The Great Saudi Muddle

Two U.S. Senate resolutions last week have resulted in a ball of confusion, one that tries to distance the U.S, from a murderous Saudi prince while at the same time demanding closer relations with the government he heads. 

By Daniel Lazare
Special to Consortium News

Does the Senate want Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to own up to the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi?  Is it really seeking an end to Saudi Arabia’s war of aggression against Yemen?  The answer to both questions is: kind of, sort of, not really. 

That’s the takeaway from a couple of resolutions the chamber approved amid great fanfare last week. The first, sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders, calls on Trump “to remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen” by, among other things, putting an end to in-flight refueling of Saudi and the United Arab Emirate war planes. The resolution, which passed 56 to 41, was a small step toward ending a war of aggression that has claimed as many as 80,000 lives – although it would have been stronger and less self-serving if it had also called for cutting off arms sales that have allowed US weapons manufacturers to reap vast profits off human misery.

But the second resolution, which passed on a unanimous voice vote, was a muddle that shows just how self-defeating US policy has become.  Sponsored by Republican Senator Bob Corker, it began by holding the crown prince responsible for Khashoggi’s murder in an Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2, an act, it said, that has “undermined trust and confidence in the longstanding friendship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

MbS: Are his days numbered?

This generated excited headlines to the effect that the U.S. might at last be breaking with MbS, as Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is universally known. But news outlets failed to mention what the resolution said next.  It declared, for instance, that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is “an essential element of regional security.”  While saying nothing about arms shipments to Saudi allies, it condemned Iran for supplying rebel forces with “advanced lethal weapons.”  It blamed the Houthis “for egregious human rights abuses, including torture, use of human shields, and interference with, and diversion of, humanitarian aid shipments” – this while remaining silent about Saudi-UAE atrocities, which reportedly include a string of torture chambers in which political opponents are roasted over open fires, among other horrors.

Most bizarrely of all, the resolution warned the Saudis that “increasing purchases of military equipment from, and cooperation with, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China challenges the strength and integrity of the long-standing military-to-military relationship” between Washington and Riyadh.  The Senate is thus angry with MBS not only because he sent a seventeen-member hit squad to knock off a US resident in the middle of a European capital, but because he’s consorting with America’s business rivals.  The resolution further warns that such purchases “may introduce significant national security and economic risks to both parties,” language that is every bit as threatening as it sounds. 

The result is a ball of confusion, one that tries to distance the US from a murderous Saudi prince while at the same time demanding closer relations with the government he heads.  It calls on the Saudis to behave more nicely to their neighbors, wind down the war in Yemen, and cease murdering people in broad daylight so that the clock can be turned back a few years and the process starts all over again.  To quote Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s famous line in his novel, The Leopard, it wants everything to change so that everything can remain the same.


This is as incoherent as anything Trump has come up with, including his notorious Nov. 20 statement with regard to MbS’s guilt or innocence that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.”  Trump can’t let go of his Saudi ties.  But, then, the Senate can’t let go and not let go at the same time.

No one knows what to do, which is why the resolution tried to play both sides of the net.  In describing MbS as “a wrecking ball,” one whom it is “very difficult to be able to do business” with, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was essentially calling on the crown prince to step down.  

He could be replaced, under U.S. pressure, perhaps with the former crown prince he replaced, Muhammad bin Nayef, said to be favored by the CIA, which publicly blamed MbS for Khashoggi’s murder.

But it could also mean a destabilizing factional feud within the ruling clan leading to a messy regime change, which, as Washington foreign-policy experts have learned all too painfully since the Arab Spring, could well lead to chaos.

To be sure, there is always the hope that a senior member of the Al-Saud will step in once MbS is removed and re-establish order. Indeed, Saudi experts already have a candidate for the job in mind: King Salman’s younger brother Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, who, while living in self-imposed exile in London, startled Saudi watchers by telling a small group of hecklers not to blame the Al-Saud for the Yemen war, only the king and crown prince.  “They are responsible for crimes in Yemen,” he said. “Tell Mohammed bin Salman to stop the war.”

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Since public criticism of this sort is unprecedented, it was assumed that when Prince Ahmed flew back to Riyadh a few weeks after the Khashoggi murder under a US-UK promise of protection, it was with the goal of putting the Al-Saud on a new footing.

