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Khashoggi's fate is proof the US-Saudi relationship is over

Michael H Fuchs

Michael Fuchs says it’s time for the US to take a stand against the destructive bond that Donald Trump has with Saudi Arabia

Donald Trump welcomed the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, to the Oval Office in March 2017. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia was broken long before the apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It’s far past time for a fundamental break in the relationship. The United States must view the Saudis not as flawed partners, but rather as malign actors undermining US interests.

Khashoggi’s presumed murder in Turkey – where he disappeared after entering a Saudi consulate – has shocked the world. But no one should have been surprised. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy that rules through repression. Freedom House ranked Saudi Arabia as “not free” in 2018, while the 2017 US Human Rights report on Saudi Arabia detailed abuses by government including, “unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention,violence and official gender discrimination against women”.

And yet, specious arguments for a robust US-Saudi partnership have dominated policy circles and government. We need Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism, we are told. Mere whispers of the words “but, terrorism cooperation” have long won debates in Washington over the need to work with the Saudis. But is Saudi Arabia a real partner? Fifteen of the 19 men who attacked America on 9/11 were Saudis. And according to a leaked US government memo from 2009, “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.

Another argument claims the United States needs Saudi Arabia for regional stability. But the facts tell a different story. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been waging a war – with US support – for more than three years, causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. With thousands of Yemenis dead and millions displaced, the United Nations is now warning that up to 13 million Yemenis are at risk of starvation. And while Iran is also to blame for backing violence in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has escalated significantly.

Ah, yes, Iran! Combatting Iran’s malign influence is another magic end that supposedly justifies the means of the United States working with Saudi Arabia. But what has the relationship achieved for the United States? Saudi Arabia tried to prevent the United States from negotiating a deal that verifiably stopped Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and then encouraged the Trump administration to withdraw despite the fact that the deal was working. Iran is no doubt a destabilizing actor, funding terrorism and threatening Israel. But Saudi Arabia is also a destabilizing actor, and by taking Saudi Arabia’s side against Iran it is entirely possible that the United States helps fuel the deadly regional rivalry.

One more recent justification for the US-Saudi relationship has been Israel. With the quietly growing ties between Israel and Gulf states, Saudi Arabia no longer plays a lead role in condemning Israel. And while lower tensions between Israel and its neighbors is a good thing, their improving relationship is not about the United States – it’s about increasingly shared anti-Iran views. The United States can continue to support Israel’s security without supporting Saudi Arabia.

But don’t we need Saudi Arabia for oil? Not as much as we once did. And Saudi Arabia has its own interest in continuing to pump oil, which is the country’s sole stream of revenue. Furthermore, the world must rapidly transition to clean energy to avert the most cataclysmic effects of climate change, so this can help provide a kickstart.

Which brings us back to Khashoggi. The fate of one man illustrates how destructive the US-Saudi relationship has become. It is now widely believed that Saudi Arabia felt emboldened enough to kill a US resident with impunity in another country. And Trump’s response? Help the Saudis cover up the reported murder.

Trump has given Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) a blank check in the Middle East. The result has been an emboldened Saudi Arabia, which under MBS’s leadership reportedly kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon and downgraded the Canada-Saudi Arabia relationship over Canadian criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. Trump has supported MBS’s dangerous policies, from the blockade of Qatar to the devastating war in Yemen. Trump even refused to back America’s ally Canada in its dispute with Saudi Arabia. The reported murder of Khashoggi is a byproduct of this morally bankrupt relationship. Khashoggi’s blood is also on Trump’s hands.

Why would Trump assist Saudi Arabia in policies so damaging to US interests? Perhaps it is because of Trump’s blatant disregard for human rights at home and abroad. Or perhaps it is because of longstanding personal financial ties between Trump and Saudi Arabia, including a massive jump in Saudi patronage of Trump hotels since Trump became president. With reports that the Trump administration may have known in advance of an alleged Saudi plot against Khashoggi and did nothing to warn him, we need answers as to what the Trump administration knew and when they knew it.

The US-Saudi relationship as we know it is over, and Khashoggi’s apparent murder is helping wake everyone up to a relationship that soured long ago. It’s time to finally ground any engagement with Saudi Arabia solely on genuine US interests in regional peace and human rights. That means no more arms sales. No more taking sides in a regional war between fundamentalist, repressive regimes. No more support for the war in Yemen. US officials should trigger the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to impose sanctions on MBS and Saudi leadership for human rights violations. And when we need cooperation on counter-terrorism, be transactional – and sanction Saudi officials if they don’t target terrorist funding coming from within their country.

At the end of the day, this is about more than the US-Saudi relationship. It’s about whether or not America will stand up for democratic values and human rights, including against the growing brazenness of autocracies like Russia and China to reach beyond their borders to murder and abduct critics. The United States must take a stand.