'A personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails': How Saudi Arabia's leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents

Joseph Westphal was wowed from the start. As President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2015, Westphal started paying regular visits to the rising new power in the royal court: the country’s new defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, favored son of King Salman.

“First of all, we shared a really nice sense of humor,” said Westphal. “I mean we, we laughed, we joked around. ... It was just laughing about life, and talking about things that maybe happened to me or happened to him.”

More important, Prince Mohammed, who is known as MBS, was pledging to start to rein in the country’s religious police and grant greater rights to Saudi women — steps that U.S. officials had long been calling for. “Yes, absolutely,” Westphal replied when asked if he viewed MBS at the time as an agent of change. “From the very beginning. Absolutely.”

Saudi Arabia's newly appointed King Salman, left, shakes hands with the U.S ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Joseph Westphal, at a meeting with then-President Barack Obama, right, in Riyadh in 2015.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, left, shakes hands with the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Joseph Westphal, at a meeting with President Barack Obama, right, in Riyadh in 2015. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Westphal’s relationship with the young Saudi prince is one glimpse into a much broader and, from today’s perspective, unsettling phenomenon: the strange and successful courtship by MBS of America’s foreign policy and corporate elite, presenting himself as a cultured reformer who was positioned to revolutionize his rigidly conservative country.

The story of that courtship — and its embarrassing aftermath, as MBS’s ruthless crackdowns on dissent and his bloody military adventure in Yemen became ever more apparent — is the subject of “The Rise of the Bullet Guy,” Episode 5 in Yahoo News’ "Conspiracyland" podcast: “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.”

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It is a courtship that came to a final, crashing and ignominious end when, in October 2018, a so-called Tiger Team of Saudi assassins brutally murdered the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — drugging him with illicit narcotics brought from Cairo, suffocating him and then carving up his body with a bone saw and depositing his body parts in plastic bags.

It was a crime that the CIA soon concluded had been authorized by the crown prince himself, noting — among other factors — that MBS’s right-hand man had met with the team before they left to kill Khashoggi in Istanbul, and that seven members of the hit squad were part of MBS’s personal security detail, answerable only to him.

And yet the shocking nature of Khashoggi’s murder has tended to obscure the preceding years, when at first top Obama administration officials, and then President Donald Trump and his influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner, embraced MBS with few reservations and extolled his supposed virtues.

“He’s the only person I’ve met in 30 years of my involvement or more with Saudi Arabia who has put that kind of a vision on the table for the transformation of the country,” said John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state, in an interview for “Conspiracyland” about his assessment of MBS at the time.

Kerry’s Georgetown home was the setting for perhaps the most iconic moment in MBS’s courtship of the U.S. government. It was in June 2016, and the new Saudi defense minister, during a trip to the United States, was invited to a Ramadan dinner at Kerry’s house. As he entered, MBS spotted the grand piano in the living room, promptly sat down and started to play Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata.”

John Kerry, then U.S. secretary of state, left, greets Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside Kerry's Washington, D.C., residence, before a meeting with him in June 2016.
Secretary of State John Kerry greets Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside Kerry's Washington, D.C., home in 2016. (Molly Riley/AFP via Getty Images)

“I mean, we were all surprised,” recalled Kerry. “Somebody had trained him well.”

But even as he impressed the guests in Kerry’s living room, others saw the dark impulses of a would-be tyrant. Ben Rhodes, then Obama’s deputy national security adviser, recalls a summit in Riyadh the previous April, when Obama raised U.S. concerns about Saudi Arabia’s worsening human rights record, including a mass execution of 47 prisoners and the case of a Saudi blogger who had just been sentenced to 10 years in prison — and 1,000 lashes with a whip.

“Obama’s like, ‘What are you guys doing? I’m not gonna defend this,’” said Rhodes in an interview for “Conspiracyland.”

But suddenly, “MBS stands up in the middle of the room, and, and begins to lecture Obama: ‘You don’t understand the Saudi justice system. And if we didn’t do this, our people would demand vengeance.’ And then he offers to get Obama a briefing on the Saudi justice system. I mean, dripping condescension. You know? And I just remember sitting there and thinking, like, ‘What is going on here?’”

“It spoke to a personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails, you know?” Rhodes added. “I mean, if you’re comfortable standing up in a room full of people and lecturing the president of the United States … because he’s raising concerns about mass executions in your country, you are not the guy people [are] reading about … in the New York Times and the Washington Post, who’s [described as] a reformer. I mean, it just laid bare the utter bullshit of the narrative around MBS to me. And I’m, I’m sitting there thinking, you know, ‘How are people calling this guy a modernizer?’"

President Barack Obama, left, in April 2016 with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh..
Obama with Mohammed bin Salman in April 2016 at a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh. (Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

But there was an issue of far more concern to U.S. officials than the young prince’s condescending lecture to Obama. With virtually no warning to Washington, MBS had launched a merciless war in Yemen, targeting the Houthis — a religious minority group loosely aligned with the Iranians who had seized control of the country’s capital. Saudi warplanes, using American weapons, had unleashed a relentless wave of bombings that were slaughtering civilians by the thousands, sparking outrage from human rights groups.

There was “countless documentation of U.S.-manufactured bombs being used on markets, on schools, on people’s homes, on hospitals, on clinics throughout the country,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, then the director of Human Rights Watch’s Mideast Division and now the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now.

Officials in the Obama administration were well aware of the compromising position this put them in. The State Department’s legal office even launched an inquiry into whether the United States was complicit in war crimes. (The lawyers never reached a firm conclusion.) But the White House was torn about what to do.

At the White House, officials were “repelled by what we were seeing,” said Rob Malley, who was then on the National Security Council and charged with coordinating U.S. policy in the region. “But the first instinct was, ‘Well, let’s see if we could give them advice on how to make sure that they don’t kill civilians again.’ But it turns out time and again, whether it’s a mosque, whether it’s a market, whether it’s whatever it is, that they would not only hit it once, they hit it twice, sometimes more.”

Girls demonstrate against the Saudi-led coalition outside the offices of the United Nations in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in August 2015.
Girls demonstrate in 2015 against the Saudi-led coalition outside U.N. offices in Sanaa, Yemen. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Still, said Malley, Obama was reluctant to provoke a confrontation with the Saudis. At the time, relations were tense over the Iranian nuclear deal, which Riyadh opposed, and he wanted the Saudis' help in the war against the Islamic State group.

“There was a meeting [about the war in Yemen] of the Principals Committee, chaired by President Obama,” said Malley. “There were voices expressing a lot of concern.” But Obama “felt he could not, given everything else that was happening in the region, afford a crisis with one of the few countries with which we still retained ... strong relations and cooperation on a whole host of issues, counterterrorism first and foremost.

“I was extremely — how could I put it? — troubled by the whole decision, because we should not have been complicit in this war,” added Malley, who has rejoined the National Security Council under President Biden. “And, you know, the U.S. makes enormous — mistakes is probably too, too kind a word, to describe many, many of its actions.”

There was no doubt in the minds of Malley and other U.S. officials that it was MBS who was driving the train. “He seemed to be already oblivious to the consequences of the actions that he took,” said Malley. “And this was his war … because he was the one who appeared to order it.”

It was a harbinger of even more disturbing moves to come.

Next on "Conspiracyland": Influence Operations

MBS deposes his chief rival, Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince, while the Saudis launch covert influence operations on U.S. soil, including a campaign to curry favor with President Donald Trump with mass bookings at the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and a plot to plant spies inside Twitter to steal personal data from critics of the Saudi regime.

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist's years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: "From royal insider to target: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi leadership's crosshairs"

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images, Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

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