But no one knows what might bubble up if he were to try.  Things might return to normal after a royal shake-up – assuming one is in the works – or they may not.  After all, it was assumed that Libya would return to normal once a former prime minister named Ali Zeidan took over from deposed strongman Muammar Gaddafi.  When that didn’t work out, it was hoped that an ex-academic named Omar al-Hassi would have better luck.  But when he fell too, it was clear that only anarchy would reign.  

Hence the fear in Saudi Arabia is that something similar might occur post-MbS – that, as a source told The New Yorker’s Robin Wright, “[s]omeone from outside the system could make it collapse,” whereupon the kingdom would succumb to “instability like elsewhere in the region.”

Homemade in Washington

FDR: Making deal with Saudis that still governs the nations’ relations.

If so, it’s a problem entirely of Washington’s own making.  Democratic and Republican administrations alike have continued to build up Saudi Arabia despite repeated warnings that it was creating a monster.

In 1945, FDR granted Saudi King Ibn Saud a blanket security guarantee in return for unrestricted oil access.  A few years later, Truman used the newly-established Marshall Fund to finance massive Saudi oil shipments to war-torn western Europe, thereby establishing the kingdom as the world’s leading exporter.  Following the epic price increases and Oil Embargo of the 1973, Washington hit upon yet another deal, this time to recycle excess petrodollars by exchanging Saudi oil profits for U.S. weaponry.  A regional military colossus was thus born, one that felt free to attack whomever it pleased thanks to colossal oil wealth, vast quantities of high-tech arms, and an unlimited U.S. security guarantee and political cover.

Aggression and repression were the inevitable result. Unwilling to upset a vital strategic partner, the Obama administration said nothing when Riyadh sent troops into neighboring Bahrain to bloodily suppress democratic protests; when it flooded Syria with bloodthirsty Sunni jihadis, and when, in March 2015, it declared war on Yemen, its neighbor to the south.  Indeed, the administration felt it had no choice but to help out.

Thus, a top general signaled his assent even while admitting that he had only been given a few hours’ notice while a State Department spokesman added forlornly: “We don’t want this to be an open-ended military campaign.” Nearly four years later, with as many as 13 million people teetering on the brink of starvation, that’s exactly what it’s turned out to be.

Joined at the hip with the Saudis, the U.S. appears to have no idea how to go about severing an increasingly toxic relationship, as last week’s incoherent Senate resolutions make clear.

The U.S. was happy to build Saudi Arabia up, but it’s clueless now that Saudi Arabia is dragging it down.

Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics.  He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at

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24 comments for “The Great Saudi Muddle

  1. JDingeldein
    December 28, 2018 at 16:46

    Fyi. The link to the author’s website is incorrect:

  2. Tony Sustak
    December 26, 2018 at 21:50

    Lazare is way to gentle with his criticism of Obama. Obama, like his mass murdering predecessors, should be at the dock at the Hauge, given thanks that Europe has abolished the death penalty.

  3. Barbara
    December 21, 2018 at 15:41

    Ibn Saudi also met with Hitler. Fletcher Prouty comments in his book, JFK, about his meeting with FDR, Churchill and Stalin.

  4. Sam F
    December 21, 2018 at 13:46

    Of course the US is joined with Israel even more than with KSA, whose political bribes and media income are far less. The KSA scandals are a distraction. We will see foreign policy that serves the people of the US and the world only when we break the control of US elections and mass media by economic powers.

    That requires constitutional amendments limiting funding of elections and mass media to limited citizen donations. Any Congress could pass such laws and start the amendment process, converting their campaigns to gain popular support instead of bribes, but they do not and shall not. Their bribes go far deeper and last longer: they are not servants of the people, but lifelong beneficiaries of an unconstitutional economic oligarchy.

  5. Jeff Harrison
    December 21, 2018 at 13:06

    Well, you can thank Mr. Jimmy Carter for a lot of this (this is not to say that all the others aren’t also guilty, guilty, guilty). Carter enunciated his doctrine – the US would use military force to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf. Translation: We’re going to violate the sovereignty of any nation that tries to cut off our oil. This might (or might not) have been a good idea back in the day when everybody was going around like their hair was on fire and their asses was catchin’ about “peak oil” which, it turns out, wasn’t. So why are we threatening military attacks when we have no need to? I dunno. Ask the rabid assholes in Washington.

    FYI&/orE. The whole thing with not buying Russian or Chinese weapons has little to do with the money that the MIC will make on the deal and everything to do with control. The US can, and has, cut countries off at the testicles when they do something that we disapprove of – just ask the Iranians. They know what it’s like to have F-14s and no spare parts. The US can emasculate any military that is using our weapons. The Russians don’t do that.

