WASHINGTON (CN) – Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi’s murder last year set diplomatic relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia on edge and months later, the path forward appears no less fraught with complications, a former U.S. ambassador to the kingdom said Thursday.
From 2001 to 2003, Robert Jordan served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under President George W. Bush. His ambassadorship began mere weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, placing him at the center of a suddenly fragile diplomatic relationship with a powerful and wealthy ally.
On Thursday, while speaking at a forum on the future of U.S.-Saudi relations at the National Press Club, Jordan said since Khashoggi’s killing, he has spent a considerable amount of time reflecting.
“It seems there is still a hangover from 9/11,” Jordan said.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks were Saudi, he recalled. The strain between Washington and Riyadh was more than palpable and had the potential to be highly problematic for decades.
“They were in denial at first,” he recounted. “They wouldn’t share intelligence or allow the U.S. [the chance to] interrogate suspects. We couldn’t even watch through a one-way mirror during the first year.”
Since the attacks nearly 18 years ago, diplomatic relations, for a time, improved. International partnerships and lucrative contracts flowed more freely between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
But now the strategic value of that alliance has eroded, Jordan said.
Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment last October was described as recently as this month by Saudi minister of foreign affairs Abdel al-Jubeir as a “mistake” committed by kingdom officials acting “outside the scope of their authority.”
Al-Jubeir vowed an investigation would continue but CIA and Turkish investigators concluded months ago that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, colloquially known as MBS, personally called for Khashoggi’s assassination.
President Donald Trump disputed the CIA’s findings last November saying “the world is a dangerous place” and it was “possible” the crown prince had no knowledge of the assassination.
“Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in an official White House statement before announcing sanctions on 17 Saudis believed to be involved in Khashoggi’s murder. Only a month earlier, during a scrum with reporters, the president cited a nonexistent $450 billion arms contract with the Saudis as a reason to delay any penalty on the U.S. ally.
It wouldn’t be helpful for the U.S. to cancel the deal because it would “hurt us far more than it hurts them,” Trump said.
This dispute between Trump and his own intelligence agencies mimics the increasingly divergent attitude on Saudi Arabia between the executive branch and the legislative branch today, Jordan said at Thursday’s forum.
An “appetite for reprisal” exists and as such, there must be a “recalibration of this relationship,” the former ambassador said.
The U.S. must be clear on what it wants and what it can actually offer to the Saudi kingdom, he added.
What the kingdom needs grows by the day – its economy is on a downslide and the youth population is soaring. There aren’t enough jobs and a fresh influx of foreign investment for energy infrastructure is what the Saudis are after, Jordan said.
As Jordan spoke at Thursday’s forum in Washington, the crown prince arrived in China for the last leg of his trade tour through Asia. With perceptions of him publicly cooled in Europe and the U.S. following Khashoggi’s murder, MBS limited his tour to India, Pakistan and China.
Jordan prescribed caution to President Trump in any future negotiations with the crown prince.
“The U.S. has put business intellect ahead of moral constraints,” Jordan said. “Saudi Arabia is not an ATM… It is shocking that after the investigation, this administration did nothing. Some individuals were sanctioned but that just means their visas were revoked. It simply means they can’t go to Disneyland.”
To improve relations and protect U.S. interests, the White House must start by being “ambitious on the ground,” Jordan said.
Staffing levels for the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia are inadequate and there is not a designated secretary between the consulates, Jordan said.
“I would urge the president get these people confirmed. I would also urge him to listen to his advisers, not to think that he knows more about the Middle East than anyone else, including his generals, and to develop a longer term strategy for dealing with the region and with the problems Saudi Arabia is facing,” he said.
Trump should have a “heart to heart” with MBS as well, Jordan added.
“Explain to him American assistance is not unconditional. We may be married in some ways but there is the possibility for rupture in this relationship if the behavior doesn’t change. If it does, then we will be the first to support the improvements they have in mind for the long term,” he said.
The former ambassador said it’s tempting to remain in a tight alliance with Saudi Arabia, especially now that the U.S. has ramped up sanctions and rhetoric against Iran, a nation Riyadh has long considered an enemy.
After watching the War in Iraq drag on for nearly 20 years and learning what he has about the delicate interplay between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Jordan called for careful forethought.
“A conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran seems unlikely. But if there was a march to war there, it would make the U.S. invasion of Iraq look like child’s play,” he said.
Jordan limited his comments Thursday about a bombshell whistleblower report from the House Oversight Committee this week alleging the Trump administration shared sensitive data about nuclear technology with the Saudis.
It would help the U.S.-Saudi alliance against Iran, he acknowledged, but if the White House did share the information, it did so illegally.
“It’s a violation of the Atomic Energy Act,” Jordan said.