The brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi should shock all of us, but it should not have surprised anyone.
In fact, it is just the latest chapter in the deeply unhealthy U.S.-Saudi lockstep relationship. As long as the Saudis kept oil prices in check, for decades the U.S. has turned a blind eye to Saudi human rights violations, its global exportation of Wahhabism, and even its sponsorship of terrorism that targeted the American homeland.
But for many reasons, Khashoggi’s murder may now be the final straw. Perhaps not for the Trump administration, but for America’s consumers and investors who hold a different kind of power: the ability hit Crown Prince bin Salman where it hurts: the pocketbook. In other words, prevent the global economic integration and diversification he desperately needs to transition his empire of oil into modernity.
The Trump administration appears to have surrendered much of the leverage it has over Riyadh, even pointing to continued arms sales—which help the Saudis engineer the starvation of up to 14 million Yemenis—as necessary because of jobs here in this country. But shouldn’t the U.S. be using those same arms sales as leverage to try and stop the Saudi’s bad behavior? Since when did the roles flip?
But the Executive Branch is not the only American entity with leverage over the Saudi Crown Prince. Where Trump fails to act, others can step in—primarily, the private sector. Some business leaders have already shown both moral and strategic leadership.
Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi was one of the first Silicon Valley leaders to pull out of the “Future Investment Initiative” in Riyadh, soon to be followed by JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, Ford’s Bill Ford, and Virgin’s Richard Branson.
But more is needed.
American consumers can play an important role in restoring America’s moral and strategic leadership when it comes to US-Saudi relations. As we speak, SoftBank—the multinational holding conglomerate in which the Saudi Crown Prince is the largest investor —already effectively controls 85 percent of Sprint. T-mobile and Sprint are currently considering a merger. If this occurs, SoftBank will gain a 27 percent stake overall in what would become one of the largest US mobile providers in the United States.
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This would give the repressive Saudi dictatorship front row seats in the creation of the nation’s largest sensitive communications infrastructure —America’s first 5G network.
Imagine if SoftBank was controlled by China. Would America allow China to gain such leverage over the US’s telecommunications system? Would American consumers allows the Chinese government to get inside their cell phones?
Donald Trump is wrong in thinking that America doesn’t have leverage over Saudi Arabia and that it has no choice but to allow Riyadh to act with impunity—even when it sponsors terror that kills Americans or lures a Washington Post columnist to his grisly death. But if American consumers are asleep at the wheel and allow the Saudi Crown Prince to buy his way into America’s communications infrastructure, then the House of Saud may very well end up with the upper hand against America.
Trita Parsi is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University
Don’t miss Trita Parsi discussing ‘Middle East (In)Stability: Telling the Difference Between Friends and Frenemies,’ at our fifth annual foreign policy conference this Thursday November 15 in Washington, D.C. Full schedule and free registration here.