By Robin Wright
October 14, 2018
Last spring, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and the richest man in modern history, hosted the young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in Seattle. The Saudi press posted photos of Bezos in an open-necked shirt and the prince, having shed his Saudi robes, in a Western suit and dark-red tie. Both men beamed as they talked business and investment opportunities. Bezos was among the prosperous and powerful Americans who met the crown prince during a three-week road show, which took him from Harvard to Hollywood and Houston. Along the way, the crown prince also schmoozed with Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, both former Presidents Bush, former President Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, Michael Bloomberg, Morgan Freeman, Henry Kissinger, Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, and Richard Branson, among others. He wooed Google, Apple, Disney, Lockheed, Snapchat, and AMC.
During Prince Mohammed’s stop in Washington, where he brokered billions of dollars in arms deals, President Trump said that Washington’s relationship with the House of Saud was “probably as good as it’s really ever been, and I think will probably only get better.” At each stop, M.B.S., as he’s widely known at home, was heralded as a reformer in one of the world’s most authoritarian states—and possibly even the face of the future Middle East.
The bizarre disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has abruptly transformed the image of the desert kingdom and its crown prince, who has become its de-facto leader since his appointment, in June, 2017. On Sunday, the Washington Post, which Bezos owns, ran a full-page ad with a picture of the consulate’s front door. “On Tuesday, October 2 at 1:14 p.m. Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Consulate of Saudi Arabia,” it read, at the top. “He has not been seen since. demand answers,” it said at the bottom.
Khashoggi may have accomplished in his disappearance—and possible death—what he had tried to do for the past year from exile, in Washington: hold the kingdom, and specifically its reckless crown prince, accountable for its misdeeds. The grisly prospect that he was dismembered by a hit squad dispatched from Saudi Arabia, as Turkish officials have reported, has revolted some of those who just months ago competed to fête M.B.S.
“In his early days, the crown prince was gaining a public image, in significant circles of U.S. public opinion, as a radically different leader from the conservative elderly monarchs of Saudi yore,” Paul Salem, the acting president of the Middle East Institute, told me. “But a darker narrative was also gaining ground, based on his arrest of women activists, business leaders, and silencing critics. The Khashoggi affair has solidified the negative narrative in wide cross-sections of U.S. public opinion.”
Trump’s response has been mixed. On CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday, the President pledged “severe punishment” of Saudi Arabia if it is found responsible for Khashoggi’s abduction or death. “There’s something really terrible and disgusting about that, if that was the case, so we’re going to have to see,” he told Lesley Stahl. “It’s being looked at very, very strongly. And we would be very upset and angry if that were the case. As of this moment, they deny it, and they deny it vehemently. Could it be them? Yes.” He vowed that the United States is “going to get to the bottom of it, and there will be severe punishment.” On Saturday, though, Trump said he would not pull out of billions in arms deals with the kingdom. “It’s the best equipment in the world, but, if they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or they’re going to buy it from China or they’re going to buy it from other countries,” he said.
Trump has long had close business ties with the Saudis, beginning in the nineteen-nineties. When his real-estate business was in trouble, he sold his yacht and a stake in the Plaza Hotel to a Saudi royal. He also sold Manhattan real estate to Saudi investors and, before becoming President, explored opening a hotel in the port city of Jeddah. Since Trump took office, Saudi Arabia has been the central player in his foreign policy. His first stop on his first foreign tour as President was in its capital city, Riyadh, where he was fêted with pomp and ceremony. His son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, has developed particularly close ties with M.B.S. and personally promoted him as a reliable American partner in the region.
On Monday, Trump told reporters that he has spoken with King Salman, who “firmly denied any knowledge” about Khashoggi’s disappearance. (The kingdom also initially denied that Saudi citizens had anything to do with the September 11th attacks, blaming an Israeli intelligence plot.) For the first time, Trump offered an alternative possibility that “rogue killers” were linked to the reported murder. In a tweet, the President announced that he is dispatching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh for talks, although the visit appears designed to smooth over tensions, which escalated in heated rhetoric from both sides over the weekend, rather than get to the bottom of the Khashoggi case.
