Democratic presidential candidates and potential candidates seem tempted to compete over who can go the farthest in disparaging Saudi Arabia. Congress, too, seems uncharacteristically united in its desire to punish the kingdom for its misbehavior. To John Hannah, this anti-Saudi mood risks endangering an important, if problematic, alliance and could well drive Riyadh into the hands of America’s enemies:
Today, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner. It’s among the biggest customers for Saudi oil—while the U.S. shale boom increasingly poses the greatest threat to Riyadh’s economic prosperity. . . . And Beijing, like Moscow, is perfectly prepared to sell its most advanced capabilities to Riyadh with no strings attached. No complaints about the kingdom’s human-rights record. No mentions of [the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal] Khashoggi.
But, Hannah continues, the Trump administration, while commendably trying to preserve the U.S.-Saudi alliance, has made serious errors of its own:
By the time of Khashoggi’s shocking demise inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate last year, it had become clear that the hands-off, highly transactional approach to managing the Saudis pursued by Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, had gone badly astray. Giving Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman carte blanche to indulge his darkest instincts in exchange for a few billion dollars in weapons purchases, lower oil prices, and a slightly less hostile attitude toward an otherwise doomed U.S. plan for Middle East peace was neither a wise nor sustainable trade-off for U.S. foreign policy. . . .
Finally, and perhaps most urgently, the administration should press the crown prince to take concrete action quickly to demonstrate that a page has in fact been turned on the unfortunate series of events of the past year and a half. Especially in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, perhaps the most [important] step Mohammad bin Sultan could take would be to release from prison high-profile individuals who have been unjustly detained and, in many cases, reportedly abused and tortured. This would include the blogger Raif Badawi and his sister Samar, several women’s-rights activists who were arrested in the spring of 2018, and the U.S.-Saudi dual national, Walid Fitaihi.
The power to grant such clemency is entirely in the hands of the crown prince and his father, King Salman. Remarkably, despite the obvious importance that Congress has placed on these human-rights cases, there’s no evidence whatsoever that the administration, much less Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has made them a priority with the Saudis. They should. Arguably, no other step might do more to help defuse the rising tide of anti-Saudi sentiment roiling Capitol Hill.