The barbaric murder of Jamal Khashoggi rocked the world last month. A Washington Post columnist, Khashoggi used to be part of the Saudi establishment. Although not a member of the House of Saud – the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia – he was born into a good family, and was well connected. He edited an important Saudi newspaper, Al Madina, and worked for top royals. Khashoggi also worked for Prince Turki Al Faisal, long a director of Saudi intelligence and previously an ambassador to both the United Kingdom and the United States. Put simply, Khashoggi was not small-fry in the Saudi hierarchy. Long a liberal and a reformist, Khashoggi has nevertheless always been moderate and gradual in his approach, worrying that too many reforms would be disruptive. After witnessing the radical regime of the crown prince Mohamed Bin Salman, Khashoggi did become more critical, but he was never a radical.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has maintained stability by avoiding the hallmarks of a police state. The kingdom has usually dealt with its critics and dissidents by buying their silence, especially in the case of radicals. The Saudis used this strategy again recently after the Arab Spring, when they massively increased subsidies to citizens and gave new bonuses to government employees in an effort to keep them quiet. It worked. In fact, one lesson of the Arab Spring seems to be that repression does not work as well as bribes, considering the fates of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Mubarak Gaddafi in Libya.
But Salman seems to be changing the governmental model, adopting the facets of a police state. He has mixed economic, social and religious reforms with more authoritarian elements. He has imprisoned activists, attacked new platforms, and now executed a journalist. Leaving aside the immorality, this type of ruthlessness tends to produce long-term instability. Mubarak could not stay in power in Egypt, and Bashar al-Assad's survival in nearby Syria has come at an overwhelming cost, with his territory diminished and largely in ruins.
America’s response to this has been lacklustre. The main issue is that US foreign policy should not be based on the personalities of other leaders as it currently is. President Trump's worldview seems openly based on his appreciation or disdain for other leaders. In the Middle East, this has led to a blind subcontracting of US foreign policy via Saudi Arabia. Washington has de facto supported the kingdom as it extended its war in Yemen, blocked Qatar and fought with Turkey. US policy towards the Middle East should be based on its interests and values in the region, and those will never be perfectly aligned with those of any other country, including Saudi Arabia.
Historically, that has meant being an honest mediator, respected by all important powers. That is what allowed Henry Kissinger to practice shuttle diplomacy, and what helped President Jimmy Carter to forge the Camp David agreements. It is why, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, the US government has historically demanded that its Arab allies carry out serious political reforms. All of that requires nuances, sophistication and incessant diplomacy of high quality. That is the price of being the leader of the free world. Donald Trump is in no way fulfilling this role.