JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — As America’s confrontation with Iran deepens in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. military is rushing more than 500 troops to Saudi Arabia, its key partner in the region. The grim but necessary task is to deter Iran and prepare for war, if deterrence fails.
It’s time for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to do something significant in return; by responding to the deep, bipartisan criticism of his regime in Congress. He should take responsibility for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and signal his readiness for a political settlement of the ruinous war in Yemen.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is important for both countries’ security; especially as the confrontation with Tehran edges closer to war. But it’s built on an unstable platform. This month’s House vote to block the sale of new weapons to the kingdom is a sign of the political trauma at the core of the relationship, and of trouble ahead.
Resetting the U.S.-Saudi relationship on a more honest basis is urgent now, as the danger of regional conflict grows. The latest sharp escalation came Friday as Iran seized a British tanker in the Gulf, according to a U.S. official. This provocation makes British and probably American retaliation likely; compounding the crisis further, which seems to be Iran’s goal.
American and Saudi commanders stress they don’t want war. But make no mistake: Unless the U.S. or Iran eases its demands, this confrontation will lead to a battle that would devastate the region.
Saudi Arabia seems to take American support in this crisis almost for granted. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials have been urging the crown prince for months to demonstrate accountability by prosecuting Saud al-Qahtani, the Iago-like adviser who the U.S. named last November as an organizer of the plot that led to Khashoggi’s death and dismemberment in Istanbul.
But MBS, as the Saudi leader is known, has ignored these demands. Qahtani hasn’t been charged, and U.S. officials say he continues to operate freely, and even consult with former colleagues. The crown prince’s unwillingness to discipline Qahtani reinforces the CIA’s reported assessment that MBS himself approved the Khashoggi operation.
A visit here is a reminder of why it’s so important for MBS to put the U.S.-Saudi relationship back on track. Many things are going right here, despite the crown prince’s authoritarian rule. A younger generation is taking power; a once-joyless country is learning to have fun and be creative. In Jeddah’s “old town” at night, the streets are crowded with men and women and young families, and musicians play on the sidewalks.
“We used to live our lives in secret,” a Saudi friend tells me. “We could be free in our homes or when we went abroad, but not in public here. But that’s changing.”
Reform is a work in progress, and Saudis don’t know where the red lines are. There’s a comedy club in Jeddah, but a performer got arrested for a joke about religious conservatives. A pop-up nightspot called “White Lounge” tried to emulate the club scene in Beirut or Dubai, but it was closed after conservatives protested against women dancing so near the holy city of Mecca. Social media influencers are shaping modern tastes, but they’re also getting daily guidance from the government.
John Abizaid, the U.S. ambassador here, told me Wednesday that if MBS’s “Vision 2030” reforms succeed, they could change the Arab world. “Vision 2030 is the most important tool against extremism that I’ve seen in this region.” he says. But the process is fragile.
Saudis worry about the constant threat of Iranian-sponsored attack. Gen. Fahd bin Turki, the commander of Saudi forces in Yemen, shows visitors the wreckage caused by some of the hundreds of ballistic missiles, drones and cruise missiles fired by Iranian proxy forces across the border. Saudis ask what Americans would do if they faced regular rocket attacks from Mexico, and it’s a reasonable question.
Here’s the puzzle: In this once-sclerotic kingdom, where public entertainment was all but banned, a Saudi grunge rock band called Talsam recently wowed fans at a Jeddah concert by playing favorites from “Pearl Jam” and “Rage Against the Machine.” For someone like me, who first came here in 1981, the yearning for change now is unmistakable.
That’s why MBS’s obstinate refusal to take responsibility for Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses is such a mistake. He’s subverting his own reform process and, ultimately, his country’s future security. America is sending more troops and weapons, but Congress will eventually rebel against fighting a war for a ruler who covers up a murder.
Follow David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost.