The grisly murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi has cast a garish light on what is business as usual in the Middle East. In the U.S., many are aghast that their government is working with a country capable of such an act, and specifically with a leader (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) who could be so reckless and cruel. In Saudi Arabia, there is a degree of consternation as to why Khashoggi’s death has set off such a firestorm, considering Riyadh’s dutiful record as key U.S. ally in the region for decades, and even more so in the past two years. The simple fact is that Washington’s current strategy in the Middle East leaves the U.S. with only unsavory choices, and until that strategy changes, it’s stuck with the devil it knows. Riyadh, meanwhile, doesn’t have much of a choice – it’s been stuck with the devil it can’t avoid since 1945. Fruitful though the partnership has been since Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud shared a Valentine’s Day meal on the USS Murphy that year, the fundamentals of the relationship were fraying long before the world had ever heard of Jamal Khashoggi.
It was the Obama administration that first sought to distance the U.S. from its long-standing ally, but the Trump administration reversed that decision in 2017. Under President Donald Trump, U.S. strategy in the Middle East is animated by three goals: defeating Islamist extremism, rolling back Iranian influence across the region (regime change would be ideal), and inducing its allies there to do a better job of doing both. By contrast, the Obama administration was more concerned with extricating the U.S. from direct involvement in the Middle East and redeploying U.S. attention and assets to Asia. The emergence of the Islamic State in 2014 made this shift all the more imperative for the Obama administration, which sought to protect U.S. interests by creating a self-regulating balance of power at the expense of traditional U.S. allies in the region. In that sense, it is not only the Trump administration’s goals that are different: The tactics have changed as well. Since 2017, Washington has sought not a balance of power but an alliance structure that would destroy U.S. enemies. The most important player in that strategy was, and remains, the embattled Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
A Regional Power Under Threat
Saudi Arabia’s struggles run far deeper than the bad publicity it’s received in the fallout of Khashoggi’s murder. Since the turn of the century, its position as regional power has come under threat from two rising powers: Turkey and Iran. This, of course, was not always the case. In the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia had a larger gross domestic product than both countries, its economy fueled almost exclusively by hydrocarbons. Iran was coming off a bloody and horribly destructive eight-year war with Iraq, and Turkey had to deal with an economic crisis and a military coup. The post-Cold War world looked good from Riyadh’s point of view.
Since 2000, however, Saudi Arabia has lost considerable ground. The Turkish economy is now roughly 25 percent larger than the Saudi economy, and while the Iranian economy remains smaller, its domestic industrial plant allows it to produce weapons at home – something Saudi Arabia, despite all its advanced weapons, cannot do. By falling to parity economically, Saudi Arabia lost its only claim to regional power status. In terms of both comprehensive military forces and population, the kingdom is a second-rate power compared to Turkey and Iran.
In addition, the resource that fueled the explosion of the Saudi economy in the second half of the 20th century has become the kingdom’s Achilles’ heel. Saudi Arabia is so hopelessly dependent on oil for its economy that 50 percent of its GDP comes from the oil and gas sector. The 2014 collapse of oil prices created a $100 billion deficit in the Saudi budget. Even with the bump in oil prices in recent months, the Saudi economy is still running a deficit of roughly 7 percent of GDP (about $50 billion.) Saudi Arabia’s formidable foreign exchange reserves, which reached a high of $737 billion in 2014, declined to $506 billion in August.
The timing of the decline couldn’t have been worse. Riyadh was pouring money into the coffers of allies and proxy groups throughout the Middle East, the ultimate purpose of which was to spoil Turkish and Iranian regional ambitions. When the price of oil dropped, the Saudis didn’t just enter a period of economic uncertainty: They lost the one real weapon they had to push back against their regional competitors.
The concomitant rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who has come under fire for his alleged orchestration of Khashoggi’s death – and the reform program that is his hallmark has to be understood in this context. The crisis of 2014 brought home the idea that change was necessary if Saudi Arabia was to survive. There were a variety of ideas of what change might portend, but they stopped mattering once MBS executed his bloodless palace coup, consolidated power and took his place as next in line to the throne. His vision of Saudi Arabia’s future, a fabulously ambitious program called Vision 2030, means to transform the Arabian desert into an Arab Silicon Valley. In executing this policy, MBS has broken virtually every economic, political and institutional precedent the country has ever set.
There is no better example of how jarring MBS’ reforms have been than the role religion has played in his consolidation of power – or, more accurately, the role it hasn’t played. The Saudi regime is a marriage between tribal loyalty and Wahhabism, an austere and conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam. It doesn’t leave room for any other competing religious ideology. Historically, the biggest threat to the Saudi monarchy has been the 10-15 percent Shiite minority that resides in the kingdom’s eastern reaches – where most of its oil is located. But under MBS’ rule, Saudi security forces have stopped at nothing to keep the Shiites in check. They have also arrested and sentenced to death Sunni clerics associated with the Sahwa (“Awakening”) movement. The movement bears a theological and ideological resemblance to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed in Saudi Arabia decades ago because it preaches a different kind of relationship between mosque and state than Wahhabism – and thus constitutes a direct threat to the ruling family and the religious foundation on which its legitimacy rests.
