On the afternoon of October 2, 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to pick up a marriage document. He never walked out. Before long, Turkish officials began leaking details of his gruesome killing and dismemberment by a team of 15 Saudi operatives who arrived in Istanbul on two charter flights. But for more than two weeks, the Saudi government insisted that he had left the consulate through a back entrance and disappeared in Turkey. When Saudi leaders finally admitted that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, they blamed it on a “rogue operation.”
Khashoggi’s assassination prompted international outrage toward Saudi Arabia. In the United States, the killing reinforced a slow-building anxiety in Congress over American support for a Saudi-led war in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. After Khashoggi’s murder, a majority in Congress—furious over President Donald Trump’s unwavering support of the Saudi royal family, and especially the brash and ruthless Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—voted to suspend weapons sales and curtail US military assistance to the Saudis in Yemen.
Khashoggi was never a classic dissident: In fact, he’d served as the editor of government-backed newspapers and as a media adviser to members of the royal family. But when he criticized Trump shortly after the 2016 US presidential election, the Saudi government banned Khashoggi from writing and speaking publicly.
By September 2017, Khashoggi was living in self-imposed exile in Virginia and becoming more critical of the crown prince in the opinion columns he’d begun to write for The Washington Post. Khashoggi also cultivated connections in Washington’s foreign policy establishment: He was a source for journalists on Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East, and he briefed members of Congress and their staff. The Post published some of Khashoggi’s columns in Arabic, helping him reach an audience in the Arab world—and making him a bigger threat to bin Salman.
That helps explain why, within days of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Washington’s foreign policy establishment started turning on the then-33-year-old crown prince, who months earlier on a tour of the United States had been celebrated as a reformer. After his father’s ascension as king in January 2015, bin Salman rose to power rapidly. He removed his rivals and took control of Saudi economic policy, and the security and military apparatuses. Even as he became more repressive at home and launched a disastrous war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, politicians and business leaders in the West continued to fete him as the key to Saudi Arabia’s future. After all, the prince and his advisers were investing billions of dollars in Uber and other tech companies. They also promised to launch the world’s largest initial public offering, selling off a portion of the state-owned oil monopoly, Saudi Aramco. Bin Salman hoped that investors would value the company at $2 trillion, and bankers salivated imagining the fees they could earn from the sale of even a 5 or 10 percent stake.
The prince’s ascent was also fueled by a consistent moral rot in the US political class: Politicians, business leaders, and journalists are too easily seduced by the narrative of a young reformer. American pundits often mistake a leader’s support for a market economy, technology, and entrepreneurship for an interest in social and political change; bin Salman is proof it’s all too easy to both be an evangelist for the power of technology, and rule over a repressive police state.
It took Khashoggi’s brutal murder and a botched cover-up to disrupt the prince’s international charm offensive. Members of Congress and columnists like Thomas Friedman who’d previously touted the narrative of the “young reformer” issued condemnations on Twitter and wrote critical columns.
But Trump and senior members of his administration quickly tried to shield the prince from any blame, and sought to rehabilitate his image. Why? For Trump, Khashoggi’s murder seems to be perfectly acceptable collateral damage for Saudi Arabia remaining America’s largest weapons buyer. “We don’t like it even a little bit. But whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country… That would not be acceptable to me,” Trump said last October 11, when asked whether he would cancel billions of dollars in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia if its leaders were implicated in the assassination. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country.”
It was a remarkably honest declaration of American priorities. In one brief statement, Trump stripped away the pretense that the US-Saudi alliance is more than a transactional arrangement based on keeping oil prices stable, negotiating weapons deals, and sharing perceived security interests in the Middle East. Past presidents had tried to obscure decades of American security and military cooperation with repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt with lofty rhetoric about human rights and political freedom. But Trump dropped the act: US administrations often favor short-term stability and economic interests over reform and democratic principles.
That early reaction set the tone for Trump’s consistent defense of the prince and the Saudi regime. In November, The Washington Post reported that, after a review of intelligence intercepts and other evidence, the CIA concluded, with “high confidence,” that bin Salman had ordered Khashoggi’s murder. But Trump quickly rejected the CIA’s assessment, and stood by his Saudi ally. In an extraordinary statement on November 20, Trump wrote: “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Nonetheless, the repercussions of Khashoggi’s murder still strain the US-Saudi relationship. Over the past year, the most intense pressure on the Saudis has come from Congress, where both Democrats and Republicans have been critical of Saudi policies that promote Islamic extremism and the rising death toll in the Saudi-led war on Yemen.
The Trump administration tried to appease Congress by announcing in November that it would stop refueling the Saudi coalition warplanes that were bombing Yemen. But that step is not enough to stop the war. In addition to refueling warplanes and providing intelligence assistance, Washington has rushed billions of dollars worth in missiles, bombs, and spare parts to help the Saudi and allied militaries continue their bombing campaign. (The Yemen war is complex, but the Trump administration has accepted Saudi Arabia’s line that the battle against the Shiite Houthi rebels is an important element of Trump’s crusade to isolate Iran.)
In April, the House voted to cut off US support for the Saudi-led war, finally approving a bill to restrain presidential war powers that had taken years to pass both chambers of Congress. Trump vetoed the bill, and supporters in the Senate did not have enough votes to override that veto. Since then, Trump has used his veto power three more times to prevent Congress from suspending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its main ally, the United Arab Emirates.
While the Senate has been unable to override Trump’s policies, there’s a new effort in Congress—led by a coalition of progressive and conservative lawmakers, including Representative Ro Khanna and Senator Bernie Sanders—to restrict US support for the Yemen war through the National Defense Authorization Act. The measure will likely provide more than $730 billion in 2020 to fund the Pentagon and the national security budgets of several other agencies. An amendment added by the House “prohibits support to and participation in the Saudi-led coalition’s military operations.” If negotiators working to finalize the Senate and House versions of the budget can preserve the amendment, supporters think Trump would be loath to veto the entire defense budget to keep Saudi Arabia happy.
Khashoggi was an early supporter of the Yemen war, but as the destruction intensified, he changed his mind. In one of his final columns, he pleaded with bin Salman to negotiate a political settlement with the Houthis and stop the war. “The crown prince must bring an end to the violence and restore the dignity of the birthplace of Islam,” he wrote. If Congress wants to honor Khashoggi’s legacy, it should end American support for the Yemen war.