Congress may have other ideas. Since Khashoggi’s disappearance, Republicans and Democrats alike have turned on Saudi Arabia, which spends lavishly on a sophisticated public-relations campaign in the United States. “If this is proven to be true, there is going to be a response from Congress,” the Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It’s going to be nearly unanimous, it’s going to be swift, and it’s going to go pretty far.”
Rubio said that deferring to the kingdom would effectively give a green light to other dictators. “Our ability to call Putin a murderer, because he is; our ability to call Assad a murderer, because he is; our ability to confront Maduro in Venezuela or any of these other human-rights atrocities like what we see in China—all of that is undermined and compromised if we somehow decide that, because an ally who was important did that, we are not going to call it out.”
Last week, a bipartisan group of twenty-two senators—eleven Republicans and eleven Democrats—invoked the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in a letter calling on the White House to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance. The law, passed in 2016 and named for a Russian whistle-blower who died in detention, calls for the United States to impose sanctions on human-rights violators in any country. It stipulates that action should be taken within four months. “A bill to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia was only narrowly defeated last year,” Salem told me. “The Senate might become a no-vote on Saudi issues for some time forward.”
The revulsion—and questioning of both M.B.S. and his country—is spreading internationally. On Sunday, Britain, France, and Germany, the three most powerful European governments, issued a joint statement expressing “grave concern” about Khashoggi’s fate. They demanded a “credible investigation” that will “provide a complete and detailed response.”
Almost two weeks after Khashoggi disappeared, Saudi Arabia has still provided little insight into the case beyond blanket denials. On Sunday, it issued another one—with no name or office attached to it—threatening countermeasures if any government acts against it. “The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether by threatening to impose economic sanctions, using political pressures, or repeating false accusations,” it said. “The Kingdom also affirms that if it receives any action, it will respond with greater action.”
M.B.S., who controls the five major levers of power within the royal family, has reacted rashly before. In August, Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian Ambassador, froze all new trade, suspended flights, and recalled all Saudi students in Canada after its foreign minister tweeted about the case of siblings in the Badawi family, both human-rights activists. In November, the kingdom summoned the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, and ordered him to resign on Saudi state television. He remained under virtual house arrest for two weeks. He was freed to return home—and resume office—only after the U.S. and Europe intervened. And the Saudi war on Yemen, launched shortly after M.B.S. became defense minister, in 2015, has produced the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis, with no end in sight.
The Saudi public is clearly unsettled by the international furor. The Saudi stock market plunged by almost seven per cent when it opened on Sunday. It may have been rattled partly by the big names in U.S. business, technology, and energy that have either severed their ties with the kingdom or dropped out of a conference later this month—billed as “Davos in the Desert”—that is pivotal to lure investment for M.B.S.’s ambitious plan to diversify the kingdom’s oil-reliant economy. Uber and Viacom dropped out of the conference, as did the tech investor Steve Case. The Harbor Group, which reportedly made millions lobbying for the Saudis, terminated the relationship.
Branson, who hosted the crown prince last spring in the California desert, issued a scathing statement on Thursday. “What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government,” he wrote in a blog post.
Relations between Washington and Riyadh have been this strained only twice before: in 2001, fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center, in New York, and the Pentagon, in Washington, were identified as Saudi. And, in 1973, Saudi Arabia was a key part of the oil boycott on the United States, after Washington supported Israel during the fourth Middle East war.
One of the ironies of the Khashoggi affair is that he is not even an American citizen. He took up residency in Washington after he opted for exile in mid-2017. But the rippling impact during the past two weeks has been sweeping—with more to come. “The U.S.-Saudi relationship is going through its most acute crisis since 2001,” Salem told me. “Unless the disappearance and/or murder of Khashoggi is dramatically addressed or redressed, this crisis will greatly and negatively impact the crown prince’s plans for a rapid and globalized takeoff of Saudi economy and society.”
This post has been updated to include President Trump’s comments on Monday regarding a call with the King of Saudi Arabia.
Robin Wright has been a contributing writer to The New Yorker since 1988. She is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”