The Jamal Khashoggi affair presents the perfect opportunity for the United States to press Saudi Arabia for more progress on its horrendous human rights record. 

The Backstory 

It’s actually a bit ironic that we have relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at all. The U.S. has been known as the world’s premier champion of freedom; the Kingdom meanwhile is known as one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Yet the relations between our two countries have been strong for three quarters of a century. 

Historically our interests lay in maintaining good relations with a regime that controlled a vast amount of energy reserves beneath its barren territory. We also found alliance with the Saudi family a convenient counterweight to Soviet-backed Arab states like Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. 

But those days are over. The U.S. is more energy independent than ever, and the old days of Saudi Arabia holding oil over our heads is long since past. The Soviet Union is gone. The Arab nationalist regimes have fallen. The Middle East is a different place than it was in 1980.

That isn’t to say Saudi Arabia isn’t important; it is. Its oil deposits still underwrite a large percentage of an increasingly energy-hungry world. And while the Arab nationalists are gone, anti-western hostility has been supplemented by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its network of proxy forces throughout the region. U.S. security and intelligence cooperation with the Saudis also aids in pushing back against Sunni terrorists like al Qaeda and ISIS. 

That being said, the state of affairs is not good. The blind alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has been allowed to fester long past its sell-by date. Whether on religious freedom or human rights more broadly, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabi is an absolute disaster. Minorities, women, and foreign workers all face deep and systemic oppression by government authorities. The Wahhabi brand of Islam taught in the country’s schools, not to mention the vast network of Saudi funded schools throughout the world that teach the same ideology, are singlehandedly responsible for much of the world’s Sunni terrorist activity. 

The notion that Saudi Arabia, in any way, shares our values is an absolute error. From the base of a large number of its citizens all the way to the palace, it is clear that their value system is antithetical to liberty. It is an open secret that one of our closest allies is an enemy to some of our greatest friends. 

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia isn’t all bad for American interests in the region. Its ruling Saud family has offered one of the rarest gifts any Middle Eastern regime can offer: relative stability. Throughout the epic shakeups in recent mideast history, including the most recent Arab spring, the Kingdom has shown itself to be remarkably impervious to collapse. That doesn’t mean it can’t collapse. That also doesn’t mean that its stability is a natural state of affairs rather than the result of effective police state. It just means its government has proven remarkably stable, which, for any country making foreign policy, is the ideal. 

Saudi society also seems to be on a push for slow reform. The current crown prince of the Kingdom, the much loved and hated Mohammad bin Salman (nicknamed “MBS” by the press), has worked a number of revolutionary measures into his “Vision 2030” plan (revolutionary for Saudi Arabia, that is. Women are driving. The religious police are more constrained. Change seems to be coming, if slowly.

But even as reforms increase, so too does new repression by MBS as he silences opponents on the right who criticize him for challenging religious authority and on the left for not making reforms quickly enough. Indeed, the Kingdom seems to be as unstable in recent months as we’ve ever seen it. 

The Problem

Enter Jamal Khashoggi, a former insider in Saudi government and now critic of the regime in his frequent columns in the Washington Post. On October 2, Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to file papers for his upcoming marriage — and he never came out. Rumors are coming fast and furious, but it appears that MBS may have sent an assassin squad to capture and kill Khashoggi. At any rate, no one has seen the missing journalist since. 

If MBS killed Khashoggi, a permanent U.S. resident, then Donald Trump must hold MBS accountable. That a self-professed ally would have the chutzpah to take out a journalist from the Washington Post is bad enough. That MBS would do so at a time when the sitting American president, as well as other American leaders inside and outside government, are showering him with love and attention either betrays a glaring stupidity about international affairs or total disrespect. Knowing the level of political savvy within the Saudi leadership, the latter appears most likely. 

Saudi Arabia needs the U.S. more than it needs Saudi Arabia. It is not our business to impose our mode of governance or our way of life on other countries. But where we can, and especially where we have political and economic influence, we must leverage that influence to hold our international partners to common standards of justice.

The Opportunity

This isn’t primarily about Khashoggi. His murder, if indeed it was murder, is merely the latest transgression of a state riddled with injustice and assured of its teflon status. It is up to President Trump to disabuse his ally of such a mistaken idea, and to assure him that the US does in fact still hold to the values that made our country great. 

The goal is not regime change. Americans need to get past the old binary of doing nothing or doing everything. The goal here is to do something, sending a signal to MBS and every other world leader that the west cannot be extorted in the name of stability. Between the extremes of disinterest and regime change, there is a tremendous world of unexplored possibilities. 

The facts still aren’t in on Khashoggi, but that doesn’t matter. Many eyes are turned toward Saudi Arabia right now, and the United States should seize this moment to press on the abysmal human rights record of the Kingdom writ large. It will send a message to MBS, pushing him to accelerate his program of reform and reign in his wild ambition. It will alert the rest of the world, including other allies, that the administration of Donald Trump does not represent a free pass for tyrants to live out their fantasies. And it will let the American people know that values still matter, even in a world governed by interests. 

All of these messages need to be sent now more than ever. The mystery of Khashoggi, however awful it may be, gives us the perfect opportunity to send them.