Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Saudi relations

Obama’s Saudi Policy: Tone Deaf to U.S. Interests and Values

For six years, the hallmark of Obama administration’s foreign policy has been its predilection for embracing foes and distressing allies like Saudi Arabia. President Obama’s determination to pursue détente with Iran, a deadly threat to the Saudis as well as to Israel, has shaken ties between the two countries. But the death of Saudi King Abdullah has caused both the president and his administration to belatedly attempt to repair the relationship. That is smart. But in doing so, it appears that the administration has once again faltered. The U.S.-Saudi alliance is one based on common interests, not values. Like the president’s choice to attend the king’s funeral after snubbing the Paris unity rally after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the decision by the Pentagon to sponsor an essay contest on Arab and Muslim issues in honor of the king’s memory is a spectacular example of how tone deaf Obama’s Washington is to the nature of the underlying threat to peace in the Middle East.

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For six years, the hallmark of Obama administration’s foreign policy has been its predilection for embracing foes and distressing allies like Saudi Arabia. President Obama’s determination to pursue détente with Iran, a deadly threat to the Saudis as well as to Israel, has shaken ties between the two countries. But the death of Saudi King Abdullah has caused both the president and his administration to belatedly attempt to repair the relationship. That is smart. But in doing so, it appears that the administration has once again faltered. The U.S.-Saudi alliance is one based on common interests, not values. Like the president’s choice to attend the king’s funeral after snubbing the Paris unity rally after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the decision by the Pentagon to sponsor an essay contest on Arab and Muslim issues in honor of the king’s memory is a spectacular example of how tone deaf Obama’s Washington is to the nature of the underlying threat to peace in the Middle East.

There is no better example of an alliance of interests but not values than the long and, in some ways, quite close, relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom is a medieval anachronism in many ways with its despotic form of government and its devotion to Wahabi Islam, an extreme and quite aggressive variant of the Muslim faith. But America’s interest in the free flow of oil from the Arabian Peninsula and stability in the Middle East has tied it to the Saudi monarchy, which, in turn has clung to the U.S. as a shield against even more radical Islamists, especially Iran. Thus, the Saudis are rightly alarmed at the administration’s retreat from a policy of rigorous opposition to Tehran and, to their amazement, find themselves more in agreement with Israel than with the U.S. on the most important issue facing the region.

This is an American blunder of huge proportions, but this type of fawning on the Saudis cannot make up for it. What exactly are we honoring when we ask scholars or military officers enrolled at the National Defense University to take part in such an exercise?

While the U.S.-Saudi alliance is important to the security of both nations, honoring Abdullah is, by definition, treating the political and religious culture that he exemplified as somehow compatible with the values of the American government and its military. By soliciting essays about the Arab and Muslim world, it will be inviting work that will not give the unsparing criticism of Saudi Arabia that is deserved.

The Saudis may be crucial to Middle East stability but the Wahabi monarchy is also a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is backward in its attitudes toward human rights and the treatment of women. Its brand of authoritarianism may be preferable to that of Iran or terrorist groups like ISIS but it is also the reason why many Muslims have come to think of the radicals as viable alternatives. Its intolerance for religious minorities is a scandal especially at a time when so many Western leaders are at pains to promote Islam as a religion of peace.

The spectacle of the leader of the free world paying a personal tribute to a backward feudal monarch or kowtowing to his successor does neither country much good. Nor will essays honoring the role of Abdullah enable the future leaders of America’s defense establishment to understand what the U.S. needs to do to promote stability or productive change.

What it needs is a policy that stands up to genuine threats to the Middle East like Iran instead of efforts to appease Islamists. At the same time, it needs to make it clear that our national interests have not compromised American values that are offended by everything the Saudis stand for.

The Obama administration has done the opposite in both cases. That means we are promoting insecurity while also reinforcing the worst instincts of a reactionary regime badly in need of reform. In doing so, it is laying the foundation for a future in which the U.S. will have neither allies nor common values with any nation in the Arab and Muslim worlds, including those who are now its allies.

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U.S.-Saudi Relations After Abdullah

The death of King Abdullah provides a good opportunity to reflect on the long and troubled relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

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The death of King Abdullah provides a good opportunity to reflect on the long and troubled relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

It is not, by any stretch, an obvious or easy or natural alliance. The U.S. is the land of the free; Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive societies on the planet, a country where not only do the people have no say in the selection of their leaders but where bloggers are flogged and women are prevented from driving. The U.S. is animated by Enlightenment ideals, Saudi Arabia by the fundamentalist Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Yet since the 1940s the fortunes of these two countries have been closely linked. For many years the relationship could be described simply as: The Saudis give us oil, we give the Saudis security. This is still, for the most part, true. Even if our reliance on Saudi oil is down and we have become more energy self-sufficient, Saudi Arabia is still the second-largest source of imported oil in the U.S. after Canada. And Saudi Arabia still very much depends on American weapons, American military advisers, and ultimately an implicit American security guarantee, manifested when President George H.W. Bush sent troops to the Kingdom in 1990 to defend it against Iraqi aggression.

