Keeping US-Saudi ties in perspective amid the Khashoggi tragedy

The Trump Administration and Congress must be mindful of the consequences of a possible unraveling of the US-Saudi partnership.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 16, 2018 (photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 16, 2018
(photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
Allegations that Saudi Arabian Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by a team of 15 Saudi operatives at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul have understandably left many in Washington concerned about the US-Saudi alliance. While the alleged killing of Khashoggi – an outspoken critic of Riyadh’s leadership – must not be condoned, Washington would be well served to moderate its punitive actions against the kingdom in order to preserve the alliance and ensure a united front in the fight against Iran.
To be sure, Washington must respond in some manner if the Saudis are found to be complicit in Khashoggi’s death. Symbolic and limited sanctions against Riyadh would help preserve American credibility when it confronts other autocrats – Putin, Xi, Assad, Maduro, Kim, et al. – who run afoul of human rights and/or US interests.
This is not the first challenge to the American-Saudi relationship. Past disputes have concerned oil production quotas; the role of Saudi nationals in the attacks of 9/11; terrorist funding and the spread of extremist Sunni Wahhabi ideology; the Obama Administration’s overtures towards Tehran; Riyadh’s diplomatic disputes with Qatar; human rights; and prosecution of the war in Yemen.
It bears saying that Riyadh is not the only ally or partner with whom Washington has clashed over interests and principles. The United States faced similar challenges with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarik; Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines; South Korean strongmen Syngman Rhee, Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan; Indonesia’s Suharto; and Pakistan’s Zia-ul-Haq, to name a few.
Washington has also had differences in values with current allies, namely Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-ocha and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Beyond this, human rights continue to be a sticking point concerning regimes with whom Washington seeks to deepen ties such as Burma, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Mali and Nigeria.
The challenges of diplomacy aside, Khashoggi’s alleged killing, heinous as it appears, must not derail Washington’s important work with Riyadh, neighboring Gulf Arab states and Israel in the continuing struggle against Iranian aggression.
The Trump Administration and Congress must be mindful of the consequences of a possible unraveling of the US-Saudi partnership. Such a move would be unwise as well as detrimental to US interests and partners in the broader Middle East.
For starters, Saudi Arabia has been an important partner in the coalition against Iranian proxy aggression in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. It has also helped with intelligence sharing with American authorities and in the war against ISIS.
Additionally, under the leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia has put in place efforts to wean the Kingdom off its reliance on fossil fuels by modernizing its economy and privatizing state-owned enterprises. It has also sought to reform the country’s religious establishment of clerics who have traditionally been one of the pillars of power in Saudi society. These clerics bear the guilt of spreading Wahhabism, the fanatical and intolerant strain of Sunni Islam that is identified as the main source of global terrorism ideology.
Critics of President Donald Trump have unfairly asserted that the Saudis believed they could get away with Khashoggi’s murder because of the administration’s close ties with MBS, Mr. Trump’s avowed dislike of establishment US media outlets and due to Riyadh’s assumptions that the White House would not care.
Additionally, some in Washington have called for the Trump Administration to place sanctions on the $110 billion arms deal that it signed with Saudi Arabia in 2017, something President Trump has rightly resisted. Doing so would deny Washington of the leverage that comes with arms customers relying on the US for training, upgrades, maintenance and replacement parts associated with weapons deals. 
To his credit, recent statements by Trump expressing concern and disgust over the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi are a welcome step towards demonstrating that the US still leads via exceptionalism and moral values rather than through transactions alone, as his political enemies maintain.
Clearly, MBS’s recent actions involve a despotic power that is difficult for Washington to swallow. Yet, the menace of Iran as well as the prospects for curbing the export of hateful Wahhabi ideology require the US to support MBS. Through this process, it is incumbent upon Washington to work with him to do more toward protecting the political rights of Saudi citizens and advancing the rule of law.
The events going back to Khashoggi’s October 2 disappearance present the Trump Administration with a sticky geopolitical situation that sandwiches Washington between a NATO ally, Turkey, and a US ally going back to the 1940s, Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, allowing this crisis to fracture the US-Saudi alliance would benefit Iran’s regional ambitions as well as advance Qatar’s diplomatic contest against Riyadh. It would also embolden an increasingly anti-American regime in Turkey that has been all too eager to assume an alternative leadership role in the Sunni world and to restore Ottoman influence in the broader Middle East.
American policy-makers need to come to grips with the reality that the important and necessary process of working with Saudi Arabia’s young leader will involve a messy process of ups and downs over the course of years, not months. Given the stakes involved going forward, both patience and diplomatic straight talk are the order of the day for Washington in its relations with the ambitious and occasionally reckless 33 year-old Saudi crown prince.
The writer is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.