SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump met with Saudi Arabian leader Prince Mohammed bin Salman Saturday at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan.
Rather than question his human rights record, Trump celebrated him as a "friend."
“I want to just thank you on behalf of a lot of people, and I want to congratulate you. You’ve done a really spectacular job," he told the crown prince, according to The New York Times.
Given that a recent United Nations report calls for an investigation into the Saudi leader's involvement in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, the meeting raises important questions about how America should engage with so-called friends.
What do you do when allies behave badly? When should you walk away from the bargaining table?
Middle East experts gathered at this week’s Council on Foreign Relations religion and foreign policy workshop in New York City said the president has undermined America’s efforts to defend human rights by failing to consistently call out the countries that violate them.
“If the U.S. is going after Iran because it’s behaving in a way that’s incompatible with how nation-states should behave … the same standard should hold for Saudi Arabia,” said Bernard Haykel, director of the Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East at Princeton University, during a workshop panel on U.S. involvement overseas.
Rather than press the crown prince on his involvement in Khashoggi’s death or ongoing attacks on the country’s religious minorities, Trump’s chosen to approach the U.S.-Saudi relationship like it’s business-as-usual.
"Trump ignored questions by reporters about Khashoggi’s death and the crown prince’s apparent role in it, and made no mention of the Saudi government’s crackdown on dissent," the Times reported.
Still, Haykel noted that such behavior makes sense in light of the president's foreign policy interests. Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, and the White House doesn’t want to complicate the relationship.
Saudi leaders “remain reliable suppliers of oil and allies in the fight against global jihadis,” he said.
These national interests also explain why U.S. officials have waived potential sanctions against Saudi Arabia every year since 2006 — long before Trump took office — despite the country’s consistent presence on America’s annual list of top religious freedom violators.
“I do not think the way of persuading Saudi Arabia to improve its religious environment is by shame and by force. I do think it is through direct, respectful and meaningful engagement,” argued Johnnie Moore, one of Trump’s evangelical advisers, in a brief essay accompanying the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s latest assessment of Saudi Arabia.
The commission called for U.S. officials to press the Saudi government to release religious prisoners of conscience and pass new nondiscrimination laws, but it also applauded Saudi Arabia’s recent steps away from authoritarianism.
In 2018, “senior leadership met with several Christian leaders … pledging to promote interfaith dialogue and the flourishing of different faith traditions as part of the kingdom’s domestic reforms,” the commission wrote.
The U.S. benefits from the crown prince’s efforts to revamp his country’s political, social and economic architecture, Haykel said.
“His move away from Islamism is a very good thing for the United States,” he said.
However, that doesn’t mean Trump should stay quiet when the Saudi leader strays from this modernizing mission, Middle East experts said.
“The crown prince has reduced the influence of Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious establishment, though he has simultaneously consolidated his own power and targeted adversaries,” the commission reported.
Those adversaries included Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was living in the U.S. and writing for The Washington Post before he was killed last October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Despite leading a stable regime, the crown prince hasn’t turned his back on one of his region’s worst habits, Haykel said.
“There is no doubt that in bringing about the reform that he wants to bring about, (he) has been repressive and continues to be repressive,” he said.
Still, Trump and other leaders have been willing to give the crown prince something like a get-out-of-jail-free card. They emphasize the importance of keeping the U.S.-Saudi dialogue open and not allowing a few concerns to sabotage a multi-decade relationship.
“If (Saudi Arabian officials) do not enjoy the important relationship they have with the United States, they will have a relationship with other countries, because they have to have those types of security and economic relationships,” Moore wrote.
In other words, Saudi Arabia would cozy up with Russia or China and cause even more foreign policy problems.
It’s always been difficult for the White House to determine how to balance human rights values with other economic or security concerns, said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Ever since this country has had a foreign policy there has been a debate about what our priorities in the world should be,” he said.
During the Cold War, the Nixon and Ford administrations were widely condemned for not focusing more of their efforts on combating the jailing of political dissidents. They defended themselves by arguing that, by staying in relationship with repressive regimes, they likely avoided even greater evils, Haass said.
“They said, 'Isn’t it moral to avoid nuclear war?' You’ve got to put more eggs in the basket of negotiating (treaties) to avoid conflicts that could obviously escalate,” he said.
But many Americans, including a growing group of congressional leaders, aren’t satisfied with that argument when it comes to Saudi Arabia.
Already, the Senate has passed a joint resolution condemning Khashoggi’s murder and blaming the crown prince. Both chambers of Congress are pursuing additional measures, like blocking an arms deal with the country or mandating a more in-depth investigation into Khashoggi’s death, as The Hill reported this week.
“The horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi demands accountability and justice,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, during a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting. “After the astounding evidence we’ve seen, it can’t just be business as usual.”
The question of how the U.S. should engage with Saudi Arabia moving forward is not going away. It will come up during the 2020 presidential campaign and in the lead up to the 2020 G20 Summit, which will be hosted by Saudi Arabia.
In the end, it likely is best for Trump to remain in a close relationship with the crown prince, Haykel said. But speaking up on behalf of human rights doesn’t stand in the way of that goal.
“I don’t think that should be tabled. It should remain on the table and be a very important element in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” he said.