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U.S.–Saudi relations are at their lowest point since 9/11

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, on October 16, 2018.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, on October 16, 2018. Photo: Leah Millis/AFP via Getty Images

By all current evidence, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was the victim of a brutal extrajudicial killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. His work as a Washington Post columnist shed international light on the repressive government of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) — as, too, did his death.

The big picture: The basis of U.S.–Saudi relations has always been the personal relationship between the Saudi king and U.S. president. The Khashoggi affair has now put this foundation at stake: Trump and MBS face the worst crisis of confidence in the U.S.–Saudi relationship since the 9/11 terrorist attacks involving 15 Saudi nationals.

The background: Khashoggi was a highly respected journalist, editor, commentator and onetime advisor to the former Saudi ambassador to London and Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal. He was a prominent member of the kingdom’s non-royal elite, never a revolutionary or monarchy-hater. He even welcomed, albeit with a critical eye, the daring social reforms MBS has launched and his crackdown on the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerics opposing them.

Even President Trump, MBS’ most important foreign supporter, finally had to respond to the grisly details of Khashoggi’s murder, dispatching Secretary of State Pompeo to Riyadh on what will probably turn out to be a mission impossible. King Salman and his son, MBS, have so far heatedly denied any knowledge of the incident, despite failing to provide any evidence to the contrary. They may be shifting to a fallback position of a interrogation operation gone wrong.

What’s next: Both Trump and MBS will doubtless look for a way to finesse the truth to preserve a working relationship. After all, they need each other badly to contain Iran, their common nemesis. The Saudis may resort to blaming rogue elements and promise punishment, and Trump may accept this implausible explanation.

Yes, but: The Khashoggi affair seems likely to permanently sour Trump’s enthusiasm and trust in the king and his son. While the storm might eventually subside, it augurs poorly for the future of the U.S.–Saudi relationship.

David Ottaway is a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.

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