For too long, U.S. senators have hesitated to stand with Saudi Arabia, a long-time American ally and vital energy supplier to our allies in Europe and Asia. But as the Iranian regime shows its power, it’s time to pick a side.
Much of the hesitancy by senators regarding support of Saudi Arabia centers around their mistrust of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. He was the focus of extensive media attention one year ago after the unconscionable murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post.
In a “60 Minutes” interview on CBS Sunday, MBS said he had no prior knowledge of Khashoggi’s murder and no personal involvement. But he said he takes “full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia, especially since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government.”
Apart from Khashoggi, the recent cruise missile and drone attacks against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia briefly cut Saudi Aramco oil production by half, caused global oil prices to spike, and pushed the region to the brink of a new and dangerous military confrontation.
The attacks also raised two critical questions for members of the U.S. Senate.
First, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blaming Iran for the attacks, is it not true that U.S. national security interests necessitate standing firmly with the Saudis – along with Israel and our other Sunni Arab allies – to both counter and neutralize the rapidly rising Iranian threat?
Second, does not standing with Saudi Arabia involve re-engaging with MBS, even after the most complicated year in U.S.-Saudi relations since 2001?
From the reprehensible murder of Khashoggi to the messy and painful war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, serious matters are straining the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Each must be dealt with forthrightly.
But cutting the Saudis loose – or trying to ignore MBS or insisting that he step down – is not the way forward. We live in an imperfect world. We must work with imperfect allies, even while respectfully yet unapologetically urging them to make changes. We also need to recognize what is extraordinary about our imperfect allies.
To their credit, Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Angus King, I-Maine, traveled to Saudi Arabia and met with MBS Sept. 9. King later noted that they had “very, very direct talks” with the crown prince on the Khashoggi murder, human rights issues and the Iran threat.
Yet astonishingly, not a single other senator has gone to meet with MBS in the past year.
Last November I led a delegation of American evangelical leaders to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. We were told by senior officials there that it was the first time the royal family had invited Christian leaders to the palace in the 300-plus years of Saudi rule on the Arabian Peninsula. We spent two hours with the crown prince, discussing the most sensitive of issues.
Recently, just before the Iranian attacks, I spent six days in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, leading a follow-up delegation of evangelical leaders. In addition to meeting with a range of senior Saudi Cabinet members and military officials, we spent another two hours with MBS.
Because the meeting was off-the-record, it allowed for an even deeper and more candid conversation. What I can say is that we discussed virtually every controversial issue concerning the kingdom on the minds of Americans and Israelis (I happen to be both).
We asked direct and hard questions about religious freedom and human rights, regional security and the prospect of peace with Israel. We were pleased that the crown prince and his associates often brought up the thorniest of issues before we did, and that they were direct with us, even in areas of pronounced disagreement.
How is it possible that I – a private citizen with no political power – have met with MBS and the senior leadership of the kingdom twice in the past nine months, and 98 American senators have not?
Despite the complexities within and around Saudi Arabia, there are a few things that are obviously true. These things would be more obvious to U.S. elected officials if they left Washington and came to see the kingdom and met with its leaders.
For one thing, the Saudis understand all-too-well the threat posed by Iran and its proxies and urgently want a far closer strategic alliance with the U.S. than in the past.
For another, the crown prince is making sweeping social and economic reforms, empowering women, transitioning from an oil-based economy to a high-tech one, permitting concerts and movies, firing some 3,500 extremist clerics, and purposefully advancing a moderate, tolerant, inclusive brand of Islam.
Read the ground-breaking “Charter of Mecca” signed in May by 1,200 leading Muslim scholars from Saudi Arabia and all over the world for more information on changes taking place in Saudi Arabia.
Such reforms are needful for their own sake. They are also essential if MBS wants to attract the magnitude of foreign investors and tourists required for the success of his Vision 2030 plan.
When it comes to Iran or Saudi Arabia, President Trump has made his choice. He scrapped the deeply flawed Iran nuclear deal and is pursuing a strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran.
Of the five vetoes Trump has thus far issued of bill passed by Congress, three have defended the U.S.-Saudi alliance from overblown Senate criticism involving the war in Yemen. The president understands that while we all want peace in Yemen, we simply cannot allow the Houthis – who have fired more than 300 missiles at our Saudi ally – to prevail.
Living in Jerusalem, I cannot help but see the parallels between the Iranian-supplied rockets shot from Yemen into southern Saudi Arabia and the Iranian-supplied rockets shot from Gaza into southern Israel.
Far too many senators backed President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal that gave upwards of $150 billion to the mullahs in Tehran. Even now, some senators continue clinging to the vain hope that Iran’s leaders want to rejoin the civilized world of peaceful nations.
Still other senators have let their anger at MBS tempt them to jettison the longstanding and important alliance with Riyadh despite the kingdom’s vital role in counterterrorism and its role as the supplier of the oil to the world at reasonable prices.
But Iran’s brazen attacks on Saudi Arabia – along with the violence the Iranians are fomenting against Israel and other U.S. allies in the region via the terrorist forces of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis – are now forcing the issue.
It is time for every senator to pick a side – Iran or the Saudis?