Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman continues to control the key levers of power in Saudi Arabia, but his simultaneous push for economic and social reform creates potential flashpoints for internal opposition. Saudi public support for the royal family appears to remain high, even in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Moreover, we assess that the Saudi Government remains well positioned to stifle small-scale protests and discontent; it has preemptively arrested or forcibly detained clerics, business leaders, and civil society activists who could be nodes for discontent. The Kingdom will seek to make progress on its Vision 2030 plan of structural reforms, spearheaded by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and aimed at reducing dependence on oil revenues. The plan’s initiatives include reducing subsidies, building a robust private sector, and instituting taxes, all of which upend the longstanding social contract. Some of these reforms have aggravated segments of the Saudi public, including government workers who are religious conservatives.
- 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community
On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Washington Post contributing columnist who was a legal permanent resident of Virginia, was murdered in cold blood in the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Actually, he was murdered, then dismembered and put into trash bags — all because he dared to suggest that free speech and women’s rights were good things and questioned why outspoken, but peaceful, activists were being thrown in Saudi jails.
According to an exhaustive report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, “It is the conclusion of the Special Rapporteur that Mr. Khashoggi has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law. In addition, the execution of Mr. Khashoggi demands that those responsible be identified and held to account for their role in the execution of Mr. Khashoggi.” Read the entire report here.
Immediately, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia denied having any knowledge of the incident, which is absurd on its face. In December 2019, it was announced by the Saudi prosecutor that five people had been sentenced to death — and three others sentenced to jail — for the murder of Jamal. The eight men were not named, naturally. Interestingly enough, the Saudi prosecutor also announced that, although his office had investigated two top advisers to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), they had been cleared due to “insufficient evidence.” Without question, this Saudi “investigation” and “prosecution” was a complete sham, or as United Nations investigator Agnes Callamard put it, a “parody of justice.”
Making the entire episode even more chilling, Donald Trump’s White House released a statement calling the Saudi prosecutor’s verdict “an important step in holding those responsible for this terrible crime accountable.” Give us a freak’n break.
Finally, on February 11, 2021, the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released a report confirming that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did indeed approve the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a murder that was carried out by an elite team of operatives that reported directly to the prince.
It is unacceptable that Mohammed bin Salman has not been held accountable for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. As outrageous as it may be, it’s certainly no surprise. When it came to holding Saudi Arabia accountable for anything during the Trump presidency — including the incessant bombing against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has turned into the largest humanitarian crisis in the entire world — Donald Trump simply refused.
But he isn’t the only one. President Biden also declined to act in any meaningful way. After the release of the February 2021 DNI report, Biden decided against condemning Mohammed bin Salman directly, opting instead to sanction other Saudis who were supposedly involved, including Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief and members of the elite strike force that the prince ordered to murder Jamal. Then, in July 2022, Biden went to Saudi Arabia and fist-bumped MBS, with a big smile on his face.
In the very beginning, the U.S. State Department did announce something called the “Khashoggi Ban” — which “restricted” and “revoked” American visas to foreign officials who harass and/or endanger journalists, dissidents, and activists abroad. But then in November 2022, the Biden administration gave Mohammed bin Salman immunity in a wrongful death court case brought by Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée.
At least some members of Congress tried to do the right thing. Not long after Jamal’s murder, twenty-two U.S. senators triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act demanding that the Trump administration determine who was responsible for the murder and state whether the administration would apply sanctions in response. Although the White House was required by law to comply with the demand, it was completely ignored. Another congressional attempt came when bipartisan members of Congress made a similar request in the National Defense Authorization Act later that year. The Trump Administration ignored that one as well.
Throughout his entire presidency, Donald Trump shielded Mohammed bin Salman from any consequence for his actions. Donald even bragged, on tape, to reporter Bob Woodward that “I saved his ass. I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.” He also mentioned to Mr. Woodward that Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars on American weapons, which I guess in his mind justifies murderous behavior.
This, while Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman does one despicable thing after another, including kidnapping Lebanon’s prime minister, with zero repercussions. He tried to kill a former Saudi intelligence officer who was living in exile in Canada, then kidnapped the man’s family members who still lived in the Kingdom; he has detained, without formal charges, women’s rights activists, princes and businessmen; and set blockades at Yemen’s ports to deny the people of Yemen any humanitarian aid — while he is bombing them during a severe famine and widespread cholera outbreak.
This has quickly turned into the largest humanitarian crisis in the entire world. Human Rights Watch reports that “roughly 80 percent of Yemen’s population requires humanitarian aid, including over 12 million children. The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) warns that the number of children under the age of 5 who suffer from acute malnutrition could rise to 2.4 million. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reports that 50 percent of Yemeni children are experiencing irreversible stunted growth. UNICEF warns that 7.8 million children had no access to education following Covid-19-related school closures and nearly 10 million did not have adequate access to water and sanitation.”
