Like it or not, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) will most likely ascend to the throne with little resistance. Given news that President Joe Biden plans to meet MbS sometime next month, it would appear the administration and the United States Intelligence Community believe likewise. The White House had been laying the ground for some time through its engagement with the Saudis, and in preparing the American public.
The breakthrough reaffirms the reality that the kingdom’s likely future king needs the U.S. more than he would like to acknowledge, or than earlier headlines forecasting the end of the U.S.-Saudi relationship might suggest. Partnering is a practical necessity for both countries but need not come at the cost of abandoning core values. The U.S. continues to exercise significant leverage and its own interests are better served globally by demonstrating credibility in what it stands for and reliability in its commitments. The U.S.-Saudi relationship has ample room to bend before it risks breaking.
Yes, we’re reminded how the president referred to MbS as the dictator of a pariah state who the U.S. was going to teach a lesson. Timing in politics and foreign policy, as in life, has great bearing, and it’s important to recall that the average price of oil when then candidate Biden said that was $41 per barrel. Today, it's over $100. All evidence now suggests that both leaders are eager to move on.
The kingdom’s deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, MbS’s brother, was recently in Washington on an official visit and featured in photo-ops that included Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Biden administration’s high-profile welcome came despite the balance and harder line it announced toward the kingdom and news of Prince Khalid’s links to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. While not officially implicated, Khalid reportedly was identified by U.S. intelligence as having steered Mr. Khashoggi to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and provided assurances for his safety — a message he allegedly passed on at MbS’s request.
Just weeks earlier, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal, CIA Director William Burns met with MbS in Jeddah, for what The Intercept and The Wall Street Journal described as “secret meetings.” Having endured the rigors of facilitating such engagements in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, there was nothing particularly secret in what has become the traditional pilgrimage all DCIAs make through the Gulf, and specifically to the kingdom.
But such meetings have advantages, namely discretion and the greater expectation for confidentiality given the absence of journalists on hand for more traditional diplomatic exchanges. Also importantly, authoritarian leaders like MbS see the DCIA position through their own lens in which interior ministers and security chiefs enjoy disproportionate access to and influence over the head of state relative to other senior officials. It’s the right venue for tough conversations where grievances might be aired and concessions gained without the risk of losing face.
And here, quite likely, like other discreet engagements that escaped the headlines, was where the two deals we know of were reached: OPEC and its allied oil-producing nations will increase production by 200,000 barrels per day in July and August, and separately, the Yemeni cease-fire has been extended. I suspect there were other accommodations by both sides deliberately left out of the news. And one of these might yet be the logistics to minimize the appearance that Biden went to MbS’s court and bent the knee.
“… countries have interests, not friends”
The simple truth is the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship is not likely to fracture anytime soon despite its occasional hiccups. It’s a codependency rather than an alliance that neither can afford to end and has weathered plenty of storms since its beginning in World War II, such as the 1973 oil embargo, 9/11, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and Mr. Khashoggi’s murder. MbS’s determination to strive for greater independence from U.S. influence was no doubt genuine, as was the Biden administration’s aspiration to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy — at least until the financial, political, and security realities hit.
As a spy, I learned through experience that countries have interests, not friends. And interests make for strange bedfellows at times. On behalf of the then DCIA, I used to discreetly meet the intelligence chief of a pariah state from whom I received valuable targeting information on al-Qa’eda operatives. My interlocutor was no agent. Rather, his cooperation was sanctioned by the country’s infamously anti-American head of state, who was attempting to deter the U.S. from invading his country after Afghanistan and Iraq while shoring up control over the Islamic radicals threatening his regime.
But I’ve also witnessed ostensible allies, including the British and Israelis, going behind our backs or picking our pockets, metaphorically speaking. In some cases, our good friends were sabotaging sensitive U.S. initiatives over divergent agendas or competing interests.
MbS is indeed demonstrating independence from what he sees as America’s unreliable protective blanket and looking for alternative security partners, but that does not make for an existential threat. For example, the military agreement Saudi Arabia and Russia signed in August 2021 was the subject of near-hyperbolic cautions of doom such as that forecast in The Wall Street Journal that “the relationship had hit the breaking point.” But there’s no evidence MbS is prepared to incur the enormous costs of converting the kingdom’s well-integrated and U.S.-dependent military infrastructure over to Russian (or Chinese) weapons systems.
On the contrary, Riyadh has in recent years been scaling back defense spending to finance MbS’s grand economic programs. And given the dismal performance of Vladimir Putin’s forces and hardware in Ukraine, I don’t see a mad rush for Russian weapons or military advice. MbS harbors no ideological contempt for the Russians as his predecessors held for the Soviet system’s atheist communist framework and its support for popularist Pan Arabism, but nor does he have any illusions that Putin offers a reliable shield to protect the kingdom from Iran. What he likes about Putin is that the Russian dictator won’t tell him how to run his country or criticize its human rights record.
Reports also suggest that MbS is looking to China for support in developing Saudi Arabia’s own ballistic missile capability, as well as a pilot nuclear program. The Intercept reported that part of DCIA Burns’ mission was to dissuade MbS from procuring fully assembled Chinese ballistic missiles as a deterrent against, or response to, Iran. As with Russia, MbS appears interested in addressing defense gaps relative to Iran that he believes the U.S. is less likely to accommodate but also to flex his sovereign muscles. Appreciating China’s growing influence and power, MbS will likely pursue a broad range of military and economic opportunities with Beijing, but avoid an either-or choice with the U.S.
