The problem is that the faults of the young and impulsive Crown Prince are many. In addition to his role in the murder of Khashoggi, he recklessly ordered the Saudi attack on Yemen that triggered his country’s equivalent of the U.S. war in Vietnam – a strategic and humanitarian catastrophe. He kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, did all he could to undermine Qatar, arrested wealthy Saudis who refused to embrace his consolidation of power, froze diplomatic relations with Canada over a critical tweet and imprisoned political activists, including women seeking greater rights.
The Saudi strategy for dealing with the outcry over Khashoggi’s murder is clear: hunker down and weather the storm. MbS and his inner circle are calculating that the world’s outrage will fade, given their country’s importance. He has good reason to believe that other Sunni Arab states will stand by him, given the subsidies he provides.
Potential for carrot and stick approach
Israel, too, has indicated support for MbS, owing to his willingness to move in the direction of normalising relations and, more important, the two countries’ shared interest in countering Iranian influence in the region. And U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is standing by its man, so far refusing to acknowledge his role in Khashoggi’s murder and resisting calls for sanctions against Saudi Arabia.
What, then, should be done? Former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker recently drew a parallel to U.S. policy toward China in 1989, at the time of the massacre of protesting students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. George H.W. Bush’s administration (of which I was a part) worked hard to thread the needle: introducing sanctions to convey displeasure with the Chinese government, but limiting the punishment and keeping lines of communication open, given China’s importance.