Allegations that Saudi Arabia tortured, murdered and then dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has rocked Washington. But for the Trump administration, it’s business as usual for the Saudi kingdom.
According to Turkish police, Khashoggi was murdered by a 15-person kill team, which used a bone saw to cut him into pieces while he was sill alive. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) — who is close to President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — is believed to be behind the gruesome operation, which included a forensic expert, security personnel close to Saudi’s crown prince, and other individuals from the intelligence agency and military.
Khashoggi was a green card holder living in Washington, DC, who leaves behind three children who are U.S. citizens. However, the Trump administration is unwilling to consider punishment or even issue a mild condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s gruesome crime.
Trump’s closeness with the Saudi government
Since Trump was sworn in as president, he’s continually given the Saudi regime a green light to pursue a host of controversial policies. Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen, for example, is dependent on American-made weapons regularly used in attacks on civilians. The conflict is considered the largest humanitarian crisis on earth and has pushed millions to the brink of famine.
Trump’s closeness to the Saudis stems in part from his long history of major business deals with them. When Trump was in financial trouble, Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal has been there to buy Trump’s 282-foot yacht and join others to purchase Trump’s Plaza Hotel. In 2001, The Saudi government spent $4.5 million to purchase an entire floor of Trump World Tower.
During Trump’s time as president, his hotels have made huge sums of money from foreign guests — particularly Saudis — staying at his hotels in New York, DC, and Chicago.
This week, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was visiting Saudi Arabia, the Saudi regime transferred $100 million to the U.S., which Trump had been asking for to help stabilize Syria.
A decades-long alliance with Saudi Arabia
While President Trump has been closer to the Saudi regime than most previous administrations, the U.S.-Saudi relationship stretches back decades. The U.S.-Saudi alliance is based on a strategic partnership, with both countries sharing similar enemies and Saudi using its vast oil wealth to buy U.S. weapons and invest in the U.S.
America’s romance with Saudi royalty began in the 1930s with the discovery of oil and the establishment of the Arabian American Oil Company, now known as ARAMCO.
In the decades that followed, a new political movement of secular nationalism took root in the Middle East, being expressed most notably by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Nasser took power by overthrowing a repressive monarchy, nationalizing the Suez Canal, and enacting socialist-style land reforms. At the heart of Nasser’s “Pan-Arabist” movement was the idea that Arab countries didn’t need to be weak, impoverished countries ruled by kings and dominated by former colonial powers.
Both the Saudi royalty and the U.S. greatly feared Nasser’s growing movement would upset the fragile monarchies and strongmen, which ran the region. As a result, a strategic partnership was formed.
Then, in 1973, Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries used their vast oil production as a weapon against the U.S. and other countries in retaliation for America’s support for Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
As a result. the price of gas rose 400 percent in the US and the American economy took a nosedive. Following the oil crisis, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia worked out a deal where the US would purchase Saudi oil, while also offering security, weapons sales, and military aid. Saudi funds from the oil purchases were then funneled back into U.S. treasuries.
Saudi Arabia’s small population, with its ability to export huge amounts of oil, means it has a large impact on global oil prices. The U.S. found having a reliable ally in Saudi Arabia gave them the ability to exert a great deal of control over oil prices, which the U.S. could then use against its enemies.
The relationship with Saudi Arabia became even more important after the Iranian revolution in 1979 which overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (also known as Mohammad Reza Shah), a major U.S. ally in the region. As the Cold War went on, Saudi Arabia contributed billions of dollars and thousands of fanatical Islamic jihadis to the CIA’s effort to fight the USSR in Afghanistan. Among these young Saudis waging jihad in Afghanistan was Osama bin Laden. It was this CIA and Saudi policy that sowed the seeds of future terror groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The U.S. military’s protection of Saudi Arabia snapped into action in 1991, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Saudi Arabia was unnerved by its tiny neighbor’s invasion and feared it would be invaded next, but George H. W. Bush swooped in to save the day. The Saudi royal family’s close ties to the Bush family are well-documented, and the Saudi regime paid $85 billion to the U.S. for its military protection in the Gulf War.
The deadly ramifications of the Saudi-CIA operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s started to really make themselves known in 1998, when Saudi terrorist group Al-Qaeda launched attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa; and in 2000, when it attacked the USS Cole.
Al-Qaeda once again attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people and forever changing the country. The majority of the hijackers were Saudi, and the operation was assisted by some elements of the Saudi government. However, instead of threats of war and sanctions, the U.S. government flew Saudi royals out of the country—despite all commercial planes being grounded for Americans.
So why has the U.S. allowed Saudi Arabia to get away with this?
For the U.S. government, losing control of the Middle East is its worst nightmare, and Saudi Arabia —with its huge oil reserves and massive amounts of liquid cash—make it an especially important actor to keep on its side. The repressive and tyrannical Saudi regime has kept the country stable and pumping oil for decades.
Any change in leadership would likely mean a government less friendly with the U.S. and Israel. A new Saudi regime could also prove unwilling to sell out Palestinians, or be unwilling to back the U.S. as it creeps towards a war with Iran.
Saudi Arabia has also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the U.S. through its extensive army of lobbyists, gifts to politicians, funding of major think tanks and foundations, and even donating millions to the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidential libraries.
— OpenSecrets.org (@OpenSecretsDC) October 17, 2018
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is the largest single donor of cash for American startups. The Saudi fund has invested $3.5 billion in Uber, owns nearly five percent of Tesla, and has contributed $45 billion to SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which invests billions in U.S. tech companies. When Saudi crown prince MBS came to the U.S. earlier this year, he received a rock star’s welcome in Silicon Valley.
There have been rumors that President Trump has considered a Saudi-financed plan to rebuild and privatize America’s crumbling infrastructure.
However, America is not helpless. There is no reason to allow Saudi cash to financially colonize us, and there is an alternative.
A new relationship with Saudi Arabia
This week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) called for re-evaluating America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Sen. Sanders referred to the Saudi regime a “despotic dictatorship,” which “has spent the last three decades exporting an extreme form of Islam around the world.”
In addition to Sanders, both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate have called for sanctions following the murder of Khashoggi.
Last year, Saudi Arabia financed a campaign tricking U.S. veterans to lobby against a bill that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government. Similar to Russian meddling, Saudi Arabia’s influence in American political affairs can undermine democracy and give financial incentives for elected officials to sell out constituents.
However, President Trump is unlikely to make any major changes to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. For now, the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership appears to continue unabated, with the Trump administration looking away as one of America’s top allies in the Middle East kills journalists, bombs busses full of children in Yemen, and buys American businesses and politicians.
Paul Gottinger is a journalist whose work has appeared at The Daily Beast, Alternet, and Middle East Eye. You can reach him on Twitter @paulgottinger.