"MbS has not changed his strategic goals or ruthless nature, but he does appear to be getting a little smarter."
Yes, MbS has reputedly yelled at U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, threatened to move his kingdom closer to Russia, and refused to take the president’s phone calls. But his tantrums provided little relief from the threat his country faces externally from Iran, or internally should he fail to deliver on his economic promises. And actions speak louder than words.
MbS has remained far more muted than in the past concerning U.S. reengagement with Iran on the JCPOA. That’s consistent with his own effort to mend fences with Tehran and the toned down rhetoric now that Saudi and Iranian officials are five rounds into talks hosted by Iraq. The cease-fire in Yemen and the kingdom’s softening on Syria reflect progress in the dialogue.
MbS has also repaired ties with Qatar, having visited Doha in late December 2021, restored relations, and lifted an economic blockade from which the small Gulf emirate ironically seemed to thrive. Even one-time nemesis Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was recently welcomed in the kingdom. Of course, Erdoğan’s visit followed a Turkish court ruling to suspend the trial in absentia of 26 Saudis accused in Khashoggi’s brutal murder and for the case to be transferred to Saudi Arabia. MbS’s pursuit of such reproachment suggests an acknowledgement that success, let alone survival, requires occasionally choosing needs over wants.
No, MbS has not changed his strategic goals or ruthless nature, but he does appear to be getting a little smarter. And why not? Things are on the upswing for him. Oil prices are flooding Saudi coffers and he’s even getting reasonably good press. The Atlantic’s lengthy examination of his rule concentrated on the crown prince’s cultural reforms, grand economic plans, and high-tech, futuristic initiatives. When asked about Khashoggi’s killing, MbS was not pushed beyond his retort of, “If that’s the way we did things, Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list.”
MbS is Saudi-centric but not averse to the U.S. Just the opposite. He appreciates brands and the prestige associated with American firms, technology, and products. The crown prince is also willing to pay for access and influence, courting American business executives and companies. And MbS is similarly attracted to the mystique of secret organizations and covert operations. A self-acknowledged fan of “Game of Thrones,” he has enriched no small number of my former senior CIA colleagues.
Among this former intelligence, military, and security cadre, some are advisors, public relations consultants, and advocates working discreetly while others are employed by companies that provide training to his armed forces, security, and intelligence organizations. Dyncorp’s 2019 proposal to modernize Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Presidency was staffed by a slew of former CIA officers offering espionage tradecraft.
Although rejected by the U.S. State Department, it hardly marked the end of former U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials working with the kingdom. And it should not be forgotten that four of the Saudi operatives U.S. intelligence implicated in Mr. Khashoggi’s assassination received State Department approved paramilitary training from Arkansas-based security company Tier 1 Group.
"Kushner and MbS met, and within weeks, the crown prince directed a series of arrests that included some 200 powerful Saudis …"
Not only is MbS still looking toward the U.S. for help, he’s making his own luck getting it. Saudi leaders have traditionally preferred Republican presidents, and MbS is no different, but he appears to be taking an active role. In March 2018, The Intercept reported MbS told confidants that former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had discussed the names of royal family members opposed to his power grab. MbS allegedly boasted that Trump’s son-in-law was “in his pocket.”
Spies are cynics by trade, but coincidences in our business are rare and timelines revealing. The latitude and access then DCIA Mike Pompeo provided Kushner was concerning to professional CIA Middle East hands. Kushner then made an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia in late October 2017, not long after MbS deposed his predecessor, former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, known as MbN, in an extraordinary June 2017 palace coup. Kushner and MbS met, and by late November 2017, the crown prince directed a series of arrests that included some 200 powerful Saudis under the pretext of a massive anti-corruption probe.
At a minimum, MbS has no plans to abandon his ties to the U.S., and is not likely overly concerned about occasional disputes with a White House whose direction is shifting even now, and perhaps will be succeeded in 2024 by a more favorable administration. MbS’s recent investment in Kushner’s new private equity firm is a clue in that regard. A New York Times report suggested that a Saudi advisory board cautioned against the deal, which ultimately resulted in $2 billion for the former president’s son-in-law’s firm, Affinity Partners, and $1 billion for former Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s Liberty Strategic Capital. That’s a great deal of money, even by Saudi standards.
Neither the crown prince nor the U.S. president enjoy the luxury of stepping away from a relationship that has weathered many storms and has served both nations well for over 75 years. And that means the U.S. can’t afford to undermine its credibility and reliability in the kingdom and across the globe by relenting in holding MbS accountable for Khashoggi’s murder, putting an end to his war in Yemen, and forsaking old friends and human rights. MbS cannot afford to lose what he gains from the relationship for the sake of his pride. And U.S. actions must match its words to exercise the international leadership that American strategic interests abroad and democracy at home requires.
Douglas London is the author of "The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence." He teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. London served in the CIA's Clandestine Service for over 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Africa, including three assignments as a Chief of Station. Follow him on Twitter @DouglasLondon5. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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