Trump’s loyalty to Saudi crown prince gives free pass to autocrats
US president’s refusal to blame MBS for Khashoggi killing is bad news for Middle East
US president Donald Trump and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at a meeting in Riyadh in May 2017. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
By deciding not to hold Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration has given a free pass to pro-US Middle Eastern autocrats to detain, render and kill critics and opponents.
President Donald Trump dismissed the Central Intelligence Agency’s assessment that the crown prince, known as “MBS”, ordered the killing and argued that Saudi oil, weapons purchases and support for US regional policies outweigh antagonising the kingdom’s de-facto ruler by holding him to account for Khashoggi’s murder.
Under pressure from congressional Republicans and Democrats and criticised by senior Republican ally Lindsey Graham, who called the prince a “wrecking ball” on the international plane due the Khashoggi case and the Yemen war, Trump has remained loyal to the prince.
To justify his decision, Trump claimed Saudi Arabia could harm the US by raising oil prices at a time when the US produces most of its own oil, or by cancelling arms contracts worth $110 billion, although only $14.5 billion in weapons have been ordered. Trump’s claim that Russian or Chinese weaponry could replace US arms is incorrect due to their different operating systems.
Secretary of state Mike Pompeo backed Trump by saying the US relationship with Saudi Arabia is “absolutely vital to Americans’ national security. The US has sanctioned 17 individual Saudis detained for involvement in the murder without identifying the source of the order to act.
US exoneration of the crown prince has diminished western leverage on the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to force an end to the war in Yemen. In anticipation of Trump’s statement, Saudi Arabia has resumed bombing Yemen’s rebel-held Hodeida port, which provides 80 per cent of food and medical supplies for 28 million Yemenis, half of whom face starvation and disease.
Riyadh has also rejected a draft UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and deliveries of humanitarian aid.
The free pass given to MBS over the Khashoggi case could be extended to rulers of Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Turkey, which crack down hard on dissidents. The UAE, Bahrain and Turkey host US military forces and are also considered vital US assets in the region.
The US decision on bin Salman coincided with an Amnesty International report stating that jailed Saudi women who campaigned for the right to drive – which was granted last June – have been beaten, subjected to electric shocks and sexually harassed. Human Rights Watch revealed inmates in UAE-run prisons in Emirati-controlled areas of Yemen are routinely tortured and abused.
Human Rights Watch said the Egyptian government presides “over the worst human rights crisis in the country in decades” by carrying out arrests and enforced disappearences.
Other rights bodies report that Bahrain has detained Shia activists demanding political rights while Turkey has detained 160,000 for questioning, arrested 80,000, and suspended or dismissed 107,000 public employees since a failed coup in June 2016.
By contrast, the Trump administration punishes antagonists. Trump has imposed punitive sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the 2015 deal providing for the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. This week the US announced sanctions against Iran and Russia over a plan to send oil to war-torn Syria.