This spring, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, fresh from consolidating power after imprisoning his rivals in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, went on a remarkably successful public relations tour of the United States. M.B.S., as he is widely known, met with Bill Clinton, Rupert Murdoch and Oprah Winfrey. He spoke about women’s empowerment, took selfies with movie stars, and feted Silicon Valley. He was regularly described as a “disrupter.” The tabloid publisher David J. Pecker — at the time still a close friend of Donald Trump — produced a hagiographic glossy magazine celebrating M.B.S. and his “Magic Kingdom.”
It was, as a senior Democratic staffer told me, a “master class in stroking the American establishment’s erogenous zones.”
Yet even as M.B.S. was earning plaudits abroad by lifting his country’s ban on female drivers, he was imprisoning prominent women’s rights activists. Saudi Arabia let AMC open the country’s first movie theater, but cracked down on journalists. And, of course, Saudi Arabia led, and still leads, a coalition that is raining death on Yemen, a campaign that’s included the bombing of civilians, mass starvation, torture and rape.
The crown prince might be a liberalizer when it comes to business, using a mastery of start-up jargon and Saudi investments in think tanks, media businesses, and technology companies like Uber to buy the good will of the Davos class. But he’s also a tyrannical thug who has been emboldened by Donald Trump’s disregard for human rights in American foreign policy.
In September 2017, the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had gone into exile, wrote a column in The Washington Post headlined, “Saudi Arabia Wasn’t Always This Repressive. Now It’s Unbearable.”
As of this writing, Khashoggi is thought to be dead. Last Tuesday, he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up a document certifying his divorce so that he could remarry. He hasn’t been seen since. The Turkish government claims he was murdered inside.
“If the reports of Khashoggi’s murder are true, it’s so brazen, it’s so outlandish,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me. Saudi Arabia has killed people before, and put dissidents and bloggers in prison. “But this is at a whole different level,” she said.
It’s not surprising, however, that the Saudi government would think it could get away with it. The United States has long maintained a close strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia despite the kingdom’s abysmal human rights record, and tacit American support for its brutal war in Yemen began during Barack Obama’s administration. But there’s never been an American president as enthusiastically pro-Saudi as Trump.
Sure, he sees the country as an ally against Iran. But it’s more than that: Trump seems to feel a real affinity for the gaudy kleptocratic opulence of the country’s leaders. And his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, appears to view M.B.S. as a kindred spirit; both, after all, are rich millennials making world-altering decisions thanks to extreme nepotism.
Tamara Cofman Wittes served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during the Obama administration, and is writing a book about America’s complicated relationship with its autocratic allies. She told me that because the Saudi monarchy has developed a close relationship with the Trump family, “they don’t think that they need to give as much weight to anything else that comes out of Washington or that comes out of the United States.”
Besides, Trump has made it clear that the United States will no longer even pretend to stand up for liberal values globally. The administration “basically tells all of these governments: ‘Don’t worry. It’s O.K. Do what you need to do,’” said Margon, of Human Rights Watch. Around the world, restraints on brutal behavior are loosening. In just the last couple of days, the head of Interpol has been detained in China, and the Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova, whose television show featured investigations into powerful businessmen and politicians, was found raped and murdered.
“Those who most need the protections of international human rights law — dissidents, journalists, civil society actors — these vulnerable people are used to operating in the knowledge that big governments out there in the world care,” said Wittes. “They don’t have that now.”
On Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont will give a speech on what he describes as a “new authoritarian axis” developing worldwide, a phenomenon that gave rise to Trump, and that Trump accelerates. When I spoke to Sanders on Monday, he compared the possible killing of Khashoggi to Russia’s assassinations of defectors in England. “We think this would not be happening if not for the support of Trump and Kushner for the despotic government of Saudi Arabia,” Sanders said.
Earlier this year, Sanders teamed up with the arch-conservative Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, to introduce a resolution ending American support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. It failed, 55-44, with most Republicans voting against it. In the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Sanders plans to reintroduce it. It could pass if there’s anything left of the Republican Party that once purported to stand up for democratic values. I wouldn’t count on it.