Now that the the Biden administration has declassified and released the report into the extrajudicial execution of Jamal Kashoggi, everyone has begun slamming President Biden for not doing more. I understand why Kashoggi’s colleagues at The Washington Post feel let down. I understand why his colleagues at other major news outlets feel let down. Though Nick Kristof really should just go away and atone for his own past sins.
While I, like Cole, would like a more robustly overt response that at least inflicts some pain on Muhammad bin Salman in specific and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in specific because no one’s behavior ever changes unless they go from being rewarded to being punished for it. However, there is a real, practical reason that is not being mentioned or discussed as to why the Biden administration is worried about damaging relations that would lead to Saudi no longer cooperating on a number of issues, including counter-terrorism and trying to contain Iran.
That reason is that every US Soldier, Sailor, Sailor, Airman, Marine, DOD or Service civilian, and an exceedingly large number of Americans working in Saudi as contractors is a potential hostage for Muhammad bin Salman. And I can tell you from personal experience – more on that in a bit* – that this is a VERY LARGE CONCERN!!!!
The US has a standing military deployment – predominantly training, but also some advising and assisting – that is run through several different offices. Right now one of my former students – a colonel at 30 years of service – is overseeing the Land component training for the Saudi Army. He has a counterpart overseeing Air and Sea component training – a USAF colonel (O6) and a US Navy captain (O6). This is the US Military Training Mission – Saudi Arabia. There is also the Office of the Program Manager – Saudi Arabian National Guard, which works with the Saudi National Guard. While the standing number of uniformed personnel deployed on these two missions is several hundred, they are not the only ones in Saudi Arabia. The best open source estimates that I can link to for you that I’ve been able to find of the numbers of US military personnel in Saudi Arabia is between 2,500 and 3,000 personnel. I have not been able to find an actual number for American defense contractors working in Saudi Arabia, nor for those working in other Saudi economic sectors, but it has to be several thousand at least.
Each of these Americans – every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, DOD and Service civilian, civilians from other US departments and agencies, and contractors working in the defense and other economic sectors – is a potential hostage for Muhammad bin Salman. And until or unless you can bring each of them home so that the only Americans with any ties to the US government are those with diplomatic immunity – not that I would expect that would stop bin Salman – overtly, harshly cracking down on Muhammad bin Salman is out of the question. Bin Salman has already taken a number of his cousins hostage in a shake down to take their wealth, which is the source of their power and ability to act independent of the Saudi throne. He also took the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, and his family hostage, forcing Hariri to resign on live television. So he really isn’t too concerned with things like diplomatic immunity! Bin Salman also appears to have lured a Saudi dissident who had sought asylum in Canada back to the Kingdom, which, of course, has a lot of other Saudi dissidents both inside and outside of the Kingdom concerned for their lives and those of their families. I expect that taking US personnel hostage is not a really big step for bin Salman.
There is also another major concern that I’m sure was considered by Biden’s national security team. The fact that the Saudis have been partnering with the Emiratis and the Israelis to push the limits of private electronic (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) to advance their own interests. Members of Biden’s team – his nominee to serve as the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy – was targeted by one of these efforts. Jeff Bezos was targeted by another. And Kashoggi’s extrajudicial execution was facilitated by one as well. Jared’s brokered agreement between the Israelis and the Emiratis wasn’t a breakthrough for peace, it was just a formalization of a longstanding, largely clandestine relationship. But until the US Intelligence Community is able to get a handle on this Saudi-Emirati-Israeli ELINT/SIGINT campaign, they have to be concerned about what may have been hacked and what might be released by bin Salman, as well as his overt ally Muhammad bin Zayed of the UAE and his covert ally Benjamin Netanyahu as they pursue their own interests within their countries, within the Middle East, and within the US.
Any policy, and any strategy to achieve that policy, requires assuming a certain amount of risk. Right now anything involving Saudi Arabia and Muhammad bin Salman specifically, let alone the Middle East in general, involves a lot of strategic risk. Given that President Biden’s first priority is getting the COVID pandemic under control, followed by getting his administration staffed all while navigating a Senate whose Democratic majority survives only so long as all 48 Democrats and the 2 Independents who caucus with them remain healthy, alive, and on the team and a House that now only has a five seat Democratic majority, Muhammad bin Salman is an irritant, not a priority. If I was advising on this, and I AM NOT, my recommendation would be to stand down the US training missions and remove SOFA protections from US defense contractors pending a top to bottom review. Stand everyone down and pull them out and either stage them at CENTCOM Forward in Bahrain or redistribute them to other US bases in Europe and in the continental US (CONUS). This would definitely concentrate bin Salman’s attention that his actions have repercussions. Moreover, no one actually knows if these training missions actually have any effect, if they actually make the Saudi military more effective as a fighting force or that it is just a way to have Saudi pay the US a lot of money to do the same training year after year with the best parade military money can buy.
But until or unless we get our personnel out of the Kingdom, cracking down on bin Salman is a non-starter because he has several thousand US military personnel, DOD and Service civilians, and American defense contractors he can take hostage. And he has been very willing to take hostages in the past to get what he wants!
* At the end of September and beginning of October 2018 I was a finalist for a contract position that would have deployed me to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for one to two years. While I cannot go into details of the position, I can state that it was supervisory – I would have been the team leader/in country lead for the project – and high profile within the Kingdom’s defense ministry. For all intents and purposes I would have been running a priority defense program for the Saudis for 12 to 24 months until the team could get the Saudis trained to do so themselves, including designing a training and education program for them, and teaching them how to run it, so they could self sustain the program once our contract had expired. I was recruited for consideration for the project by a headhunter/professional recruiter, discussed it with my current boss who was willing to give me up for a year or two to do it, discussed it with several retired senior US military leaders I’ve worked for and with as the project was, at the time, backed by the US government, but not a US government contract. The contract was directly with the Kingdom and I wanted to make sure this wasn’t going to mess up my clearance or have me doing something at odds to the US. I was assured that it would not mess up my clearance and that the assignment was in line with US policy and encouraged and supported by the US. During my final interview, on 1 October 2018, the last question I asked was “what is the plan to get us safely out of the country if something we do, which is professionally correct, right, and appropriate, upsets someone in Saudi leadership because this isn’t a US military contract and we won’t be covered under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the US and the Kingdom?” The people interviewing me, including the president of the company that had the contract, didn’t have a really good or comforting answer on how they’d get a bunch of Americans and Brits out with our heads attached if things went south. I don’t recall them having any answer at all. The next day Jamal Kashoggi was extrajudicially executed and what happened became public a couple of days afterwards. I never heard another word about the potential job. And I’ve never been happier not to as it confirmed my concerns about no one being able to actually ensure the safety of my team and myself should I be offered and accept the position once we were in country.