- - Wednesday, April 3, 2019


Six months have elapsed since Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi newspaper columnist and blogger, went missing. He is widely believed to have been murdered by agents working for someone high inside the Saudi government who found his criticism of the Riyadh regime and the royal family intolerable. Without a body — his body is thought to have been dismembered and the body parts scattered around Istanbul — it’s hard to say.

The Saudi government, which nobody believes, says he died “in a fist fight” during his abduction him inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and the Saudi government is apparently paying compensation to his family members. But in the Middle East it’s hard to be sure of anything.

What is clear is that the murder had a dramatic impact in Washington, with partisans on both the left and the right hitting hard against the Trump White House refusal to condemn the Saudis for the crime. Parsing events now, with the advantage of the passage of time, it’s clear that the U.S. government did not want to offend lest it wreck Jared Kushner’s effort to promote Saudi Arabia as a regional power to both guarantee the security of Israel and to check the expansion schemes of the Turks and, more importantly, of Iran.

The desire not to offend the king or his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is in a way understandable. Governments are interested in what works and moral concerns about right and wrong usually get short shrift. Not only is the prince the heir apparent and the person believed to be calling the shots in Riyadh, but he is the man directly or indirectly responsible for putting into motion the events that led to Mr. Khashoggi’s death. A public rebuke from the president of the United States might eliminate the progress toward legitimate U.S. national security objectives.

But the prince and/or his agents can’t be allowed to beat the public relations rap. Perhaps justice, as justice is measured in the Islamic world, has been served through back channels. It’s hard to be sure. One thing that has happened is the appointment of a new Saudi ambassador to Washington, but it’s not clear whether she represents meaningful change.

Reema bin Bandar is the daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, himself a former Saudi ambassador to the United States. Her appointment was no doubt meant to show loosening of the tight restrictions on daily life in the kingdom, though the impression persists that she was appointed mostly because she’s a member of the family firm, the family firm being Saudi Arabia.

Her experience, such as it is, is thin. She has no diplomatic training and has not served previously in any diplomatic post — something of a departure from the usual as Saudi diplomats must first serve in lesser posts before they become ambassadors. Her appointment gives the appearance the Saudis are serious about loosening particular restrictions on women, as the government has promised. Women in the kingdom can now drive an automobile, for one celebrated example. But Saudi law still considers women to be subservient to men, whose approval women need for most of what they want to do.

The new ambassador is a beneficiary of her father’s wealth. He once gave her a $6.5 million house in McLean, just outside Washington. He arranged her marriage to a cousin, Faisal bin Turki bin Nasser, who was Prince Bandar’s partner in an aerospace company.

If the requirements of Saudi law hold, she as a single mother still needs the written permission of her father to accept the job and to travel to Washington. She will be required by Saudi law to have a male guardian with her at the embassy, as for example female Saudi students outside Saudi Arabia are required to do. The law is rigidly enforced.

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is a curious one. Both countries need each other while neither has the interests of the other in mind. It would be foolish for whoever wields the power now in Riyadh to think Americans can be persuaded that the considerable abuse of women in Saudi Arabia will be eliminated by the appointment a daughter of the ruling family as the ambassador to the United States. Nor will such an appointment paper over the concerns many still have about the ghastly details of Mr. Khashoggi’s death, and who was responsible for it. There are many questions still to be answered before the U.S.-Saudi relationship can fully prosper.

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