What Do We Really Know about Saudi Arabia?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (center) walks with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir after arriving in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 16, 2018. (Leah Millis/Pool via Reuters)
Despite its awesome resources, the U.S. government does not seem to quite know what to make of the Khashoggi affair.

For years, Pakistan was a vexing ally of the United States. It was one part military junta, one part kleptocratic mafia state, one part emerging democracy (or so we thought), and one part Afghanistan. Pakistanis used to say that their affairs were governed by the three A’s: Allah, the Army, and the Americans.

One of the maddening things about dealing with Pakistan was that it often was difficult to say exactly who was in charge. Elements of the military and the ISI (Pakistan’s fearsome intelligence agency and clandestine service) were on both sides of the drug trade and on both sides of various jihadist tendencies. So were members of the government. Pakistan’s special relationship with the People’s Republic of China further complicated things. “What is Pakistan planning?” was an impossible question to answer, because it depended a great deal on which element of the ruling apparatus you were talking about.

We seem to be having a similar problem with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia ought to be easy to figure out. It’s one of the few extant monarchies that seem serious about keeping the mon in their archy. In is, in theory, an absolute regime under the unquestionable and unified power of the royal family. King Salman may have been sidelined by dementia, but Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has given every indication of being in command of the kingdom — in theory.

In reality, it’s a platinum-plated Shakespearean succession drama in the desert, with schisms within the royal family and between the royal family proper and other centers of power. In the immediate aftermath of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, one observer with considerable on-the-ground knowledge of Saudi affairs suggested that there were multiple possible explanations for the case: It could have been a straightforward hit on a critic of the regime ordered by Mohammad bin Salman himself; it could have been a straightforward hit on a critic of the regime carried out without the knowledge of Mohammad bin Salman; it could have been a hit carried out by rivals of Mohammad bin Salman, such as Mohammad bin Nayef, who had been next in line to the throne until Mohammad bin Salman pushed him aside, or Mutaib bin Abdullah, one of the Saudi princes arrested last year on corruption charges, who was fined $1 billion and removed from the government, for the purpose of messing with the crown prince’s life. It’s even possible that the Erdogan regime in Turkey was mixed up in this, he suggested.

Khashoggi wasn’t just a troublesome journalist; he was, as the New York Times puts it, a man who had had “a successful career as an adviser to and unofficial spokesman for the royal family of Saudi Arabia.” A businessman who has spent many years working in the Middle East says: “I don’t think the Saudis would send 15 assassins to chop up a ‘mere’ journalist, but they would send 15 assassins to settle some internecine family feud.” He also cautions that the Middle Eastern tendency to resort to conspiracy theories to explain complicated relationships is likely to muddy the water.

I do not have any special knowledge of Saudi affairs and cannot speak to the plausibility of the scenarios mentioned above.

Serious question: Do we have somebody who can?

The U.S. government does not seem to quite know what is going on in Saudi Arabia or what to make of the Khashoggi affair. President Trump has suggested that “rogue killers” might have been behind the murder but has not said very much about who they might be or why he thinks that. Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer insists that MBS (as Mohammad bin Salman is known) “would have had to give the order for any such murder.” But do we really know that? How has Trudy Rubin come into possession of information unknown to people who have worked closely with the Saudi government and the royal family for years?

The intelligence business is a funny game, one in which the immediate stakes sometimes seem comically low. In the movies, somebody is always trying to protect some list of secret agents, but in real life the line between intelligence and commonplace gossip is not always entirely clear. There is a lot of “Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s sleeping with whom? Who signed off on that memo? Who’s up for promotion, and who’s opposing him?” For many years, during the Cold War, New Delhi was a center of espionage, one of the few world capitals where the major powers on both sides of the Iron Curtain operated freely and openly. In the 1990s, every newspaper editor in town knew (or believed he knew) who the CIA boss in New Delhi was, because no other foreigner was so inexplicably interested in the social lives of minor party bosses and obscure government officials.

It may seem trivial, but that kind of gossip constitutes a considerable part of what we call “human intelligence” — as opposed to the satellite-and-drone kind — which is critical for putting into context events such as the Khashoggi affair.

Just how secure is MBS’s grip in Saudi Arabia, and who at home might be making trouble for him abroad? That would be a useful thing to know. If the U.S. government is in possession of such knowledge, it is not, at the moment, showing any sign of that fact.

We know when the Russians are moving ships from here to there and when the North Koreans test a nuclear device. But human intelligence is a challenge that cannot be met with mere technology and the awesome financial resources of the U.S. government. It was a failure of human intelligence that prevented U.S. authorities from stopping the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Developing sources and relationships in relatively closed societies such as Saudi Arabia’s — to say nothing of Afghanistan’s — is a long-term, expensive, time-consuming, risk-laden enterprise that offers no guarantee of success. But it is necessary work. Of all the things the federal government does, the things it actually needs to be doing add up to a minority of the budget and an afterthought to our politics.

In his famous treatise, The Art of War, Sun Tzu describes the hardships and expenses entailed by marching armies into battle, disrupting the lives of the common people and their attempts to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families. War, indeed, is misery. That being so, he wrote, to begrudge the outlay of a relatively trivial sum of money for intelligence operations which might hasten an end to the conflict “is the height of inhumanity.”

We are not at war with Saudi Arabia, though if we continue to insist that we are at war with terrorism, it is not obviously the case that we are not at some level at war with Saudi Arabia, or at least some constituents of its power structure.

According to current reports, Khashoggi was not just murdered — he was hacked to bits, dismembered. That’s a crime, but it’s also a message. It’s not clear that Washington can read it.


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