    • Sam F
      December 21, 2018 at 13:49

      The US has backdoors for even more direct disabling of large weapons, and very likely Russia does the same. So Turkey may want systems from both sides, sufficient to ward off the proxies of the other side, so long as it must survive at the boundary.

      • Jeff Harrison
        December 22, 2018 at 15:34

        I’m not sure you understand what a backdoor is. It’s an API in a computer system that’s not officially documented that allows access to the computer system outside of the normal interfaces. So your first requirement is you need a computer system. A 155mm howitzer, for example, has no computer. The second thing you need is a communications link. The Iranians were able to take control of an American drone by hacking into the drone’s systems because the drone has a communications link back to it’s controllers. This works on drones but not F-16s (or Su-30s) because there is no link in the aircraft for an external controller. The same might not be true for non-ballistic missiles that have a communication link for data but I doubt it could be used in the way that you suggest.

        • Sam F
          December 23, 2018 at 11:02

          As a software engineer, I know backdoors pretty well. Sure, the equipment has to have a computer in it, as do all major systems purchases in consideration. I’m sure that backdoors can easily be set up in fighter planes and missiles, as in the communications equipment that they depend upon.

        • bardamu
          December 24, 2018 at 10:30

          Cars have had backdoors open to wifi and bluetooth access for a good few years now, though I am not sure when it started. They can be turned on from outside the car or turned off remotely in mid-freeway, headlights flipped on and off–just about anything susceptible to computerized control.

          Military planes, I don’t know. But the military people are working for folk who do these sorts of things and do not announce it.

  6. steve simmons
    December 21, 2018 at 12:29

    Al-Saud has massive investments in the US economy.

  7. December 21, 2018 at 10:00

    So much distortion of reality over oil. The author:

    “Aggression and repression were the inevitable result. Unwilling to upset a vital strategic partner, the Obama administration said nothing when Riyadh sent troops into neighboring Bahrain to bloodily suppress democratic protests; when it flooded Syria with bloodthirsty Sunni jihadis, and when, in March 2015, it declared war on Yemen, its neighbor to the south. Indeed, the administration felt it had no choice but to help out.”

    No choice? Starting with President Carter cutting down the thermostats and donning warm sweaters, we have dealt with the “fact” that we are running out of oil. Turns out we’re floating on the stuff and stories of new untapped supplies appears frequently.

    Nigeria, Venezuela, Iraq, Syria including the Golan Heights, Iran, Russia and the resurgence in the United States. It was popular when we went about slaughtering people in the Middle East that it was “all about oil.” Regarding Saudi oil to suggest the world would suffer any more than temporary supply shortages is not supported by the information most of us are privy to.

    I don’t buy this stuff about the Saudis being indispensable and the harm they have done, including 9/11, the Middle East and Afghanistan offsets any benefits they offer.

    Looking the other way regarding the horrors in Yemen is just another example of the “games” our leaders play with the lives of innocent people.

    • Skip Scott
      December 21, 2018 at 10:48

      Money rules in the US empire. It surpasses all other considerations, and it doesn’t matter which party occupies the White House. Carter was a one term president, thanks to Reagan’s October Surprise. It was an easier option than having him JFK’d.

      I fear it will take revolution rather than evolution to undo the empire. The only way for us to evolve at this point would be for the masses to change their lifestyle to cut the legs out from under global capitalism, and to refuse to serve in anything associated with the MIC. Even then, who knows what evil they may try to thwart us.

      • Sam F
        December 21, 2018 at 13:57

        An awakened electorate might effect peaceful change, but that requires motivation to disbelieve their broadcast propagandists, which we see only in small amounts after large disasters. Even the educated are largely deceived by their own wish to trust in simple narratives from self-declared reliable sources, until they have personal experience of political corruption and media falsehoods, which are rare and too late.

        As H.L. Mencken said (approx.): “The average man avoids the truth as he avoids arson, regicide, and piracy on the high seas, and for the same reason: it is dangerous, no good can come of it, and it doesn’t pay.” A sense of humor in the human tragedy is essential.

