The Future of US-Saudi Relations: A Diplomatic Perspective

Event Summary

Arab Center Washington DC Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan moderated a wide-ranging conversation with Robert W. Jordan, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003 about the current state of the relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Ambassador Jordan: “In the beginning…our interest predominantly was a secure, reasonably-priced oil and the Saudi interest was protection”

Responding to a question from Jahshan about the nature of the mutual interests that bind the United States and Saudi Arabia, Ambassador Jordan noted that, though US and Saudi interests have often converged over the last eight decades, core US values often are not shared by Riyadh. He said that Washington and Riyadh first came together for practical reasons: the United States wanted to ensure the stable flow of cheap oil out of the Gulf while Saudi Arabia needed security assurances at a time when the region was growing more dangerous. With time, however, Washington and Riyadh found common cause in fighting communism, defending against Saddam Hussein’s expansionism, and, more recently, working to defeat extremist terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS). But Ambassador Jordan cautioned that when US and Saudi interests do not closely align or when the sides have differing understandings, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia can be turbulent.

Ambassador Jordan: “We seem to be at the mercy of the Saudis when the reality should be that they need us more than we need them.”

Jahshan noted that, unlike in Riyadh, Washington has many more actors helping articulate what US interests are. He illustrated how an incongruity in foreign policy priorities between the US executive and legislative branches at this moment is proving troublesome for US-Saudi relations. Ambassador Jordan concurred and expected tensions to continue in the short term. He explained that the threat of Iran is nearly the sole factor dictating President Donald Trump’s understanding of US-Saudi relations. But Congress has long grown suspect of, and even angry at, Saudi Arabia since shortly after it was discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi citizens. Members of Congress in fact feel acrimony towards Saudi Arabia and currently have an appetite for reprisals and sanctions against the kingdom. In the near term, Ambassador Jordan suspects this will hurt US-Saudi relations but suggested it could prove to be a positive development if it helps to recalibrate the natural bilateral relationship; that is, that Riyadh cannot act against US interests and values with impunity.

Ambassador Jordan about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi: “They scramble to try and make people believe…and the believability of the story was laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.”

Jahshan asked why the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018 elicited so much global outrage and pushed US-Saudi relations to a potential breaking point. Ambassador Jordan conceded that much of the outrage was due to Khashoggi’s standing among many in the international community and his reputation as a sincere individual who in no way sought to overthrow or destabilize the Saudi monarchy. But part of the anger at Saudi Arabia has been due to the royal family’s outlandish explanations and denials of basic facts about the events surrounding Khashoggi’s death in Istanbul. Ambassador Jordan said he noticed a modus operandi at play similar to that which Saudi officials tried with him in the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In both cases, the Saudis denied basic facts. As the world learned of the roles that Saudi individuals had in the 9/11 attacks—and currently regarding the Khashoggi murder––the royal family offered implausible denials bordering on the absurd. Just as Riyadh offered a host of implausible explanations of Khashoggi’s whereabouts on that fateful day in Istanbul, Ambassador Jordan recalled how in 2001 King Salman bin Abdelaziz, then Governor of Riyadh, told him that the attacks were not possibly a Saudi terrorist operation but rather a plot conceived and carried through by Israel’s Mossad. Now, even after Saudi officials concede the facts about Khashoggi’s murder, the royal family maintains a denial of responsibility—what Jahshan calls the “Saudi denial 2.0”—and refuses to truly hold those responsible accountable for the grisly murder.

Ambassador Jordan: “Mohammed bin Salman…essentially staged a palace coup”

As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is largely believed to have orchestrated Khashoggi’s murder plot, Jahshan and Ambassador Jordan moved to a discussion about the young crown prince. Jahshan asked about the ambassador’s previous comments about MBS “own[ing] nearly all of the policy failures of the kingdom over the past two years” and, in light of the many reckless decisions the crown prince has made, how a traditionally measured and conservative royal leadership has devolved to this point. Ambassador Jordan called the crown prince’s most consequential decisions of the last two years—the overly ambitious idea to hold an initial public offering (IPO) for Saudi ARAMCO, the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, and the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri—“so fanciful, so outrageous, and so unrealistic.” To him, for the Saudi system to get to this point, “you had a slow-moving train-wreck coming through…of unsustainable government employment, unsustainable drains on the Saudi treasury, and an aged bureaucracy that was providing incompetent and corrupt governance throughout much of the kingdom.” He surmised that “it wasn’t a terrible surprise that [the royal Saudi leadership] would reach down to a younger generation for the next crown prince.” However, after that decision was made, he noted that, “Mohammed bin Salman was able to elbow [crown prince Mohammed bin Nayaf] aside with the assistance of [King Salman] and essentially stage a palace coup,” likely emboldening him to pursue the aforementioned troubled policies.

Ambassador Jordan: “We may be married in some ways, but there is a possibility of a rupture in that relationship if the behavior doesn’t change”

Jahshan asked the ambassador about his thoughts on President Trump’s posture toward Riyadh and the administration’s prioritization of economic relations, besides Iran. Speaking frankly, Ambassador Jordan said the United States “cannot simply view Saudi Arabia as an ATM machine. We have to find ways to emphasize American values…in our dealings with adversaries and our allies.” He said it was shocking that, after a period of investigation mandated by the Global Magnistky Act, the administration did nothing beyond the tepid response of sanctioning lower ranking Saudi officials involved in the Khashoggi murder. This could be because the US-Saudi relationship seems quite personal right now; less Washington and Riyadh and more Trumps and MBS, as Jahshan summed it up. Ambassador Jordan noted that former President Barack Obama was criticized for his failure to develop a good relationship with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and that Mr. Trump may have overcompensated in his policy reversal. Jordan said “this administration has taken this to a new level where…it does appear that there is some failure to recognize what overarching American policy interests are.”

Summing up, Jahshan asked Ambassador Jordan to offer some advice to the current administration, were it to call on his expertise. The ambassador said that first, the administration must get an ambassador on the ground in Riyadh. Second, it must develop a stronger State Department staff; the department has been hampered for the entirety of this administration. Third, Jordan urged the president to listen to his own political and military advisers. Fourth, he recommended that the president and his team develop a longer-term strategy for addressing challenges facing the region as a whole and Saudi Arabia in particular. Finally, he said that he would urge the president to have a “heart-to-heart” with the Saudi crown prince to explain to him that US assistance and the US alliance are not unconditional; “we may be married in some ways,” as Jordan characterized it, “but there is a possibility of a rupture in that relationship if the behavior doesn’t change.”

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