After President Trump dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh to figure out what happened to missing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, both governments stressed their durable, bilateral relationship.
“We are strong and old allies,” said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MBS, during his meeting with Pompeo. “We face our challenges together, the past, the day of, tomorrow.”
“It’s important that everyone keep in their mind that we have lots of important relationships — financial relationships between U.S. and Saudi companies; governmental relationship, things we work on together all across the world,” said Pompeo after leaving Riyadh. “We just need to make sure that we are mindful of that as we approach decisions that the United States government will take.”
Pompeo said the administration will give the Saudi and Turkish governments space to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance. The columnist walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul more than two weeks ago, and never emerged.
In the crown prince, many in the United States have seen a Saudi royal committed to reforming his country, diversifying its economy beyond oil and modernizing its society. He’s worked with presidential senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner on his Middle East peace plan. The crown prince has curbed the power of Saudi religious police and allowed women to drive.
However, there are also significant concerns about him in the West, like the deep Saudi involvement in a horrific civil war in neighboring Yemen, jailing wealthy Saudis in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton, kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister and a blockade of Qatar. And now, suspected involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi.
“What we have is not a Saudi Arabia problem as much as it’s an MBS problem,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, the former ambassador to Yemen and a director at the Middle East Institute. “The question that people are asking is — is this just a latest evidence that he is too reckless, too impetuous that we can’t rely on him?”
Turkish officials have told reporters in Turkey they suspect a team of 15 Saudis arrived in Istanbul, assassinated and dismembered.
“What happened with Khashoggi perhaps is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Feierstein. “Now the Saudis really need to come clean.”
“This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey, and to expect me to ignore it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I feel used and abused.”
He also said the U.S. should sanction Saudi Arabia, and that the crown prince has “got to go.”
The Trump administration has a deep relationship with Saudi Arabia. The president chose it as the first stop on his first foreign trip. The two countries have worked together to counter Iran. Next month, the Trump administration will restore sanctions against Iran’s oil industry as part of its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. To offset losses in Iranian oil, the U.S. has been pressing allies to turn to other countries, like Saudi Arabia.
“Don’t forget, Saudi Arabia is our partner. They’re our ally against missiles and against what they are doing trying to take over the Middle East,” said Trump. “I’ve been here for almost two years, they’ve been a great ally to me.”