Why Donald Trump and Mohammed Bin Salman Need Each Other, Even as U.S.-Saudi Relations Fray; the United States Has Overlooked Human Rights Abuses in Saudi Arabia for More Than 70 Years, but No President Has Cozied Up to the Oil-Rich Kingdom like Donald Trump-Even as He Seeks to Disengage from the Middle East

By Broder, Jonathan | Newsweek, September 7, 2018 | Go to article overview

Why Donald Trump and Mohammed Bin Salman Need Each Other, Even as U.S.-Saudi Relations Fray; the United States Has Overlooked Human Rights Abuses in Saudi Arabia for More Than 70 Years, but No President Has Cozied Up to the Oil-Rich Kingdom like Donald Trump-Even as He Seeks to Disengage from the Middle East


Broder, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Broder

It's not often that Ottawa provokes an international brawl. The issue: Saudi Arabia's detention of several prominent women's rights activists. Canada's Foreign Ministry posted a tweet urging their immediate release--and Riyadh took it badly.

Accusing Canada of "blatant interference in the kingdom's domestic affairs," Saudi Arabia pulled its ambassador from Ottawa and expelled his Canadian counterpart, giving him just one day to clear out of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Trade with Canada was frozen, the managers of Saudi wealth funds were told to sell Canadian holdings, and airline links between the two countries were severed. The kingdom also halted payments for some 10,000 Saudi students enrolled at Canadian universities and 5,000 patients undergoing treatment there.

The fierce reaction bore all the hallmarks of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, the brash new power behind the Saudi throne. Though trade between Canada and the kingdom is minuscule, experts say the prince's message was clear and aimed at a much larger audience. "If you criticize Saudi Arabia, there will be a price to pay," former CIA Middle East analyst Bruce Riedel tells Newsweek.

The Trump administration got the message, and Canada, one of America's closest allies and friends, found itself out in the cold. The State Department declined to get involved, advising the two sides to work it out themselves. "We cannot do it for them," said spokeswoman Heather Nauert during a press conference.

The episode showcased the muscular style that Crown Prince Mohammad has brought to Saudi leadership. Gone are the days when Saudi Arabia conducted its foreign policy largely behind the scenes, avoiding direct military confrontation with its foes and quietly projecting its power by funding friendly Arab and Muslim politicians, proxies and media outlets. MBS is now using the kingdom's vast wealth to punish his critics and enemies, both in his bare-knuckled diplomacy and on the battlefield in Yemen, where he's waging war against Iranian proxies. Critics say the episode also exposed President Donald Trump's willingness to abdicate America's moral leadership in defense of human rights--although on Saudi Arabia, that's a position the U.S. surrendered long ago.

In a world where brutal, autocratic countries and their corrupt leaders have been called to account before international tribunals or truth-and-reconciliation commissions, Saudi Arabia has always been the exception. Ever since the discovery of its vast oil reserves in 1938, the kingdom's unique power to stabilize or sabotage the world economy has forced the U.S., its Western allies and even the United Nations to tiptoe around not only Saudi human rights abuses at home but also its financial support for militant Islamist groups such as the Taliban and the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise. And the valuable strategic benefits that Saudi Arabia offers the United States--including its intelligence cooperation on counterterrorism, the fly-over rights it grants U.S. military aircraft in an important region of world, the lucrative market it provides for U.S. military hardware and the role of counterweight to Iran it has assumed--have all insulated the kingdom from U.S. sanctions. Weighed against such considerations, former diplomats say the administration's refusal to support Canada over Saudi Arabia makes perfect sense.

"Human rights and values have never been the cement in this relationship," says Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "From the outset, it has always been driven by national interests--both ours and theirs."

Those interests were established on Valentine's Day in 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia's founding father, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, aboard a U.S. Navy ship anchored in the Suez Canal. In a historic agreement that laid the foundation for U. …

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Why Donald Trump and Mohammed Bin Salman Need Each Other, Even as U.S.-Saudi Relations Fray; the United States Has Overlooked Human Rights Abuses in Saudi Arabia for More Than 70 Years, but No President Has Cozied Up to the Oil-Rich Kingdom like Donald Trump-Even as He Seeks to Disengage from the Middle East
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