US President Donald Trump has doubled down on his partnership with Saudi Arabia, calling it an indispensable ally after a journalist's grisly murder, but critics say his position ignores Washington's enormous leverage over Riyadh.
Trump on Tuesday gave Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a pass on Jamal Khashoggi's murder, glossing over the Central Intelligence Agency's reported conclusion that the kingdom's de facto ruler had authorised the killing.
"Maybe he did and maybe he didn't!" Trump said, implying Prince Mohammed's culpability in Khashoggi's killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 hardly matters.
What does, he asserted, was the Gulf kingdom's role as a bulwark against rival Iran, its multi-billion dollar investments in the US –- including several arms deals -- and its perceived stranglehold on global oil prices.
Trump was widely pilloried for what critics called his mercantile priorities that made him appear more like a lobbyist for the oil-rich kingdom, raising the prospect of strong congressional action against Saudi Arabia.
But Trump's firm backing of the kingdom in the face of global outrage reinforced what officials in Riyadh often say: the US-Saudi relationship is too big to fail.
"Structural ties -– intelligence, counterterrorism cooperation and energy -- really are too big not only to fail but to place at risk," said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
"But transactional aspects of the relationship -– weapons sales, investments that are valued by Trump -– shouldn't become an excuse to make a Faustian pact and turn a blind eye to justice."
- 'Substantial leverage' -
Trump's stance ignores what the Washington-based Center for International Policy says is America's "substantial leverage over Saudi behaviour".
"The Saudis need US weapons and equipment more than we need to sell them," former US Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller wrote for CNN's website.
"It would be very difficult and expensive for the Saudis to make good on their periodic threats to 'buy foreign' if they can't get what they want from the United States."
Experts say Riyadh is more susceptible to American pressure than Trump asserts, as its economy is intertwined with that of the US.
Seeking to diversify its oil-reliant economy, the kingdom's vast Public Investment Fund has multi-billion dollar stakes in a host of US firms -- from global ridesharing giant Uber to virtual reality start-up Magic Leap.
Largely lacking business expertise outside of its oil and petrochemical industries, Riyadh has poured millions of dollars into consultancy firms such as McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group.
US fact-checking website PolitiFact disputes Trump's claim that Saudi Arabia has agreed to invest $450 billion -- including $110 billion worth of arms deals –- in the United States.
Many of the investments exist only on paper, it says.
And US arms sales to Saudi Arabia have accounted for fewer than 20,000 American jobs a year, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of jobs claimed by Trump, according to the Center for International Policy.
- 'We can buy the world' -
Prince Mohammed is likely to weather the crisis over the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist critical of the de-facto ruler, and could rule Saudi Arabia for the next half century.
The kingdom appears emboldened by Trump's support.
"To the world: Saudi Arabia First," screamed a headline in the pro-government Okaz newspaper on Wednesday, echoing Trump's "America First" mantra.
The full-page article heaped praise on Trump for not "acting foolishly" against the kingdom.
Dozens of what appeared to be Saudi bot accounts lionised Trump with messages of gratitude peppered with heart emojis.
"There's a feeling that we can buy anything, that we can buy the world," a Saudi analyst in Riyadh told AFP following Trump's statement.
Shrugging off the global pressure, Prince Mohammed is expected to attend the Group of 20 summit later this month, raising the electrifying prospect of face-to-face encounters with world leaders who have strongly condemned the murder.
"I think in some ways this typifies the crown prince's approach, which is... to say 'no, we're going to double down'," said Jon Alterman, from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"If you're going to deal with Saudi Arabia, you will be dealing with the crown prince."
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who claims the orders for the Khashoggi's killing came from "the highest levels" of the Saudi government, appears unlikely to follow Trump's lead.
Same for the CIA.
In leaking its assessment that Prince Mohammed authorised the murder, the CIA was sending the message that it was willing to "take on Trump", said James Dorsey, a fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
The move also suggested "the agency does not believe Prince Mohammed's survival as king-in-waiting is crucial to US national security or the stability of the kingdom," Dorsey added.
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