NEW DELHI: Cracks in the Democratic Party over Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are increasingly apparent. Representatives Ilhan Omar and Tom Malinowksi have proposed two bills to punish MBS for his many transgressions including the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Kashoggi. While Omar’s bill called for direct sanctions on the Crown Prince, Malinowski has demanded a visa ban on MBS. Though symbolic, the bills would mark out MBS as a “rogue” head of state.
In a tweet, Omar said her bill “Mohammed bin Salman Must Be Sanctioned Act”, is not without precedent. “From Iran to Russia, the United States regularly sanctions foreign leaders who commit destabilising or violent acts. We must treat the Crown Prince no differently. No one should get away with murder. And as a global superpower we must lead with our values.”
Though pundits believe the bills are not likely to get past Congress, they do ramp up pressure on President Biden who is accused of carrying out actions that mean next to nothing. Although MBS is named in the report by the director of national intelligence as the man responsible for giving the go ahead for Kashoggi’s, there’s been no further action against him.
Critics say the administration’s call for disbanding the Rapid Intervention Force — a unit of the Saudi National Guard responsible for protecting MBS — is as meaningless as the sanctioning of 76 Saudi individuals accused of threatening Saudi dissidents abroad. If the intent was serious, the names of those accused should have been disclosed. While the administration talks of “recalibration” of ties with the Saudis, the message coming across was nothing of any significance would happen to MBS. Resentment against the crown prince is across the political divide since Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and his three children are U.S. citizens.
The other major issue for Biden is the U.S. intelligence community that wants MBS gone. In 2018, the CIA made an unusually public assessment that MBS was to blame (for Kashoggi’s murder), prompting former president Donald Trump to have to do some fire-fighting. In a bizarre statement, Trump said, “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Biden certainly cannot afford to be so brazen and in any case the intelligence community is fed up with what they see as MBS’s impetuous nature – his orchestration of the kidnapping of the former Lebanese prime minister, the continued targeting of dissidents abroad and his unilateral call to go to war in Yemen in 2015 without taking Washington into confidence, is said to have left U.S. intelligence agencies fuming.
The CIA operates secret bases in Saudi Arabia from where drone attacks are launched into Yemen, targeting Al-Qaeda. MBS’s intervention not only spotlighted the use of U.S. weapons by his military in the “world’s greatest humanitarian disaster”, but also on the US military presence there and its involvement in attacks on a Muslim nation.
The opinion of the intelligence community matters to Biden and MBS because of their reach within Saudi Arabia. From full training and funding of the Saudi Army which numbers just over 120,000 troops and the arrangement to school and train members of the Saudi royal family: Deposed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) studied at the FBI anti-terrorism institute to prepare him for his role as interior minister.
That program was shut down in 2018, but concern over the disappearance of MBN (dubbed ‘Washington’s Prince’) by MBS in 2017 has grown. He is seen as a darling of U.S. intelligence given the fact that he closely co-operated to thwart several Al-Qaeda attacks on foreign troops in Saudi Arabia. MBN is also seen as a hero in Saudi Arabia after he survived a suicide bomb attack. Publicity into his disappearance would certainly make life uncomfortable for MBS.
Former CIA official Bruce Riedel who is now the senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, believes that Washington owes MBN. In a Brookings blog he wrote. “Mohammed bin Salman wants to eliminate the leading candidate for leading Saudi Arabia away from its current perilous course and back to being a responsible partner. The Biden team, especially its new intelligence leadership, should press for MBN’s freedom. We owe him as much.”
Riedel’s contention coupled with the CIA assessment and the recently introduced U.S. bills by the politicians suggests there is a strong anti-MBS coalition forming in the U.S. Though the Biden administration has so far left him wriggle room with the vague wording of the sanctions, the pressure on the U.S. government – as seen by the almost daily statements they have had to make on MBS and Khashoggi – is growing to the point where they may feel that pushing to bring back MBN may be a better option. All it may require is a quiet word in the ear of King Salman, MBS’s father. If that indeed happens, one of Saudi Arabia’s most controversial princes may well find that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is able to function without him.