable and enabled his removal from the throne if his peers in the family judged him to be misgoverning the kingdom. In 1964, the family forced the abdication of King Saud on these grounds.
The Saudi system exemplified the Islamic concept of shura, or consultative governance. This made Saudi Arabia boring. It also made the kingdom a largely trouble-free protectorate and entente partner of the United States. The two countries’ interests rarely clashed. The Ramadhan/Yom Kippur War of 1973 is the exception that proved the rule. The Saudis then did not hesitate to stand by their interests as they saw them and to organize OPEC to punish the United States for its decisive support for Israel against Egypt. The kingdom has always had the power to act on its own and against U.S. interests when it feels it must.
Jamal Khashoggi’s targeted killing reflects the modern, not the ancient, Middle East. This is a region in which systematic violations of both decency and international law have produced a Hobbesian anarchy. Israel has set a potent negative example for others by ignoring the rules of the liberal, rule-based international order espoused by the United States for most of the twentieth century. It has used assassination as a frequent tool against its captive Arab population and the Palestinian diaspora in the Levant, Europe and North Africa, as well as against Iran. It has practiced and sought to legitimize preemptive warfare, which had been outlawed by the UN Charter. Israel has exploited its U.S.-guaranteed military supremacy over its neighbors in repeated attempts to terrorize them into docility. There had been no real Saudi precedent for similar policies and operations. Now, with a Saudi generation in charge that openly admires Israeli ruthlessness, there is.
In recent years, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have found compelling reasons to cooperate against Iran. The various elements of the Israel Lobby coordinated with Saudi- and Emirati-hired lobbyists to bring about the Trump administration’s repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal and to reimpose unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran. Despite the notorious venality of the U.S. Congress, this is a result the Saudis and Emiratis could not have accomplished on their own. Israel and Saudi Arabia also now have openly declared intelligence liaison relationships that apparently include training for parallel, or even joint, operations against Iran.
Whoever authorized it, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder marks a deplorable innovation in Saudi cross-border operations. Someone in the kingdom has just done what the United States accuses Iran of doing — assassinating dissidents to suppress criticism and neutralize dissent. If the murder was an accident, it was a remarkably carefully prepared one. The manner of it suggests that Mossad trained the special unit of the Royal Guard that carried it out. That novice unit bungled the wetwork, as Mossad — with all its experience in assassinations — would not have.
The Saudi war in Yemen is an Arabian copy of Israel’s campaigns to immiserate Gaza into paralysis. The United States provides critical material support for the ongoing wars in Yemen and against Gaza. It shields the Saudis and Israelis from investigation by the international community of the war crimes both visibly commit. The United States is a cobelligerent in these wars. Saudi Arabia pays for U.S. support. Israel extracts American subsidies for its military operations. In both countries, wars on neighbors feed nationalist sentiment and rally the people behind their leaders. But these wars trouble Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s constituencies in the United States and are eroding their support.
In the past, those foreigners familiar with Saudi Arabia and fond of it — and there are not many of us — have been confident that the kingdom would continue to live up to its reputation as conservative, consensus-oriented and stable. The Khashoggi affair has raised questions abroad about decision-making processes in Riyadh and the effectiveness of royal supervision of the state. If a murder apparently conducted to punish lèse majesté (a criminal offense against the dignity of a ruler) was not a rogue operation, what does this say about the self-discipline or wisdom of Saudi decision makers? If it was a rogue operation, what does that say about the ability of the king and crown prince to control the actions of subordinates? The sooner these questions are clarified, the better. The attempted cover-up undermined Saudi credibility across the board. The kingdom must now work to restore the honor of its word.
Despite apparent fissures in the royal family, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman can be confident that their kin will stand with them on this matter. Every member of the Al-Saud knows that squabbling in the family was what brought down the two previous Al-Saud dynasties. All remember the fall of the shah in Iran. All understand the imperative of unity behind the throne. MbS, as the Crown Prince is known in English, has consistently had very strong support from most of the Saudi populace, two-thirds of which is under 30. Foreign condemnation of the Khashoggi affair has not changed this. It has instead aroused Saudi nationalism in support of the monarchy. Within the kingdom, it has rallied support for the crown prince. It has recommitted the king to his favorite son, while setting aside earlier speculation about his possible abdication to allow MbS to succeed him. If there is now a threat to Saudi stability, it originates mainly — though not exclusively — outside the kingdom.
