Senators: Don’t Go Wobbly on MBS Now

The horrors of the Yemeni civil war appall most who realize the scale of the humanitarian disaster unfolding there. Hundreds of thousands are dead and injured, millions face starvation, a cholera epidemic is raging, and there is no end in sight to the fighting. But for those Senators who appear determined to bring a measure to the floor for a vote intended to force the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition that’s battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels there, please think again. This is not the time to go wobbly on either Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) or the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Apparently miffed that CIA Director Gina Haspel had declined to appear in person to answer Senators’ questions about the Agency’s analysis of the Jamal Khashoggi affair, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and others threatened to hold up administration legislation until Haspel agreed to meet with them. After Haspel then provided that briefing on 4 December—reportedly concluding that MBS personally ordered Khashoggi’s murder—Graham and other Senators now appear even more determined to put a spoke in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. This is dangerously misguided.

For all his obvious shortcomings, MBS is the best chance we or the Saudis will have for the foreseeable future to modernize Saudi Arabia and confront the critical threat of an aggressive and expansionist Iranian regime. For any of that to happen, Saudi Arabia must remain stable. That means the succession from King Salman to his heir-apparent (MBS) must proceed as smoothly as possible. Given the realities of cut-throat palace intrigue among the senior ranks of a tribe just two generations out of the desert, only a ruthless King who rules by fiat can hold things together as the Kingdom undertakes the wrenching growth and modernization phase MBS envisions. MBS has emerged as that ruler.

It is likely that we will never know exactly who ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. All we can be fairly certain of is that it probably was not the Crown Prince. Far more likely is that a conspiracy of rival princes, furious at being passed over by this young upstart and many of them arrested and shaken down in the mass detentions MBS ordered earlier this year, is attempting a palace coup against MBS. The royal family appears to be fully aware of the danger: earlier this week, there was a shuffle within the Saudi military and troops were moved to the capital, Riyadh.

As for Yemen, despite the awful humanitarian crisis there, were the U.S. to abandon the Saudis and their multi-national coalition there (that includes U.S. Green Berets and French Special Forces), the consequences could be far worse. A look at a map of the Middle East shows why. The Iranian regime is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies for control of the region and ultimately the top prize, seizure of Mecca and Medina. Tehran prefers to operate through proxies—HAMAS in Gaza, Hizballah in Lebanon and Syria, Shi’ite militias in Iraq—and so it is in Yemen.

The Houthis are Zaidi Shi’ites, who are being armed, backed, funded, and supported by Iran and Lebanese Hizballah. A Houthi victory in Yemen would give Iran a strategic foothold at the southwest tip of the Arabian Peninsula from which to threaten a 1,770-kilometer shared border with Saudi Arabia. Potentially even more concerning, Yemen sits astride the Bab al-Mandab, one of the most important straits in the world, that connects the Arabian Sea/Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Houthi rebels already have fired Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles at both Riyadh and coalition vessels off the Yemeni coast. U.S. State Department Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, held a 29 November 2018 press conference at the Joint-Base Anacostia Bolling to display some of that Iranian weaponry, recovered by the Saudis.

Clearly, the stakes are high. MBS is an imperfect partner but a necessary one for the confrontation with a nuclear-arming Iran, still-powerful al-Qa’eda, and a possibly resurgent Islamic State, that lies ahead. To their credit, it seems that President Trump, Secretary of State Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Mattis all understand this. By standing by MBS now, when he most needs U.S. support, we may establish a relationship to our and our allies’ benefit for a generation to come. This is about a long-term strategic policy for the U.S., Israel, Egypt, Gulf and other regional partners—not just Saudi Arabia.

Senators, think again and don’t go wobbly now.

About Clare M. Lopez

Clare M. Lopez is Vice President for Research & Analysis at the Center for Security Policy.  She previously was a Senior Fellow with the Center as well as with the London Center for Policy Research, member of Sen. Ted Cruz’ 2016 presidential campaign national security advisory team, Executive Director of the Iran Policy Committee, and a career operations officer with the CIA. Read her complete bio here. Follow Lopez on Twitter @ClareMLopez