No, Mr. President: MBS Is Not What You Think He Is

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “It is what it is,” U.S. President Donald Trump says of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, in his latest effort to exculpate Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — and to wash his own hands of the controversy.

The president’s musings about the prince’s involvement (“Maybe he did it, and maybe he didn’t”) contradict the Central Intelligence Agency’s finding that MBS, as he is known, ordered the killing. It also flies in the face of Trump’s own claim to be protecting American interests.

His 635-word statement on Tuesday implies, if inarticulately, that more pressure on MBS would hurt the U.S. economy, because the prince would cancel contracts with American arms manufacturers and turn to suppliers in Russia and China. Separately, Trump said another consequence would be a spike in oil prices, to $150 a barrel. Protecting the prince from blame, he argues, is necessary for the pursuit of the U.S.'s foreign policy goals in the Middle East, notably the containment of Iran.

But none of this is true. Much of it is, in fact, the opposite.

Even if you set aside for a moment the direct link between the defense of America’s values and the furthering of its interests, there is little doubt that MBS has done those interests great harm. His reckless foreign policies have led to war in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar, both of which have undermined attempts to build an Arab consensus on Iran; indeed, they have greatly expanded the influence of the Islamic Republic. The conflict in Yemen, apart from creating a huge humanitarian crisis, has opened up more space for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups to operate.

Likewise, the president’s economic argument for propping up Prince Mohammed is hopelessly wrong. Never mind that the world’s most powerful nation ought not to fear blackmail by anyone, MBS is in no position to make the threats Trump imagines — and not only because his family, and the entire House of Saud, depend for their very survival on U.S. military and diplomatic support.

I’m going to set aside Trump’s characteristically wild overstatement of the value of Saudi defense contracts, and the American jobs they would create: the numbers are moot. It takes a high degree of credulity to imagine that the prince can simply cancel the deals, whatever their size. Saudi's military infrastructure, hardware, software and training are almost entirely built on U.S. and European systems. To replace them would require a soup-to-nuts overhaul that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars and take many years.

Even if MBS could afford this, it would leave the army with inferior technology and more vulnerable than it is today. He might also have to reckon with reduced U.S. military support, something that is crucial to the defense of Saudi Arabia.

As for the Saudi oil weapon, any effort to deploy it against the U.S. would be a “self-own of colossal proportions,” as my colleague Liam Denning has persuasively argued. Not only would it hurt the kingdom’s long-term economic interests, it would also undermine the Saudi goal of containing Iran. If MBS reduced oil production, pressure would grow on the Trump administration to ease sanctions on Iranian exports. 

MBS has no real leverage over the U.S.; the power is entirely on the American side.

If Trump has framed his defense of MBS in terms of economic and foreign policy, others in the administration have argued that the prince is the kingdom’s only hope for social reform and modernization. This is both condescending to the House of Saud, by supposing it is incapable of producing another leader capable of ruling, and patronizing to the rest of us. It is also, like Trump’s own arguments, wrong-headed.

The prince’s credentials as a social reformer rest mainly on his decision to allow Saudi women to drive and to end a ban on cinemas. But those credentials have been tarnished by his arrests of political activists, including many women who had long worked for the right to drive.

If Khashoggi's murder wasn’t enough to completely tarnish MBS’s image as a modernizer, the latest report from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International should give pause. The groups concluded that many of the activists, detained without charge for months, have been tortured. Some of the women have been flogged, electrocuted, and sexually harassed. These are not the actions of a modernizing prince.

Yes, Trump is right that the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia is absolutely crucial to American economic and geopolitical interests; but the prince is not Saudi Arabia. MBS has hurt both countries, and has no claim on Trump’s protection.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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