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The Future Of U.S.-Saudi Relations


Saudi Arabia's changing explanations over what really happened to Jamal Khashoggi culminated this week with Saudi prosecutors saying that Turkish evidence shows his killing was premeditated. How could this affect the relationship between the United States, Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he's known? We're joined now by Robin Wright, a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center and contributing writer for The New Yorker. Robin, thanks so much for being with us.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Great to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And let's begin with the crown prince. Is it possible he would lose power over the Khashoggi affair?

WRIGHT: Well, there are four different options. One is that he stays in power, that the international furor eventually settles down, and he manages - kind of orchestrates his ability to stay on the throne. He is the de facto leader in Saudi Arabia because his father is aged and ailing. The second scenario is that he is replaced as crown prince, and there is precedent for that. Over the last three years, two other crown princes have been pushed aside in part to make room for him. There's a third option - that his powers are weakened, that the king appoints others in the royal family to assume some of the roles that MBS has managed to accumulate in his office over the last year and a half. And the fourth is that there's a kind of physical challenge as there was to King Faisal back in 1975.

SIMON: Jamal Khashoggi's eldest son was photographed meeting the crown prince earlier this week. For a lot of people, it was heart-rending to see. And it was announced shortly after he'd be allowed to travel to the U.S. We gather, according to reports, he's arrived there. Is it possible someone told him pose with the prince and you can get out of here?

WRIGHT: Absolutely. There's no question. The royal family had banned him from traveling since his father had left the kingdom to go into exile. And there had to be a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, including requests specifically by the United States and Secretary of State Pompeo to allow him to leave the country and join his brothers in the United States. Three of Khashoggi's sons are American citizens, and I gather the fourth son was not.

SIMON: The head of the CIA, Gina Haspel, was in Turkey this week being briefed. What do we know about what she was told and what she did?

WRIGHT: Well, the CIA hasn't provided specifics, but it's been widely reported that she listened to this alleged tape of Jamal's last moments and what happened to him inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. I mean, this is going to be a pivotal moment for the Trump administration. It has to make a very hard call - what to do about an ally that has been pivotal in three of President Trump's five most important foreign policy goals.

SIMON: And those are?

WRIGHT: Well, the first one is obviously this elusive Arab-Israeli peace plan that President Trump originally said was not going to be as difficult as everyone thought. And it has been repeatedly delayed. It was scheduled to be rolled out this fall. The second is Iran and squeezing Iran to either change its behavior or change the regime. And the third is counterterrorism in this age of ISIS.

SIMON: Robin Wright, who is a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center and a contributing writer for The New Yorker, always good to have you with us. Robin, thanks so much for being with us.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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