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Donald Trump and King Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 05/20/2017 © White House

Are Saudi Arabia and MBS Becoming a Liability for the White House?

It would be hard to find the leader of any close American ally in recent history with a cloud over his head as the one over Mohammed bin Salman today.

The December 14 Senate votes to end US military aid for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and to condemn Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his responsibility in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi mark a watershed moment in US-Saudi Arabia relations. The actions by the American congressional body are a significant departure not only from the policy of the Trump administration but also from the norm of US-Saudi relations dating back to 1945. Today, the three pillars on which US-Saudi relations sit — the administration, the Congress and American business — are becoming anxiously unstable for the House of Saud and the US administration.

The historic decisions by the Senate were a predictable result of a briefing provided by CIA Director Gina Haspel, during which she effectively fingered the de facto ruler of the kingdom for the horrific murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. Though not provided to all members, the briefing was reportedly so convincing, that of those who did attend, many left the session “outraged” at the crown prince’s behavior.

“There is not a smoking gun, there’s a smoking saw,” declared Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and otherwise stalwart supporter of President Donald Trump. The senator’s assertion stood in stark contrast to Trump’s unconvincing and capricious excusal, “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”

A Relationship in Turmoil

The vote to cut off aid means that while the crown prince’s prosecution of the Yemen War may be safe for now — the House of Representatives did not vote on the measure — it will be in jeopardy when the new Democratic-controlled House convenes next month. That war has been a disaster on many counts, not least of which the high rate of Yemeni casualties — over 10,000 deaths (though likely as much as five times higher) and 14 million facing starvation.

For Saudi Arabia, the war has been an embarrassment. The nation with the world’s third highest defense budget has been unable to defeat a ragtag Houthi rebel army. It begs the question of how much worse their performance would have been without American (and other Western) assistance. Imagine if Riyadh had to deliver on some of the crown prince’s bluster against Iran, whose military and paramilitary forces are far more numerous and infinitely more capable than the hapless Houthis. So, the Senate’s action, though toothless for now, taken in conjunction with the ceasefire negotiated in Stockholm, spells good news for a Yemeni population in desperate need after nearly four years of war and deprivation.

The Senate’s unanimous condemnation of Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, will be more significant for the US-Saudi relationship. Though MBS’ position appears secure for the moment — and all evidence points to his likely ascension to the Saudi throne after his father, King Salman — he will be forever marked by the US Congress for his role in the Khashoggi execution. It is difficult to see how he overcomes such an unprecedented handicap as the leader of a nation previously viewed as one of America’s most important allies. In fact, it would be hard to find the leader of any close American ally in recent history with such a cloud over his head.

This ought to register on the minds of every member of the House of Saud. As important as the relationship is for the US, it is indispensable and fundamental to Riyadh. The folly in Yemen is a perfect example of why the kingdom must maintain its close relations with Washington and, most importantly, the American defensive backstop that comes with it.

Critical to maintaining that relationship has been the congressional support nearly always given to every administration’s Saudi policy starting in 1945 under President Franklin Roosevelt. The Senate’s votes, and those likely to follow when the new Congress takes office next month, will mean that fulsome support can no longer be assumed. To be sure, the relationship unquestionably remains in American and Saudi national interests. But the kind of support that the Saudis could previously count on and the usually friendly reception it got on The Hill are no longer certain and, in fact, highly doubtful.

BACKED INTO ROYAL CORNER

For the Trump administration, which has placed so much stock on both the president’s and his son-in-law’s personal relationships with the crown prince, the Senate actions are especially painful. The president can no longer look to the Republican-controlled Congress to back him up on the kingdom. Donald Trump and Jared Kushner must now dance to a much different tune.

Those personal relations have attracted added scrutiny of late. First, there is the recent New York Times report of the inordinately close relationship between Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman. The relationship is particularly unsettling given Kushner’s lack of diplomatic or military experience and ignorance about the Middle East region generally, and Saudi Arabia specifically. It calls into question who may be using whom.

Then, there is the more recent revelation that Kushner may have dispensed advice to MBS after the latter’s dispatching of Khashoggi. In addition to the potential criminal element in that action, there is also the violation of standard White House and State Department protocol, namely the absence of other officials on the call, not to mention simple common sense. Finally, there comes word that Special Counsel Robert Mueller may be extending his investigation into the Trump campaign to possible illicit involvement of Middle Eastern governments, including Saudi Arabia’s. Are the kingdom and its crown prince becoming a liability for this White House?

Business Becomes Nervous

The third leg of the US-Saudi relationship has been the attendant support the kingdom typically received from US businesses and banks. But there is apparent and growing disenchantment of international investors with the kingdom, who view it as less than a good bet these days. In fact, businesses saw the writing on the wall considerably sooner than the Senate votes and the Khashoggi affair. After MBS detained hundreds of Saudi Arabia’s exalted business elite in the Ritz Carlton for an extended period and imposed a blockade on fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar in June 2017, international business questioned the judgment, business acumen and ultimate political intentions of the brash crown prince who had committed to vault Saudi Arabia’s non-oil sector to unprecedented levels.

Today, the platform of the US-Saudi relationship is seriously out of kilter. Two of the three pillars on which it rests — Congressional backing and business support — have been weakened. The third cannot now be considered a certainty in a post-Trump White House. And with the mercurial, impulsive and politically toxic Mohammed bin Salman at the helm, it is difficult to see how the sides can come together to rebalance this vital relationship to serve their mutual interests.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.