November 24, 2018


Jamal Khashoggi's Murder Reveals the Rot at the Center of U.S.-Gulf Ties (Judah Grunstein, Oct. 17, 2018, WPR)

The immediate fallout from Khashoggi's murder has tainted the two principal architects and managers of current U.S.-Saudi ties, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. The incident and its immediate aftermath revealed the extent to which the bilateral relationship has been personalized in the hands of the impetuous and reckless young royal and the inexperienced and unqualified White House adviser. There is no way of knowing what side arrangements the two have struck as part of their broader bargain over regional policy, as their conversations have often taken place outside of formal channels with no official documentation or follow-up. But Kushner's urgent need for capital to save his family's real estate business combined with Saudi Arabia's culture of corruption makes such private channels a red flag for potential conflict of interest. In any case, Kushner has clearly been tainted by his close association with the now-toxic MBS. 

The same is true for the Washington think tank ecosystem, which is awash in Saudi and other Gulf money. This problem is neither new nor unreported, but the Khashoggi affair has once again shined the spotlight on it. In all fairness, there is no proof that the Gulf Arab states' patronage of Washington think tanks changes or determines their experts' opinions. In most cases, it serves more to amplify sympathetic voices than to outright buy them. Nor are the Gulf states the only U.S. partners that seek to shape policy debates in Washington, whether through think tanks or professional lobbyists. In normal times, the influence bought by Gulf money smacks of simple corruption, and U.S. support for the Gulf regimes can be justified by the realpolitik necessities of navigating the region. But the shocking nature of Khashoggi's murder highlights the Gulf states' political illiberalism and the disconnect between U.S. values and policy in ways that are more difficult to defend and sustain.

The rot extends to America's private sector, as illustrated by the mad scramble among U.S. corporations to distance themselves from the upcoming Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, the so-called Davos in the Desert conference. The most visible aspects of the problem are in the energy, financial and weapons industries. President Donald Trump pointedly refused to cancel any of the pending Saudi arms purchases--whose actual value is far below the $110 billion he has trumpeted--as part of any punitive measures for Riyadh's involvement in Khashoggi's death. But MBS' most recent tour to the U.S. earlier this year included a high-profile stop in Silicon Valley, the destination for billions of dollars in Saudi investment across a range of tech start-ups. And it's particularly troubling that so many media companies were among the sponsors of the Riyadh conference, even if they have withdrawn from the event under the circumstances.

Posted by at November 24, 2018 8:41 AM