Busi­ness as usual for the Saudis

The Washington Post - - FREE FOR ALL - COL­BERT I. KING

The most sur­pris­ing as­pect to the re­ac­tion to the pos­si­ble ab­duc­tion and killing of Saudi critic and Post con­trib­u­tor Ja­mal Khashoggi in Turkey is the no­tion among some U.S. for­eign pol­icy elites that Saudi Ara­bia, priz­ing its long­time al­liance with Washington, would never in­volve it­self in such an atroc­ity. Not through my eyes.

The House of Saud, rulers of that desert king­dom, is not a gov­ern­ment. It’s a gang that sur­vives by bul­ly­ing its neigh­bors and jerk­ing around its so-called Western al­lies by weaponiz­ing the vast oil re­serves upon which it perches.

The fam­ily of­fers a face of religious piety. But Saudi Ara­bia is among the most big­oted, misog­y­nis­tic hu­man rights vi­o­la­tors on the face of the Earth. Si­lenc­ing crit­ics is a Saudi art form.

This out­burst isn’t com­ing to you from an arm­chair pun­dit writ­ing from Cliff­sNotes.

Be­fore join­ing The Post nearly 30 years ago, I was with the U.S. Trea­sury De­part­ment, where I saw Saudis throw­ing their weight around, threat­en­ing to hold up mil­lions of dol­lars in as­sis­tance to poor coun­tries if the Pales­tinian Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion didn’t get a seat at an­nual World Bank meet­ings.

Fur­ther in­sight was gained as a com­mer­cial banker with a port­fo­lio that in­cluded Saudi fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests.

I have been on the streets of Riyadh and Jid­dah and in busi­ness meet­ings at Saudi fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions. In a coun­try where al­co­hol is banned, the best Scotch I ever tasted was in the Riyadh home of a Saudi ac­quain­tance once based in Washington. Ally? They stuck it to us with their oil em­bargo in 1973. They thumbed their noses at Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush in 2008 when he ap­pealed to them to bring down prices. They brazenly pumped up oil pro­duc­tion in 2015 to make prices fall, keep mar­ket share and un­der­mine U.S. shale-oil de­vel­op­ment. Our good buddy? There is noth­ing to sug­gest that to Saudi Ara­bia the United States is any­thing more than a good in­ter­na­tional cus­tomer and use­ful body­guard against ag­gres­sion by its archri­val, Iran.

Yes, the United States is now an oil ex­porter. But Saudi Ara­bia is still sec­ond only to Canada as a top source of petroleum prod­ucts to the United States. We im­ported $18 bil­lion in fu­els from the king­dom last year. In all, the United States im­ported $18.9 bil­lion in Saudi goods, up 11.6 per­cent from 2016 when Pres­i­dent Trump was elected. To Saudi Ara­bia, Amer­ica is the soul-stir­ring sound of ka-ching.

In the feud be­tween the two Is­lamic na­tions, the Saudi monar­chy has man­aged to firmly en­list the United States on the Sunni side of a Mus­lim di­vide that takes in that coun­try and other small Gulf king­doms. Saudi roy­als’ great­est fear is a theo­cratic Iran lead­ing the Shi­ite Mus­lim world in a strug­gle to dom­i­nate Is­lam. The ruth­less Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man and his fam­ily need Trump to sti­fle Iran at ev­ery turn.

To­ward that end, we de­liv­ered the goods, load­ing up the Saudis with fire­power ga­lore. They then used those weapons with aban­don in neigh­bor­ing Ye­men.

To­day, Ye­men’s shell-stricken cap­i­tal, Sanaa, is not the city I saw in the 1980s dur­ing my call on fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions.

The sad fact is that the Saudi-led coali­tion fight­ing in Ye­men’s civil war couldn’t have taken out mar­kets, wed­dings and a school bus car­ry­ing kids with­out the help of U.S.-made bombs.

The Saudis aren’t wor­ried about a cut­off of U.S. aid. The 33-year-old crown prince and his 82-year-old pop, King Sal­man, play Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner, like drums. Trump’s visit to Saudi Ara­bia helped do the trick.

The royal court rec­og­nizes that Trump is an emo­tion­ally needy nar­cis­sist. So it blared the trum­pets, boomed the can­nons and flew fighter jets trailed by red, white and blue over Trump’s head af­ter he dis­em­barked onto Saudi soil.

The Saudis couldn’t re­main where they are on the world stage, how­ever, with­out rhetor­i­cal cover from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

I reread the July speech of Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s point man on religious free­dom, be­fore the Min­is­te­rial to Ad­vance Religious Free­dom con­fer­ence in Washington. Po­si­tion­ing Amer­ica as a “na­tion of faith” that stands for religious free­dom, Pence called out by name North Korea, Rus­sia, Iran and the Is­lamic State as de­praved per­se­cu­tors of re­li­gion. Pence, how­ever, ut­tered not a word about Saudi Ara­bia.

Pence knows that Saudi-fi­nanced religious schools op­er­ate freely in the United States. He also knows there is not one church or sy­n­a­gogue in the king­dom, and that crit­i­ciz­ing Is­lam or the royal fam­ily there may be the last thing you do.

Ah, but Pence and Trump avert their gaze. For big bucks, they will kiss Saudi back­sides.

“What good does that do us?” Trump said Thurs­day, when asked if he would con­sider block­ing bil­lions in U.S. arms sales to the Saudis over Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance. “That would not be ac­cept­able to me.”

Ja­mal Khashoggi is to be pub­licly weeped and wailed about. But in the Saudi-Trump grand view, our coura­geous col­league is just an an­noy­ing and com­pli­cat­ing blip on the screen.

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