On October 2nd, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in order to obtain marriage papers. Over the next few hours, he was beaten, strangled, and dismembered by a 15 man Saudi “security team”. A journalist for the Washington Post, Khashoggi lived in the United States as a permanent resident. He studied at Indiana State University. His residence in the United States was a result of his exile – Mr. Khashoggi fled the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2017, and the United States provided him a home. Yet, because he committed the crime of softly criticizing the Saudi regime, he was killed in a fashion straight out of 12th century Europe. When Mohammed Bin Salman ordered the killing of Khashoggi, he proved himself to be a modern day Macbeth – a vicious tyrant willing to bathe in a sea of blood in order to preserve his own power. Of course, Macbeth quickly met his end – and indications out of Saudi Arabia suggest that Mohammed Bin Salman may be losing his grasp on power as well.
The alliance between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States has always been one of convenience. Saudi Arabia is rich in oil, and the industrial powerhouse of the post-World War II United States needed oil. Saudi Arabia provided a strong anti-communist state in the Middle East, at a time when the threat of Soviet tanks sweeping down into the Arab world was a major concern. When Nasser took power in Egypt and a wave of anti-American, pan-Arabian sentiments threatened the American position in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia held back the pan-Arab tide. When Iran fell to thuggish Islamism in 1979, Saudi Arabia was left to counter the new threat. For these reasons, we tolerated the wanton brutality of the Saudi state. America ignored Saudi Arabia’s support of the PLO and anti-Israeli rhetoric, and when King Faisal single-handedly sent the price of oil skyrocketing in 1973 (due to America’s support for Israel), American diplomats negotiated with the Saudis and ended the embargo in 1974. America has ignored the fact that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and turned a blind eye to potential links between Saudi Arabia and Sunni radical groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. When Saudi Arabia asks for weapons to slaughter Yemenis, America sells weapons in the billions.
We shall let this continue for no longer.
The moral problems with the American-Saudi alliance are so obvious that they need not be stated. What truly matters in foreign policy is national interest – while moral dilemmas may pan out over the span of weeks or months, the question of national interest influences foreign policies for decades. Fundamentally, nothing about American or Saudi Arabian national interests, with respect to each other, has changed. Both America and Saudi Arabia are anti-Iranian states, and America desires Saudi Arabian oil. But, when the entire world is viewed as a system, the dynamics have changed immensely as a result of the Khashoggi case.
National foreign policies aren’t entirely amoral – nations and their people do have a moral weight when considering international relations. America’s chief allies are democratic, open states that value freedom of the press – and plenty of these allies are already reconsidering their relationship with Saudi Arabia. If America remains allied with Saudi Arabia, it may very well be an equivalent alliance to that of China and North Korea. Saudi Arabia is rapidly becoming an international pariah state, and aligning with Saudi Arabia will not help America’s worldwide image. Instead, Saudi Arabia will be a massive, dark cloud hanging over America as it stands on the global stage. Moreover, Saudi Arabia will simply become a larger burden to the United States – as more nations grow more distant from Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia will be forced into American arms.
Indeed, America has everything to gain from breaking with Saudi Arabia, and virtually nothing to lose. I have continuously reiterated America’s need to maintain a strong relationship with Turkey – breaking with the Saudis allows America to draw Turkey away from Russia’s grasp. Breaking with the Saudis would also allow for America to strengthen her domestic oil and natural gas industry. Furthermore, while Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no idol of human rights (Turkey has jailed the most journalists out of any nation), Turkey’s democratic record is still much better than that of Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s military is also much stronger than the Saudi military – Turkey’s anti-Kurdish operation in Afrin demonstrates this well, especially when compared to Saudi Arabia’s hideously inefficient war in Yemen.
Let us further explore as to why the United States must eventually choose between aligning with Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are mutual rivals, just as Saudi Arabia and Iran are rivals. While the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East is the most obvious reason for the various wars raging across the region, the background reason goes much deeper than a simple religious conflict – instead, it comes down to the innate nature of nations. The Ottoman Empire, a Turkish-dominated empire, controlled virtually the entire Middle East for several centuries. Preceding the Ottomans were a series of Islamic caliphates, with their power centers in the Arab world – either in Syria, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, who likewise controlled North Africa, the Arab world, and Persia. And, before the Islamic caliphates, there were mighty empires with their capitals in Persia – the Achaemenid Dynasty, for example, controlled 44% of the global population at their height in 400BC.
These three civilizations – the Arabs, the Persians, and the Turks – all, at some point or another, had mastery over the modern day Islamic world. It is their inherent national desire to grow back to their former power – and this phenomena isn’t only visible in the Middle East, but also clearly visible in Russia and China. With Turkey being the leading Turkish state, Saudi Arabia being the leading Arab state (Egypt is increasingly turning towards Africa – a wise move), and Iran being the leading Persian state, conflict and tensions are inevitable. An alliance with Iran is impossible due to a variety of obvious reasons (unless there is regime change), and the American-Saudi alliance will cause more problems in the long term.
The death of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudis provides America a unique opportunity to cut off a tumor that has been leaching away at America’s soft power and image on the world stage for years. America, if it so desires, has the chance to realign itself in the Middle East and ally with Turkey – a more natural ally capable of pressuring not only Iran, but also Russia. America must break with Saudi Arabia and end an infamous alliance of convenience.