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Feature Article
2021-03-03

It's Complicated: The Changing Nature of the US-Saudi Alliance

After the long-awaited release of a US intelligence report into the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration immediately took flak for seeming to give Muhammad bin Salman, named in the report as the man bearing key responsibility, a free pass. Has the White House made its point, or further emboldened the crown prince?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The congressionally mandated release of the report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, dated February 11 and declassified two weeks later, follows a successful effort by the previous administration to hold back its public release. Former President Trump, a fervent admirer of Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), had famously boasted in Bob Woodward's book 'Rage' that he had "saved his ass", and that he "was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop." On the other hand, Biden, speaking as a presidential candidate, had promised to make Saudi a "pariah", with human rights the cornerstone of his foreign policy. Still, the damning report placed the White House in the awkward position of trying to frame a "Goldilocks" response that would hold the instigators of the Khashoggi attack responsible, while avoiding irreparable damage to the alliance. Like the protagonist in the fairy tale, however, the administration has found the comfort short-lived.

The intelligence report's executive summary states clearly that MbS "approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi", citing the absolute control the crown prince exerts over the Kingdom and his "support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi." "We base this assessment on the Crown Prince's control of decision-making in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman's protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi," the report says. In particular, the report calls attention to the so-called Rapid Intervention Force, or RIF, a group which "exists to defend the crown prince" and "answers only to him". The existence of the force, also known as the Tiger Squad, helped bolster the intelligence case that MbS approved the operation. "Members of the RIF would not have participated" in the killing without the crown prince's consent. The report also states that the group has carried out dozens of operations both inside the Kingdom and beyond, "including forcibly repatriating Saudis from other Arab countries".

The Saudi government response was to completely reject "the negative, false and unacceptable assessment pertaining to the Kingdom's leadership." The official narrative is that the perpetrators have already been held accountable - arrests were made, trials held, and eight people were sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years for their roles in the killing (although their names were never made public). The crown prince also declared in an interview that he took full responsibility, while denying personal involvement. Furthermore, a seemingly coordinated social media campaign was set in motion, seeking to undermine the conclusion of the intelligence report. This reflects an effort by Saudi-based accounts, working in both English and Arabic, to shape the public narrative around the role of MbS, according to media analysts. Typically, such accounts, (often bots) push pro-Saudi messages critical of the United States, often in direct response to mainstream media articles to attract a wider audience. "The case of Khashoggi is already closed with the criminals in jail for what they did," is an example of one Twitter comment repeatedly posted the day after the report's release. Analysts believe these suspect accounts, flying under the radar by making only the occasional tweet in Arabic, are controlled by an operation managed by Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince's right-hand man.

The White House announced that it would sanction lower-level Saudi officials but not the crown prince himself, a decision which immediately drew fire from all sides. The response was further muddled when the press secretary said, in defence, that the US had never before sanctioned foreign heads of state, which was technically incorrect.

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Commentary
The Arab Spring Revisited: The Royal Response

Ten years on from the "Arab Spring", the royal family has solidified its grip on the nation. Increasingly confident in his ability to tamp down dissent, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is more concerned with burnishing his image as a progressive and pleasing his American ally than addressing the concerns of the citizen. In light of the contradictions between a professed desire for reform and the intolerance of dissent, what would be the response to a new round of anti-government sentiment, with the Kingdom in financial straits and pressure from the U.S. and Europe over the suppression of human rights at home?

Shock Therapy: Confronting a New Reality?

Saudi's haste to patch up relations with neighboring Qatar, rush to prosecute dissidents, and a volte-face on oil production cuts all come as U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden prepares to take office on January 20. Is the Kingdom's crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, only now realizing the extent to which relations with its American ally will fundamentally change?

Competing Narratives: Changing the Tune or Evolving Chaos?

Ever since Prince Bandar bin Sultan's headline-grabbing interview in which he angrily denounced the Palestinian leadership, speculation has been rife over a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But with Prince Turki al-Faysal's more recent verbal lashing of Israel, assumptions about a coming rapprochement have been consigned to the dustbin. Does the confusion reflect second thoughts about engaging with Israel, or is it a symptom of a broader rift within the royal family?

An Election Dilemma: Moving Forward or Nursing Wounds?

As world leaders rushed to send congratulatory messages to US President-Elect Joe Biden on his electoral victory, Saudi Arabia was notably silent. It was no surprise that the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, had his hopes pinned on a Trump win, but has the apparent snub already set the tone for future relations for the new administration?

Disruption Top to Bottom: The Reappearance of Bandar bin Sultan

In what many are calling a "writ of divorce", the Saudi royals have blasted the Palestinian status quo and let it be known that henceforth, foreign policy will not be driven by traditional considerations. Does this represent a victory for the reformist views of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, or is it a strategic shift based on a pivot away from American leadership in the region?

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