In an interview with Democracy for the Arab World Now, Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, discusses the US-Saudi relationship.
Those responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s killing should be prosecuted in US courts, says Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, in an interview with Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
In a wide-ranging interview, Baer also said that MBS’s iron-fist style ruling would lead to long-term instability in Saudi Arabia and that the US had the stronger hand in any negotiations with the Crown Prince about human rights and the War in Yemen.
Robert Baer spent over three decades in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1976 to 1997. During his time at the CIA, Baer was a Case Officer primarily assigned to the Middle East. After he left the CIA, he wrote a book, “See No Evil,” which was adapted into the feature film, Syriana, starring George Clooney. Baer subsequently published his second book, a critique of the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, titled, “Sleeping with the Devil.”
Excerpts from the interview follow:
DAWN: What should happen in the U.S. to hold the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, particularly during the Biden administration?
Robert Baer: Khashoggi was a permanent resident of the United States and was entitled to the protection of American law. There should be indictments in the United States all the way up and in, frankly, Saudi Arabia for the killing. They should be held accountable, just as Iran is. If Iran kills people, you hold them accountable. It’s the same thing. We cannot have a separate rule of law or no law for Saudi Arabia. The double standard sends an awful message. And you simply have to take the evidence the Turks produced on specific Saudis, indict those people in an American court of law, seek their extradition, and seek access to them to question them. It’s easy. If we decide the rule of law is not for us in the case of Khashoggi, then you know, it’s open season on American citizens. It’s that simple.
DAWN: Why did the Trump administration not seek some reckoning for Khashoggi’s murder?
Baer: It’s called cold money. It’s the revolving door. If you’re a diplomat in Saudi Arabia and you need to make some dough, you quit and go work for the Saudis. They have institutions that they own all over Washington. They take all that oil money and they put it back in Washington. Washington is for sale.
DAWN: In an interview, you said that the chance that MBS ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi is 100 percent. Still, the U.S. has refused to declassify the intelligence reports on responsibility for his killing despite pressure from Congress and civil society groups.
Baer: Trump has been in business for Saudi Arabia for years. He’ll never go near the Saudis. And, yes, everything that I’ve read is that there are intercepted chats implicating Mohammed bin Salman. From what I’ve heard about them, those chats are enough to get an indictment and conviction in the U.S. court. Yeah. The Saudi government wouldn’t turn these people over even if we did indict the culprits. That’s obstruction of justice.
DAWN: The U.S. has a long history of sanctioning human rights violators. Do you think there’s a chance the U.S. administration will put members of the Saudi leadership who were involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi on its sanction list?
Baer: Let’s wait to see what Biden’s going to do. He is going to have his hands so tied with all sorts of stuff going on right now inside the United States. He may not even get around to Saudi Arabia. The last thing he wants is a foreign crisis. And we’re not in the position to do it. I mean, nobody in Saudi Arabia is in a position to do anything with Mohammed bin Salman, and we simply don’t have the connections. No one trusts the United States in Saudi Arabia.
DAWN: Why the lack of trust?
Baer: Well, I mean, if you were a Saudi prince and you decided that Mohammed bin Salman had to go, the last place you go to is the U.S. embassy or the CIA because it would leak right to the Saudis. If there’s any resistance inside the Kingdom, the U.S. will be the last to know about it.
DAWN: Since his ascension as Crown Prince, MBS has committed systematic human rights violations and abroad. Given all of that, is MBS a reliable ally for the U.S. in the long run in the region and globally?
Baer: Saudi Arabia is so opaque. We don’t know. If MBS wakes up one day and decides to get into another war like Yemen, it will be destabilizing. How do we know he’s not going to provoke Iran right now?
DAWN: The U.S. has not been directly involved in Yemen but has supplied the weapons used by the Saudis to kill thousands of Yemeni civilians. What is the U.S.’s responsibility for what is happening in Yemen?
Baer: We are very responsible because we’re not keeping track of those weapons. We’re supposed to keep track of them, but we’re not.
DAWN: What leverage does the US have to convince Saudi Arabia to stop the war in Yemen?
Baer: We could just cut off weapons. We could start talking to the Iranians in a certain way that would scare the Saudis. We could balance our allegiances in the Gulf. We could talk to the Iranians about Iraq. And then, there’s no army in Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis can’t beat the Yemenis, they’re not going to be able to win against Iran. They need us. We have the upper hand in the relationship. But we won’t use it. Washington is too corrupt a place.
If we can’t even get them to cough up witnesses to 9/11, how are we ever going to get them to cough up stuff on Khashoggi? That’s the problem. The Saudis have had a free ride. But not on Israel. We have also consistently humiliated them with Israel and caused them problems.
DAWN: How the U.S. has humiliated Saudis?
Baer: Well, if everybody had gotten on board various Saudi plans to divide Jerusalem, it would have relieved a good deal of pressure on the Saudis. Because I just think at the end of the day, without any sort of fair settlement, the Palestinians will always be a thorn in the political legitimacy of the Saudis.
DAWN: In the past ten or fifteen years, we have seen activists within Saudi Arabia and abroad protesting the policies of the Crown Prince and the King. At home, MBS has put down the protests with an iron fist. What do you think are the consequences for the US of closing its eyes to the gross human rights violations that MBS is committing?
Baer: Well, one problem with that question is just ignorance of what sort of opposition there is inside the country to Mohammed bin Salman. For all we know, the Saudis approve of some of the iron fists. I don’t know. But in the long term, the iron fist rule eventually causes instability. And if, in fact, Mohammed bin Salman is undermining the stability of a regime that has lasted since the 1930s, there will be a price to pay.
It’s a hard country to rule with different tribes and Wahhabi fundamentalists. But the royal family has managed it for a long time through consensus, not the iron fist. So we’re gambling here that an autocratic ruler is going to manage things. It’s a gamble generally, like the Shah of Iran. This stuff doesn’t work forever, the iron fist.
DAWN: Do you see any major and meaningful differences between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to Saudi Arabia?
Baer: With the people coming in with Biden, no. They are straight down the line: Saudi Arabia is a potential volcano. Don’t mess with it. It’s the establishment view in Washington. Don’t mess with it. All these people around here are coming with Biden, including Susan Rice, that’s their frame of mind. Don’t play with Saudi Arabia. So I would be very surprised if Biden takes this on, and seeks change or puts pressure on the Saudis.
DAWN: When it comes to the issues that the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia, from Yemen to Khashoggi’s murder, which one is the Biden Adminstration most likely to take on on January 21?
Baer: I think it’d be Yemen, because anything to do with Saudi internal politics, Mohammed bin Salman will fight tooth and nail against us. But if we came along and provided a face-saving solution for Yemen, though I have no idea what that would look like, MBS would be more inclined to accept it and an American role.
DAWN: In your book, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, you discussed the deep roots that tie the U.S. economy to Saudi Arabia. Do you think anything has changed in the past decade?
Baer: Fracking and solar energy lessens the clout of Saudi Arabia, to be sure. But I still maintain that if you took Saudi oil off the market, it would be enormously damaging for the world’s economy and the United States. You simply can’t take 11 million barrels a day off markets and not cause chaos. It’s still the cheapest oil in the world, and it does really matter.
DAWN: Biden harshly criticized Saudis for the murder of Khashoggi and said that they will pay the price. Will this change once he is in the White House?
Baer: Yeah, I think definitely, because it’s one thing to be in a campaign and use that to batter Trump. And I think Americans just don’t care right now with what’s going on in Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed bin Salman could open up vast concentration camps like the Chinese have, and no one would care. And I think presidents go for foreign initiatives when they don’t have anything to do at home.