America’s Dilemma in Saudi Arabia

I have three thoughts on the Jamal Khashoggi saga.

Posted Updated

Thomas L. Friedman
, New York Times

I have three thoughts on the Jamal Khashoggi saga.

First, I can’t shake the image of this big teddy bear of a man, who only wanted to see his government reform in a more inclusive, transparent way, being killed in some dark corner of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by a 15-man Saudi hit team reportedly armed with a bone saw. The depravity and cowardice of that is just disgusting.

Second, I do not believe for a second that it was a rogue operation and that Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is very hands-on, had no prior knowledge, if not more. And therefore, not as a journalist but as an American citizen, I am sickened to watch my own president and his secretary of state partnering with Saudi officials to concoct a cover story. The long-term ramifications of that for every journalist — or political critic in exile anywhere — are chilling. By the way, I don’t think they will get away with it.

This leads to my third point: How should America think about balancing our values and our interests going forward? The best way to answer that, for me, is to go back to the basics. I always knew that MBS’ reform agenda was a long shot to succeed, but I was rooting for its success — while urging the Trump administration to draw redlines around his dark side — for a very specific reason. It had nothing to do with MBS personally. Personally, I don’t care if Saudi Arabia is ruled by MBS, SOS or KFC.

It had to do with how I defined our most important national interest in Saudi Arabia since 9/11. And it is not oil, it’s not arms sales, it’s not standing up to Iran. It’s Islamic religious reform, which can come only from Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

I believe 9/11 was the worst thing to happen to America in my lifetime.

We have spent thousands of lives and some $2 trillion trying to defuse the threat of Muslim extremists — from al-Qaida to ISIS — dollars that could have gone to so many other needs in our society.

And I believe that the roots of 9/11 came from two terrible bargains. One was that bargain between the Saudi ruling family and the kingdom’s religious establishment, where each blessed the other. The other was America’s cynical bargain with the Saudis, which went like this: “Guys, just keep your oil pumps open, your prices low and don’t bother the Israelis too much, and you can do whatever you want out back — preach whatever hate you want in your mosques, print whatever conspiracy theories you want in your papers and treat your women however you want.”

On 9/11, we got hit with the distilled essence of everything that was going on out back. Which is why this column, since 9/11, had been highly critical of Saudi leaders for not reforming their version of Islam, something that would require economic and social modernization as well. They would arrest religious extremists, but Saudi leaders almost never engaged them in a public war of ideas.

And so what most caught my eye about MBS and made me most hopeful was his tentative willingness to engage in a war of ideas with his religious hard-liners, declaring publicly: “Do not write that we are ‘reinterpreting’ Islam — we are ‘restoring’ Islam to its origins.” He argued publicly that Islam in its origins was tolerant of others faiths and empowering of women and open to new ideas.

But now MBS’ government also has Jamal’s blood on its hands. Should we all overlook that as President Donald Trump is doing? We must not, and, in fact, we cannot.

For starters, I believe that the promise of MBS, however much you did or did not think he could bring social, economic and religious reform, is finished. He’s made himself radioactive — absent a credible, independent exoneration for Jamal’s disappearance and apparent murder. MBS may be able to hold onto power in Saudi Arabia, but his whole reform program required direct foreign investment — and money has flowed out of Saudi Arabia for months, not in. Now it will get worse.

And here’s one more complication. Even if MBS were pushed aside, if you think there are 100 Saudi royals with the steel, cunning and ruthlessness he had to push through women driving, removing the Islamic police from the streets and reopening cinemas, you are wrong. There are not. All of these reforms had intense conservative opponents. This is not Denmark, and yet, without sweeping social, economic and religious reforms, Saudi Arabia could well become a huge failed state. Remember, one of ISIS’ biggest sources of young recruits was Saudi Arabia.

So, once again, what do we do? I don’t have a simple answer. It’s a mess. All I know is that we have to find some way to censure MBS for this — without seeming to attack the whole Saudi people and destabilize the country. And we have to make sure that the social/religious reform process in Saudi Arabia proceeds — whoever is in charge there. Because that is a vital U.S. interest.

But you can’t fix stupid. And when your ally does something as sick and as stupid as the Saudis apparently did in Istanbul, there is just no easy fix. But Trump might start by appointing an ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He has never had one — and it shows.

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.