Reading a document produced by the United Nations can oftentimes be dull, coma-inducing, and about as exciting as undergoing a root canal at the dentist’s office. But the January 22 joint statement from Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteurs on extrajudicial killings and freedom of expression respectively, was the kind of stuff you would expect from a blockbuster spy novel. Published hours after the Guardian newspaper reported that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s phone was compromised in hacking orchestrated by the Saudi royal court, the two U.N. officials concluded the multi-billionaire was the prime target of a Saudi information campaign designed to tarnish his reputation.
“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” Callamard and Kaye wrote in a release, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, or MbS. “At a time when Saudi Arabia was supposedly investigating the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, and prosecuting those it deemed responsible, it was clandestinely waging a massive online campaign against Mr. Bezos and Amazon targeting him principally as the owner of The Washington Post.”
The Saudis, of course, didn’t pick Bezos out of thin air. Bezos’s paper employed Jamal Khashoggi, a former adviser to the Royal Court turned Saudi regime critic, as one of its high-profile global columnists. This is the same Jamal Khashoggi who was tricked into entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on the basis of obtaining a marriage certificate, only to be tortured, killed, and disposed of via hacksaw in a premeditated murder planned at the highest levels of the Saudi government. The Central Intelligence Agency later assessed with high confidence that the operation was ordered by MbS himself. If MBS could exhibit the arrogance and recklessness needed to assassinate a journalist working for one of America’s most famous and influential newspapers, stealing the personal information from the cellphone of the world’s wealthiest man (and the owner of that same newspaper) — not to mention blackmailing him — seems like small potatoes.
Unfortunately, in the days since the U.N. assessment was made public, Washington has barely said a word about the episode. The White House has yet to comment on the matter. When I asked the State Department whether the Trump administration would demand an impartial, international investigation or conduct an inquiry of its own, all I received was a generic statement from a spokesperson saying the department was concerned about the report.
The deafening silence from Washington is deeply unfortunate, for it yet again provides the Saudis with a sense that they can do pretty much anything and escape unharmed without the slightest censure. Notwithstanding the vocal and justifiable outrage that Khashoggi’s killing has inspired on Capitol Hill, Riyadh continues to exist in a virtual zone of immunity and unaccountability. The American people are told by the powers-that-be that Saudi Arabia is far too important to antagonize or ostracize. The junior partner in the relationship is lauded as the senior partner. The Trump administration’s fixation on spurring regime change in Iran, when combined with a black-and-white perception of Middle Eastern politics, has afforded the Saudi monarchy with an extensive amount of influence on Washington’s policy in the region.
For decades, the Washington establishment across successive administrations has grossly simplified the Middle East’s cut-throat power politics as some morality play between good guys and bad guys. The Islamic Republic of Iran was always the perennial villain, an expansionist state sponsor of terrorism ruled by bloodthirsty, messianic Shiite clerics who chanted “death to America” after every Friday sermon. On the other side was Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf sheikdoms, oil-rich countries that may be problematic at times but nonetheless shared a similar set of interests. That Saudi Arabia was one of the largest sources of foreign fighters for the Islamic State terrorist group was either swept under the rug or quickly forgotten (never mind the fact that, of course, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis). The simplicity seeped into the mainstream media long ago; look no further than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whose 2017 puff-piece about Mohammed bin Salman elevated the young Saudi royal as a galloping White Knight prepared to inject reform into the desert kingdom and serve as the region’s reconnaissance man. In Friedman’s words, “Someone had to do this job — wrench Saudi Arabia into the 21st century — and M.B.S. stepped up.”
Years removed, MbS’s self-defeating foreign policy and laughably poor judgment have come home to roost. Along the way, the prince has made a lot of well-respected analysts and commentators look like fools. While it is certainly the case that Iran is a major source of the Middle East’s security problems, Saudi Arabia has proven itself to be just as destabilizing to the region’s brittle order. The last five years of Saudi foreign policy can be best described as one never-ending horror show. Whether it was the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2017 and his forced televised resignation; the merciless bombing campaign in Yemen, a years-long stalemate descending this poor Arab country into the banks of hell (80 percent of Yemen’s population now requires some form of humanitarian assistance to survive; the embargo against Qatar, which splintered the Gulf Cooperation Council; the rupturing of diplomatic relations with Canada; or its role as an unapologetic enabler of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign on Tehran, Saudi Arabia’s actions have resulted in little else but more conflict. For whatever reason, the White House is either willfully ignorant of Middle Eastern dynamics, extraordinarily short-sighted, content with walloping in false delusions, or genuinely committed to the false belief that the United States can’t live without Saudi Arabia.
The latest bombshell about Bezos is merely a dramatic illustration of how Riyadh has conducted itself since MbS climbed the royal family latter and began calling the shots.
The United States faces two choices. First, it can continue on its present course, where it implicitly supports or makes excuses for every Saudi policy regardless of how counterproductive they are to the region’s overall stability.
Or it can finally see Saudi Arabia for what it really is: just another authoritarian Arab power with its own interests, its own history, and a leadership that can be as contemptuous and dangerous as the Iranian bogeyman. The quicker the Washington policy elite comes to this conclusion, the sooner it can start disassociating the United States from regional squabbles it has no interest participating in. The Trump administration — or more realistically, the next U.S. administration — should order a brutally honest, comprehensive, whole-of-government reassessment of the bilateral U.S.-Saudi relationship — one that is frankly not as important as it used to be. It’s time to get to work.