    • saurabh
      December 21, 2018 at 14:08

      The oil is going. Venezuela has 300 billion barrels. Global consumption is 90 million barrels a day and climbing. That’s a 10 year supply. Total proven world reserves are 1.7 trillion barrels. That’s a 50 year supply. Furthermore Saudi oil is the last big conventional (liquid) deposit. Venezuela and Canada are tar sands; they only become commercially viable at a higher oil price. There is also a limit to their extraction rate (Canada is constrained by its water supply, e.g.) These are real limits. That is why we are seeing dangerous new efforts like fracking to get new energy sources, because the easy gushers are all gone.

      • Jeff Harrison
        December 22, 2018 at 15:59

        You need help my friend. Venezuela has reserves of 300,000 billion barrels, not 300 billion, and while that is all heavy crude (as opposed to light, or sweet crude) it is a mix of gusher type oil and oil sands (which, unlike Canada, are extracted via conventional methods). You are seeing efforts like fracking in places, like the US, where the major oil deposits (like spindletop) are gone or substantively reduced. Elsewhere conventional drilling is the rule and there are many areas with vast unexplored tracts such as Russia. Even Saudi Arabia. The US geological survey estimates that there are another 100,000 billion undiscovered barrels of oil in Saudi. Oh, and your arithmetic is off by three orders of magnitude. Total proven reserves aren’t 1.7 trillion barrels, Venezuela alone has 3 trillion barrels.

  8. Alan Ross
    December 21, 2018 at 09:08

    This article makes it clear to me why we turned on MBS – he was beginning to buy arms from Russia and the PRC. The rest of what is said in the mainstream media is baloney.

  9. mike k
    December 21, 2018 at 08:32

    We need to let the Saudis know who is the boss in our relationship. With 9-11, war on Yemen, Kashoggi – the Sauds think they can do anything they please. With friends like these, who needs enemies? We should let these nouveau riche camel drivers know their place!

    • Mild - ly Facetious
      December 21, 2018 at 10:21

      dunderhead = a stupid person,blockhead, bonehead, numskull

      The Saudi’s Know Well Whom They Are Dealing With, an easily hornswoggled Donald Trump… !

      Don Quixote, anyone… ?

    • bardamu
      December 24, 2018 at 10:34

      The Saudis know full well that the US does not object to their killing, but is happy to have them serve as proxy to reduce friction with the American population.

      Viewed from outside the States, this cannot look subtle. The US sells and gives them weapons, and has at least recently manned those weapons and made those kills. It is overwhelmingly likely that there are still Americans involved directly in killing in Yemen, as there was a few years back when the Yemeni government took “credit” for it.

  10. KiwiAntz
    December 21, 2018 at 05:20

    Saudi Arabia, with its demented Leader Mbs, is a albatross around the neck of the American Empire with both Countries tidally locked together in a death dance with the Devil? And they are joined at the hip, forever linked together until the US Petrodollar system or Oil for dollars charade collapses & when the occurs that’s the end of the US Empire as their capacity to print unlimited dollars out of thin air to finance endless wars & warmongering will end! Khashoggi’s murder is the gift that keeps on giving, according to Turkey, with the drip feeding of info regarding the murder details of Khashoggi being a major embarrassment to the US Govt & exposing it’s complicity & support to the Saudi regime role in the murder & exposed US Military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s its disastrous & murderous war in Yemen! Now all the chickens are coming home to roost for the US Empire, no longer able to waste any more trillions of dollars on endless warfare for zero results & now the acknowledgment that they need to get the hell out of the Middle East starting with Yemen, Syria then in Afghanistan & perhaps Iraq! Will the troops come home? Unlikely as the pivot to contain China & Russia will move to the Pacific theatre leaving the Middle East to clean up the mess from years of American Imperialistic failure!

  11. Tom Kath
    December 21, 2018 at 01:11

    When people actually believe that they are so powerful that they can get away with ANYTHING, they are doomed. This applies to imperialists in USA, MBS, Netenyahu, or the current example of Catholic priests. There are reality checks built into nature and the evolution of life.
    We may despair at times that these “checks” are slow in springing into effect, but eventually even 2000 years is just a blink.

  12. Zhu
    December 21, 2018 at 01:02

    Maybe it’s time to give up our fantasies of ruling the world.

  13. Antonio Costa
    December 20, 2018 at 22:41

    Yes stop the slaughter in Yemen immediately, but where are the resolutions for the US to exit the Greater Middle East and stop the endless purposeless carnage and mass refugee crisis. And draw down “our” 800 bases?

    Therein lies the “muddle”.

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