‘A less friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia won’t harm U.S. interests in the Middle East. It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to the worst excesses of the Saudi leadership.’

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on Tuesday to discuss the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

We may be better off without Saudi Arabia

With the rumored killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, opinion in Washington appears to be turning decisively against longtime ally Saudi Arabia. Think tanks are returning Saudi money, lobbying firms are rejecting Saudi business, and Congress is actively considering sanctions on Saudi leaders. 

The only holdout is President Donald Trump himself, who accepted King Salman’s denials, dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh, and parroted back the idea that Khashoggi could have been murdered by rogue killers. That “rogue killers” are rarely found hanging out in official consulates appears not to have crossed the president’s mind.

Trump’s defense of Saudi Arabia focused on arms sales and U.S. jobs. But his administration has been strongly supportive of Saudi Arabia in general, arguing that it is vital to U.S. energy security and regional interests.

Four decades ago, oil and security were indeed good reasons to maintain a strong partnership with Saudi Arabia. That is no longer the case.

Our view: Can Donald Trump handle the truth about Jamal Khashoggi?

Other views: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rejects any attempts to undermine it

For starters, U.S. and Saudi interests in the Middle East are diverging. Saudi Arabia wants to roll back Iran and undermine democratic gains in nearby states. The Saudi-led war in Yemen has created a humanitarian crisis and produced the worst famine in years. 

Whether it is arming rebels in Syria, initiating a blockade of Qatar or kidnapping the prime minister of Lebanon, Saudi foreign policy is increasingly a destabilizing force in the region. Minimizing our ties to Saudi Arabia certainly won’t worsen our regional interests. It could even improve things. 

Global oil markets, meanwhile, have changed a lot since President Jimmy Carter argued in 1980 that the United States needed to defend the Middle East to protect the flow of oil. It’s true that Saudi Arabia remains a major global oil producer, but changes in the world market mean that America today is far less reliant on Middle Eastern energy

To keep the oil flowing, Saudi Arabia needs to be stable. It does not need to be a U.S. ally.

Even Trump’s new justification — that Saudi arms sales are vital to the U.S. economy — is wrong. Arms sales figures are often inflated and are rarely as lucrative as they sound. In fact, experts believe that the purported $110 billion of Saudi Arms sales are in reality worth only about $28 billion. More important, they are responsible for only a small proportion of the overall U.S. defense industry.

Even as the Saudi government seeks to portray an image of reform, it  has become increasingly repressive. Dissidents have been kidnapped abroad and returned to Riyadh. Human rights activists have been jailed. 

Unlike past decades, however, U.S. leaders today don’t have to tolerate this behavior. A less friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia won’t harm U.S. interests in the Middle East. It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to the worst excesses of the Saudi leadership.

Emma Ashford is a research fellow at the Cato Institute. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmmaMAshford.

What our readers are saying

Brutal dictators love President Donald Trump because he doesn’t have the courage to stand up to them. There’s a pattern developing here.

— Ron Patrick

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not in Saudi Arabia to solve any mystery. He’s probably there to talk strategy on how to put the journalist’s fate in the rearview mirror and forgotten. I find it hard to give credence to any theory that Jamal Khashoggi was accidentally killed.

— Gene Seiler

Trump came right out and said during his “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl that he won’t let what happened to Khashoggi get in the way of the arms deal. We all know how Trump feels about journalists.

— Leslie Cooper

The Saudis likely tortured and chopped up this poor guy just because he spoke against the Saudi government. There is no way we should see these monsters as our allies.

— Andrew Goetz

What others are saying

Karen Elliott House,  The Wall Street Journal: “Kidnapping critics and returning them to Saudi Arabia isn’t new for this regime, though previously such incidents got little publicity because no one died. Perhaps the crown prince thought he could again escape any consequences. After all, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has poisoned dissidents in London; China’s Xi Jinping runs an archipelago of re-education camps; and Turkey’s increasingly despotic Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who is leveling the charges at the Saudis — has jailed thousands with little or no international consequence. Perhaps the world will soon forget a political murder.”

The Washington Post,  editorial: “The reality is that Saudi Arabia, which, as President Donald Trump himself has crudely pointed out, would not survive without U.S. security support, has everything to lose from a break in relations, while the United States no longer needs the kingdom as much as it once did. Trump has overvalued the relationship and encouraged Saudi leaders to believe they can behave recklessly and even criminally without consequence. Whatever the outcome of the Khashoggi case, a fundamental reshaping of the relationship — mandated by Congress, if necessary — is imperative.”

USA TODAY,  editorial: “Trump has already lapsed into his unfortunate, recurring role as an apologist for brutal leaders who draw his favor. … The worry is that Trump is playing for time, perhaps hoping the nation’s attention will wane as the U.S. midterm elections approach. He promises ‘severe punishment’ if Riyadh is guilty but is quickly taking potential leverage off the table, including the sale of U.S. arms and munitions the kingdom desperately relies upon to continue its bloody war of attrition in Yemen that’s killing thousands of civilians.”

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