When President Trump took office, he immediately set aside diplomacy as his preferred method of advancing U.S. interests abroad and replaced it with personal ingratiation of foreign leaders by himself and members of his family. Uncertainties about how the Khashoggi affair might affect the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia now illustrate the problem with putting all one’s eggs in a single foreign personality’s basket. Israel and the Trump administration have placed huge bets on MbS’s ability to help them deliver regime change in Iran, a Palestinian capitulation to Israel, and the moderation of puritanical strains of Islam. Some in the United States were already engaged in campaigns to stop the war in Yemen, end the blockade of Qatar, dissociate the United States from Saudi Arabia and pursue normalization with Iran. They have, not surprisingly, seized on the Khashoggi murder to advance these agendas.
Within the Islamic world, Turkey used the incident to prosecute the cause of democratic Islamism against traditional Arab forms of governance. It has dribbled out evidence to gain leverage over the kingdom in the matter of its blockade of Qatar and covert action in Syria. Iran is quietly using the Khashoggi murder to divert attention from its own similar activities and to further its campaign to vilify Saudi intolerance as the font of all Islamist terrorism. Arab intellectuals in the Levant have long resented Saudi Arabia’s wealth and sanctimony. They and the Arab diaspora in the West have seized on the incident to condemn the kingdom’s leadership as depraved and morally unfit to control the Muslim holy places.
In short, everyone is now hurling pet rocks at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the process, important American national interests are being slighted.
The United States is once again a significant exporter of oil and natural gas. Americans do not ourselves depend on imports of energy from Saudi Arabia. But, aided by its leadership of OPEC and partnership with Russia, the kingdom retains the ability to affect the global economy in ways that deeply affect U.S. prosperity. Since the United States invaded Iraq against Saudi advice in 2003, Saudi Arabia has adopted politico-military polices independent of the United States. Rather than counting on the United States to defend it, the kingdom has turned to self-strengthening through huge arms purchases from the United States, Europe, China and Russia. Part of MbS’s pitch to President Trump was his undertaking to reinstate a preference for buying American weapons. This was good news for the U.S. defense-industrial base. Saudi Arabia is the largest single foreign purchaser of U.S. defense equipment and services. Many production lines would shut down here if the kingdom bought elsewhere. Sanctions on the export of U.S. weapons and surveillance equipment to the kingdom would hand its market to established foreign competitors. And Israel would happily sell the kingdom all the surveillance and police equipment it might want.
Saudi Arabia sits on one of the world’s most vital strategic lines of communication. The U.S. ability to project power to West Asia and around the globe hinges on the ability to overfly Saudi territory. The Saudis can approve or deny overflight to reflect their level of satisfaction with U.S. support for them.
Saudi Arabia is a major market for U.S. civilian goods and services. It prices oil in dollars rather than other currencies. This is a vital contribution to U.S. global power. The Saudis have historically been important financiers of U.S. foreign policy. The human intelligence they provide against Islamist terrorism is irreplaceable.
America is no longer the unrivalled external power in the Middle East. It needs Saudi Arabia as a partner to restore a stable balance of power in the Persian Gulf, to deal with Iran, to address the Israel-Palestine issue, to avoid ceding the region to Russia or other global competitors, and to neutralize fervent anti-Americanism among the world’s Muslims. The United States goes out of its way to retain a cooperative relationship with Israel despite its frequent violations of international norms and American values. Similarly, it would not serve U.S. interests to allow moral indignation to overwhelm consideration of everything else at stake in relations with Saudi Arabia.
Washington should instead help Saudi Arabia fix the internal control problems that enabled its criminal blunder in Istanbul, not rub salt in its wounds. It should encourage MbS to continue the long-overdue social and economic reforms he has launched. It should use America’s leverage to enable the kingdom to extricate itself honorably from Yemen and to compose its relations with Turkey and Qatar. A rift in U.S.-Saudi relations would not threaten the existence of either the United States of America or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But it would have grave consequences for the peace and well-being of both and for their allies and friends.
Surtout pas trop de zèle [above all, not too much zeal]. We need cool heads and an eye to the future as we try to sort out the mess left by the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi.