Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He has been a frequent visitor to Saudi Arabia since 2005.
The mysterious disappearance of Saudi writer and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week has cast a spotlight on the Saudi regime, which is dominated by 33-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known commonly as MBS).
This, in turn, raises questions about the nature of the big bet that the Trump administration has placed on the Crown Prince.
For every positive move that MBS has made – giving women the right to drive, allowing concerts in his kingdom, trying to open up the statist, oil-dependent Saudi economy and curtailing the powers of the feared religious police – he has also accumulated a long list of errors.
The Saudi military intervention in neighboring Yemen that began in 2015, has, to put it mildly, not been a success. Houthi rebels there have grown closer to Iran, Yemen remains in the grips of a deadly humanitarian crisis and thousands of civilians have been killed in the conflict.
After more than a year, the blockade of Qatar by a number of Arab states, in which the Saudis are a key player, remains in a standoff with no end in sight. In international law, a blockade amounts to an act of war. Qatar is seeking arbitration of the matter at the United Nations, but adjudicating these kind of cases can take years.
Complicating matters, Turkey is aligned with Qatar against the Arab states involved in the blockade and, if the Saudis have murdered Khashoggi on Turkish soil, as anonymous Turkish officials have alleged to the Washington Post, regional tensions will be further inflamed. Saudi officials have denied this allegation.
But those are not the only countries in the region that MBS has upset. MBS clumsily forced the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen, to announce his resignation when he was visiting Saudi Arabia last November. MBS believed that Hariri was too deferential to Hezbollah, which is a significant political force in Lebanon, as well as a client of Iran. Hariri eventually reversed himself and returned to Lebanon. The whole MBS ploy backfired, as both Hariri and Hezbollah emerged stronger after the bizarre episode.
Also, in November, MBS ordered the detention of hundreds of businessmen and princes on allegations of corruption. Imprisoned in the luxurious confines of the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, they were gradually released in what looked like a shakedown rather than any genuine legal process – but only after huge sums of money had been extracted from them, according to the New York Times. The Saudi government has denied any wrongdoing.
MBS has also arrested a host of innocuous civil society activists, a number of whom face a possible death penalty. They range from Shia activists hoping for greater rights for the Shia minority in the kingdom, such as Israa al-Ghomgham, a 29-year-old woman, to Salman al-Oudah, a prominent 61-year-old cleric with over 14 million Twitter followers .
Despite giving women the right to drive, in May of this year, MBS arrested some of the key women who had led the movement to allow women to drive. At the time, Khashoggi commented, “It’s a war on activism. He wants the people to step aside and accept what he is giving them and he will lead them into the future.”
Why is MBS doing all of this? Because he is moving Saudi Arabia toward a totalitarian dictatorship in which all aspects of society are controlled by him and all forms of dissent are stifled, an approach which is further reinforced by the disappearance of Khashoggi. It’s an old playbook going back to Louis XIV of France, who is thought to have said, “L’état, c’est moi,” which means, “I am the state.”
This is of particular concern given the Trump administration’s warm embrace of MBS. Trump made his first overseas presidential trip to Saudi Arabia. Usually, American presidents make their first presidential trips to close democratic allies. But Trump views Saudi Arabia as the principal bulwark in the Middle East against Iran, while his son-in-law Jared Kushner has hopes that MBS will play a key role in settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
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Since then, the Trump administration has made little effort to critique the Saudi kingdom, neither for the thousands of civilian casualties in Yemen, nor its imprisonment of businessmen, royals, clerics and civil society activists at home.
On Monday, Trump did say he was “concerned” about Khashoggi’s disappearance. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, who is MBS’s brother, said claims that Khashoggi had been killed in Istanbul were “absolutely false, and baseless.”
If evidence emerges that Khashoggi was indeed murdered in Istanbul, US sanctions should be levied on the kingdom.
The Trump administration properly put sanctions on Russia earlier this year after evidence showed that a former Russian agent and his daughter living in the United Kingdom were the targets of a Russian assassination plot using a nerve agent. Why should the Saudis be treated differently?