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The State Of U.S.-Saudi Relations, After The Senate's Rebuke


For a moment this week, a deeply divided U.S. Congress came together to send a stinging rebuke of President Trump's defense of Saudi Arabia. The Senate voted to withdraw U.S. military support for the kingdom's war in Yemen, where the Saudi-led air campaign has created a grim humanitarian crisis. Then came this vote about the brutal killing of a journalist.


BOB CORKER: This is now - unanimously, the United States Senate has said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

SIMON: So many headlines these days seem to lead back to Saudi Arabia. We turn now to Robin Wright, contributing writer for The New Yorker and a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center, who joins us from the Middle East via Skype. Thanks so much for being with us, Robin.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Always great to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: What has there been about the death of this one man, Jamal Khashoggi, that seems to have galvanized so much re-examination and reappraisal of the U.S.-Saudi relationship?

WRIGHT: Well, I think it's very rare that you get a case of murder or execution, assassination that is so grisly and so detailed that you have a tape of the execution itself. And so it's resonated, I think, on a human level, on a strategic level, in a way that would have, I think, surprised Jamal Khashoggi more than anyone else.

SIMON: As people, of course, have noted, there are thousands of people who've died in Yemen, which didn't seem to move the United States to reappraise that policy. The death of this one man has, though. Help us understand how some of these dots are interconnected.

WRIGHT: Well, remember that there had been growing sentiment within Congress, questioning about whether the U.S. should continue supporting Saudi Arabia to the degree it was - providing intelligence, providing the bombs, helping refuel the warplanes that are dropping these bombs, providing munitions, providing the training - that that had happened before Jamal's execution on October 2. But this seemed to galvanize more attention and, in a city that is so incredibly divided, actually bring Republicans and Democrats together. I can't think of a single other issue in which there's greater unanimity between the divided parties than there has been in the last few months on Khashoggi's murder.

SIMON: Robin, would it be fair to say that a lot of President Trump's foreign policy seems to depend on Saudi Arabia?

WRIGHT: Absolutely. Three of his five most important foreign policy initiatives - squeezing Iran, trying to get it to renegotiate a nuclear deal and negotiate on other issues like missile tests, human rights, intervention in the Middle East, the much-publicized and heralded peace plan between the Arab world and the Israelis, which, of course, has so far gone no place and the counterterrorism program facing down extremism in an age of al-Qaida and ISIS. All three were really dependent very much on Saudi Arabia's support, and because Mohammed bin Salman is today, Saudi Arabia, he has mobilized all five channels of power - military, intelligence, political, the royal court - in his office, there is no other alternative in the kingdom and no other alternative for the Trump administration, really, to move forward on any of these big initiatives.

SIMON: And do you see any signs, based on your knowledge and experience there in Saudi Arabia, Robin, that - any sign whatsoever that the vote of the U.S. Senate or widespread skepticism about Mohammed bin Salman's leadership leads to, in any way, reducing his power in Saudi Arabia? Are there members of the royal family or the ruling regime who say, look, he doesn't have the trust of the Americans or the West, we've got to make a change?

WRIGHT: Not so far. And one of the striking things is the ability of this very young man - he's only 33 years old - to rehabilitate his image. Afterall, he managed to go to the G20 - the world's 20 most important countries economically - at their summit in Argentina in December. And he was welcomed - in some cases, back-slapped - by Vladimir Putin, but even spoke with President Trump. And so that rehabilitation process has begun. Now, the bigger question is whether what the Senate has done will lead Congress eventually to put more pressure on the White House to rethink or recalculate what it's doing with the kingdom on Yemen. On other issues, I doubt the administration or the kingdom will change. But Yemen is now the big, open question, and particularly because it's increasingly gaining attention as the world's greatest humanitarian crisis.

SIMON: Thanks so much, Robin Wright.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.