This partly explains why Saudi intelligence officials viewed Khashoggi as such a menace. In an April 2018 article in the New Yorker, Khashoggi was quoted as saying, “most of the clerics [MBS] is arresting are not the hard-line clerics, but the reformers – because they are popular.” The clerics MBS has arrested are indeed reformers, but most Westerners wouldn’t agree with Khashoggi that they are “not hard-line.” Those detained adhere more closely to what the Muslim Brotherhood practices than what Wahhabist clerics practice. Indeed, two recently arrested clerics – Safar al Hawali and Salman al-Ouda – were routinely cited by Osama bin Laden in his sermons against the United States in the 1990s. In other words, Khashoggi’s ties and sympathies to this form of political Islam posed a direct threat to the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy, which believes it can’t concede an inch to organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. After all, nearly 70 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia is under 30 years old with few professional prospects and no meaningful national identity. There is no better recruiting ground in the world for potential Muslim Brotherhood converts or, more drastically, for jihadists.
MBS’ ambitious reforms – which include allowing women to drive, screening movies, and so on – are not just about internal Saudi threats. MBS’ crackdown is also a willing capitulation to the demands of the U.S. It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia funds and exports jihadists. Riyadh’s unwillingness to stop doing so was one reason the Obama administration believed that Saudi Arabia was no longer a reliable ally. Hence, the Iran nuclear deal. (Notably, the fight against the Islamic State also precipitated the agreement.) The nuclear deal seriously undermined Saudi Arabia’s position, because without U.S. support, Saudi Arabia is at best a minor player and at worst a revolution in waiting. When the Trump administration took office, it insisted Saudi Arabia crack down on Islamists – and Saudi Arabia was willing to go to new lengths to crack down lest it lose its most important security patron again. Fearful of a potential insurgency and cognizant of the risks of losing the U.S., Saudi Arabia needed a change – and in that sense, MBS was Washington’s man. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said nearly a century ago when he had to rationalize his support of a dictator: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
This is why the U.S. response to Khashoggi’s murder has been so muted (to say nothing of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, where at least 50,000 people have died and where the United Nations estimates 75 percent of the population is in need of immediate humanitarian assistance). As long as the United States’ primary goals are to destroy jihadists and Iran, Washington has no choice but to stomach less savory aspects of its alliance with Saudi Arabia. In that limited sense, the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia as much as Saudi Arabia needs the U.S. Hence the immediate dispatching of the U.S. secretary of state to Riyadh after the Khashoggi revelations and the informal presence of the U.S. treasury secretary in Saudi Arabia for this week’s “Davos in the Desert” investment conference in Riyadh.
And yet, in its single-minded focus on rolling back Iranian influence and “annihilating” the Islamic State, the United States and Saudi Arabia have underestimated the other rising power that seeks to claim the mantle of leader of the Sunni Muslim world: Turkey.
It’s no coincidence that Turkey is making a massive deal out of the Khashoggi murder. For years, Turkey has been slowly and methodically building political and military clout in areas Saudi Arabia considers its sphere of influence. Qatar, for example, was able to survive Riyadh’s attempts to punish it last year for being too friendly with Iran largely through help from Turkey. (Qatar also hosts a Turkish military base.) The government in Ankara, moreover, recently signed a military cooperation agreement with Kuwait, and Oman, which has always tried to play both sides of the Saudi-Iran rivalry, appears more open to Turkish overtures than it has in the past.
Perhaps most notably, the recent announcement that Jordan canceled two annexes of its peace treaty with Israel comes at the heels of months of speculation that Jordan and Turkey are also growing closer. Jordan is reportedly unhappy with Saudi Arabia’s stance toward the Palestinians, on whom the Trump administration has been far tougher than the Obama administration. On Monday, the Jordan-based Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center even named Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the most influential Muslim in the world. Turkey is no friend to journalists; it has made a big deal of the Khashoggi murder because it sees in the reaction to his death a strategic opportunity.
The Saudi government is probably not in immediate danger. King Salman and MBS have successfully centralized control of the major nodes of power in Saudi Arabia: the tribal elites, the national guard, the military, the interior ministry and the clerics. The speculation that MBS will be ditched because of Khashoggi’s murder is misplaced; King Salman has ordered a reorganization of Saudi intelligence services as a mea culpa, but he has put MBS directly in charge of the process. There may very well be a crisis of succession when King Salman, who at 82 years old may not last to see what becomes of Vision 2030, dies. MBS has positioned himself as the heir apparent, but he himself skipped a few places in the line of succession, and there’s no guarantee that someone else won’t try to do likewise. But a succession crisis is a far cry from overthrowing the current king, who still enjoys widespread loyalty. While he’s around, there is no institutional force inside the kingdom that can bring about regime change without foreign intervention or outright revolution. This is why King Salman and MBS are so skittish in general, and why they are taking no chances with dissidents like Khashoggi – or any of the numerous other Saudi officials who have been purged in recent years.
All the while, Saudi Arabia will try to accomplish the impossible – a complete reorientation of its political economy in 12 years. It will probably fail. So long as Saudi Arabian oil keeps flowing, the kingdom can buy allies such as Egypt and Pakistan, and so as long as the United States remains committed to countering Iran, the Saudis can be sure that Washington will ignore its human rights abuses. Turkey is better positioned than any other country to capitalize on the friction that comes from this arrangement, and already it is moving to take advantage of the opportunity. It does not need to balance against Iran while the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia engage in that hard work. It can simply play the role of a beneficent power and de facto spiritual leader, the sultanate and the caliphate reborn in the 21st century.
It’s ironic that Saudi Arabia and the United States have what they thought they wanted from their relationship. Iran is buckling, and the Islamic State has been crushed. What’s unclear is whether Riyadh and Washington can continue to be useful to each other now that the unintended consequences of their reinvigorated relationship have been laid bare.