Six months ago, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was given a private tour of Google’s Silicon Valley campus by none other than its visionary founder Sergey Brin. While it wasn’t the first time a major American company has courted a high ranking member of the Saudi royal family, the visit was notable for what many thought was a reinvention of Saudi Arabia. Up until last week, Crown Prince Salman was in the middle of transforming his country’s public image from a socially oppressive Islamic monarchy to a modern mecca replete with high tech start-ups and gleaming skyscrapers. Now, the memory of that trip is fading, and fading fast, as the Crown Prince is embroiled in an international crisis over the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who many believe was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
As the crisis deepens, and more evidence begins to surface that supports the claim that Khashoggi was killed by the Saudi government, it has left President Trump to choose between his strong support for the kingdom, and its leader, or America’s longstanding commitment to human rights. Trump, who recently negotiated a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, has waffled on how to respond to the crisis. When pressed for a response, he towed the Saudi line that it was possible Khashoggi was killed by “rogue killers,” and said he believed King Salman’s claims that the royal family had no involvement in his death. After Turkish media, which is tightly controlled by the Turkish government, began publishing the details of audio recordings of Khashoggi’s death, Trump continued to defend the Saudi government’s innocence, but did tell reporters in the Oval Office that the recordings “probably exist.”
Every president since FDR has had to figure out how to delicately maintain America’s strategic and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia while rejecting its long history of human rights violations. While most presidents have highlighted the kingdom’s role as a key US ally in World War Two, the Cold War and the war on terror, for Trump the answer is a lot simpler: Saudi Arabia is a good business partner.
“In Donald Trump’s binary transaction, ‘there’s no yesterday, there’s no tomorrow’ view of the world, the most important thing is not some ideology of human rights,” national security expert Juliette Kayyem said on Boston Public Radio this morning. “It is whatever transaction he’s protecting.”