The longstanding ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been the lynchpin of security in a volatile region.
This has based on unflinching support of successive administrations for the House of Saud in return for uninterrupted oil supplies and support for Washington's regional polices. The question now is whether that policy can continue with all the controversy over the murder of the Saudi exile Jamal Kashoggi.
American leaders have often looked the other way when questions are raised by human rights groups about the oil kingdom's alleged violations, showing Saudi wealth, along with its role in regional politics, takes preference over any other consideration.
President Donald Trump's rise to power was warmly welcomed by the Saudi leadership despite worldwide concerns about his views on minorities and other related issues. Trump acknowledged this support by choosing Riyadh as the first overseas destination after becoming president.
Under Trump's watch the Saudi monarchy paved way for a peaceful transfer of power to the next generation of the House of Saud by appointing Mohammad Bin Salman (aka MBS), as Crown Prince. This had been seen as a delicate issue – to ensure a peaceful succession to one of the many grandsons of King Abdul Aziz, founder of Saudi Arabia.
It was hailed as beginning of a new dawn, as the prince launched a wave of reforms for modernizing both the economy and society. He even lifted the longstanding ban on the women drivers or being allowed to attend sporting events.
The patronage extended by Trump towards the new leadership was rewarded with deals ranging from US$110 to 450 billion according to varying estimates. Trump once described this as creating a million jobs and playing a role in the revival of the American economy.
Then, the unthinkable happened, as Jamal Kashoggi was brutally murdered in mysterious circumstance inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2. The crime was crudely handled by the Saudi authorities until it blew up into a mega issue.
Kashoggi, living in America and writing columns for the Washington Post, was among the critics of MBS. His death sparked a wave of anger and pressure steadily built up in America in support of punitive action against those responsible.
The central question in the sad episode is whether Crown Prince Mohammad is in any way linked to the crime. The Saudi authorities have vehemently rejected the idea and vowed to bring the real perpetrators to justice.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has said that any effort to link the royal family with the murder will be resisted as his country regards that as a "red line." However, such statements have not helped and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relation Committee has sought from Trump a determination within 120 days of what, if any, was the role of the Crown Prince in the Kashoggi affair.
President Trump is walking a careful line. He is trying to address the legal and moral aspects of the murder without hurting the economic and strategic relations with Saudi Arabia.
He has been reluctant to point the finger at anyone in the royal family, and continues to show willingness to work with the current Saudi ruling hierarchy. Hence, he has not gone beyond the official Saudi version insisting the Crown Prince is innocent.
Nevertheless, he still has to fulfill certain obligations, and, at some point, will have to come up with a clear stance on the issue. He cannot ignore domestic concerns, especially in Congress, indefinitely.
Any determination by the U.S. to implicate the Crown Prince would surely be a blow to the traditional relationship, as it could result in imposition of sanctions against the person implicated and a further demand to put him on trial.
Such an eventuality may not only jeopardize agreements worth billions of dollars and negatively hit the U.S. economy but also threaten the delicate security arrangement in the Middle East. The cost will be too high and not in the interests of anyone.
I don't think that the issue will be allowed to go that far, but will somehow be sorted out. A lot depends on the kind of support MBS gets from the extended royal family. A divided house may not be good when the monarch and his successor needs firm support.
A phrase reportedly coined in the British embassy in the 1960s about Saudi Arabia is as good as it was then. It says that "the greatest threat to the House of Saud is the House of Saud itself."
Sajjad Malik is a columnist with www.clrex.com. For more information please visit:
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of www.clrex.com.