The Khashoggi aftermath

The inconvenient truth about Saudi Arabia

Following the massacre of protesting students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s administration limited its sanctions and kept lines of communication open, owing to China's strategic importance. Richard N. Haass asks whether a similar policy toward Saudi Arabia would prove viable?

The 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” highlights former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s efforts to alert his fellow Americans to the perils of global warming. What made the truth inconvenient is that avoiding catastrophic climate change would require people to live differently and, in some cases, give up what they love (such as gas-guzzling cars).

For nearly two months, we have all been living with another inconvenient truth – ever since Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist working for The Washington Post and living in the United States, disappeared after entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

A large part of the truth is undeniable: Khashoggi was murdered by individuals with close ties to the Saudi government and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MbS). Weeks of official Saudi denials and lies only reinforced the conclusion – now also the reported judgment of the CIA – that the murder was premeditated and approved at the top. MbS’s direct role may not be 100% proven, but most observers familiar with Saudi Arabia harbour little doubt. This is not a system that tolerates much freelancing.

Of central strategic importance

What makes the truth inconvenient is Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance. The Kingdom still accounts for over 10% of global oil output. Its sovereign wealth fund sits on an estimated $500 billion. Saudi Arabia is the most influential Sunni Arab country, occupying a special role within the Muslim world, owing to its role as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites. It is central to any policy of confronting Iran.

Moreover, MbS, for all his faults, is something of a reformer, understanding that his country must open up and diversify if it is to thrive and the royal family is to survive. He is also popular at home, especially with younger Saudis, who constitute the bulk of the population.

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