The devastation Saudi Arabia — together with the United Arab Emirates and others in the region — has caused in Yemen is criminal and a clear violation of international law, plain and simple.
Many of the weapons used in the war have been provided by the United States. A report called Day of Judgement revealed that “in 2017, the U.S. administration notified Congress of $17.9 billion of proposed sales of arms and other military support to Saudi Arabia and $2.8 billion to the UAE. In 2016, about $5 billion of sales to each country were proposed.” To his credit, President Obama halted the sale of precision-guided military technology to Saudi Arabia in December 2016, but, of course, Donald Trump resumed selling weapons to them just three months later.
In April 2019, Donald Trump vetoed legislation supported by a bipartisan congressional majority to end American support for Saudi Arabia’s deadly intervention in Yemen. The very next month, the Trump administration announced that it was invoking “emergency authority” to bypass Congressional opposition and finalize twenty-two arms deals with several countries, including one with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that totaled around $8 billion. Never mind this move was 100% illegal because under the Arms Export Control Act, the U.S. Congress has the authority to review weapons sales.
One of the most horrifying travesties in the conflict in Yemen took place in August 2018, when a Saudi-led airstrike hit a school bus killing at least 43 people, many of them children. The bomb that hit the bus was reportedly a 500-pound laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin and sold to Saudi Arabia by the United States. One eyewitness told CNN: “I saw the bomb hit the bus. It blew it into those shops and threw the bodies clear to the other side of those buildings. We found bodies scattered everywhere, there was a severed head inside the bomb crater. When we found that, that was when I started running. I was so afraid.”
A similar bomb, also provided by America, was used in October 2016 to decimate a funeral hall filled with 155 people. Amid international condemnation, Saudi officials called the strike “a mistake.” That’s some mistake. Plus, earlier that year, an American-sold MK 84 bomb killed 97 people in a market.
The fact that the United States provided logistical and intelligence support for this atrocity in any way is one of the most disgraceful things this country has ever done.
Amnesty International reports:
All parties to the conflict in Yemen continued to commit violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses with impunity. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition, supporting the internationally recognized Yemeni government, and Huthi forces continued to carry out attacks that unlawfully killed and injured civilians and destroyed civilian objects. All parties to the conflict carried out arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, harassment, torture and other ill-treatment, and unfair trials of individuals, targeted solely for their political, religious or professional affiliations, or for their peaceful activism. The parties to the conflict impeded the flow of life-saving goods, including food, medicine and fuel, and Huthi forces continued to impose arbitrary restrictions on humanitarian aid agencies.
Our own State Department reports:
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by all parties; forced disappearances by all parties; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the ROYG, Houthis, and Emiratis; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary infringements on privacy rights; serious abuses in an internal conflict, including unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers, primarily by the Houthis; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of criminal libel and slander laws; substantial interference with freedom of assembly and association; serious restrictions on freedom of movement; pervasive abuse of migrants; the inability of citizens to choose their government through free and fair elections; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and the worst forms of child labor.’
United States capitulation to Saudi Arabia must stop, like yesterday. In early February 2021, President Biden ended all remaining American support for the travesty in Yemen and appointed a new special envoy for the country.
Now, two things need to happen immediately:
First, we must help alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people and demand that the United Nations do a much better job brokering peace negotiations, and implementing the subsequent agreements, with the Iranian-backed Houthi movement (Ansar Allah), the Saudi Arabian-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Government (STC). This is incredibly important because this ongoing conflict has emboldened the faction al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and weakened U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Yemen has become a safe-haven for terrorists to regroup and plot against the United States — essentially under our protection.
Second, we must hold Saudi Arabia AND Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for, at the very least, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the torturous treatment of Loujain al-Hathloul and other women’s rights advocates, and the war crimes Saudi Arabia has committed in Yemen. < Thankfully, after 1,001 days in prison, Saudi Arabia released Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights advocate. While living in exile in the United Arab Emirates, Hathloul was tracked down and forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia. There, by her own account, she was sexually abused and tortured, with both electric shocks and waterboarding. She was told she could go free if she would say, on video, that she had not been tortured — an offer she refused. >
The United States should immediately place a freeze on Mohammed bin Salman’s assets as well as suspend military sales to Saudi Arabia. For a minute it looked like the Biden administration was going to at least use Yemen as a litmus test when selling arms to Saudi Arabia but, of course, they then turned around and approved a $5 billion+ arms sale to them.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is only 37 years old. If we don’t bring the thunder now this b.s. will continue for decades.