A few events, in more recent years, have greatly complicated the relationship. First, of course, was 9/11: 15 out of 19 hijackers were Saudis as was the leader of al-Qaeda–Osama bin Laden. This revealed the malignant consequences of the Saudis’ fundamentalist ideology, which gave rise to the world’s most dangerous terrorist group. But when al-Qaeda began to target Saudi Arabia, the Saudis fought back, mobilizing their highly effective bureaucracy of repression to stamp out terrorist attacks. This more or less restored the Saudis to American good graces.

Then a decade after 9/11 came the Arab Spring. With change sweeping the Middle East, the Saudis emerged as the primary champions of repressive stability, playing a role similar to that of the Holy Alliance (Russia, Austria, Prussia) which put down liberal uprisings in Europe in the 19th century. The Saudis even sent their troops into neighboring Bahrain to stamp out Shiite protests, much like the tsar sending his army into Hungary to maintain Austrian rule during the revolutions of 1848. This offended American sensibilities but did not seriously disturb the alliance because the U.S. was also ambivalent about the Arab Spring uprisings, as evidence by our confused policy toward Egypt.

Now, however, a very different and potentially more serious rift is growing between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over relations with Iran. President Obama is intent on an entente with Tehran. He is desperate for a deal over Iran’s nuclear program that will prepare the way for a broader realignment in the Middle East where Iran could become a partner, rather than an adversary, of the U.S. This is evident in the fact that the U.S. is doing so little to oppose Iranian imperial expansion in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, among other places, where the Obama administration naively sees Iran and its proxies as allies against ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The Saudis have a very different view. They hate Iran not only because it is a Shiite state and therefore composed of infidels in the eyes of pious Wahhabis but also because Iran is a revolutionary, expansionist state that is challenging Sunni power throughout the region. And Saudi Arabia, as the richest and largest of the Gulf oil kingdoms, has long seen itself as the primary Sunni champion. Thus the Saudis sponsor proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen to wage war on Iran and its proxies. Unfortunately suspicion is rife that some of those who have received Saudi support include jihadists such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.

The Saudis are apoplectic that President Obama is flirting with the Iranian mullahs. They want the U.S. to bomb Iran, not to make a deal with it. And they want the U.S. to take tougher action against Iranian proxies such as Bashar Assad, not to reach deals and understandings with them as Obama has done.

Much as it pains me to say it, my country is wrong and Saudi Arabia is right. Obama’s outreach to Iran will not succeed; Iranian revolutionaries who still chant “Death to America” will not make common cause with us. And the price of flirting with them is to drive Sunnis, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, further into the camp of the jihadists.

From a moral standpoint, admittedly, there is little to choose from between Saudi Arabia and Iran: both are despotic theocracies that are anathema to American values. But from a strategic standpoint, Iran is much more of a threat to the U.S. and our allies.

A useful analogy here is World War II where we had to choose an alliance with the lesser evil (Stalin) to defeat the greater evil (Hitler). It would have made no sense to go the other way, as some on the far-right were advocating in the 1930s; in other words, to team up with Hitler against Stalin. Yet that is akin to what Obama is trying to do today. He would be better advised to hold his nose and restore closer ties with the Saudis, who, however odious, are still a better bet than the Iranians.

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Will Saudi Arabia be Next to Fall?

After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.

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After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.

Human rights groups and journalists tend to focus on Bahrain. There certainly are myriad problems in that Arab island nation, but the focus is disproportionate, determined more by access than by degree of repression. While the Bahraini government uses rubber bullets, the Saudis prefer live ammunition, especially when the protesters are Shi’ites in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

If unrest strikes Saudi Arabia and if the monarchy falls, the results could reverberate further than former Egyptian President Mubarak’s fall:

  • It’s one thing for Libyan oil to temporarily go offline, and quite another for Saudi oil to do so. Then again, if the White House encouraged greater shale exploitation, new pipelines, and new drilling offshore, then it could blunt any future Saudi oil shock. Even at the best of times, that’s a good idea.
  • Saudi Arabia, like it or not, has been a key U.S. ally. Despite the conspiracy-ridden and often anti-Semitic blogosphere, America has never gone to war for Israel. It has, however, gone to war for Saudi Arabia. Kuwait’s 1991 liberation was as much about protecting Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression as it was about freeing the tiny emirate. If the Kingdom fell, upon whom in the Arab Middle East could the United States really count?
  • On the other hand, when President Obama leads from behind, the country from behind which he leads is, more often than not, Saudi Arabia. Republicans are in no position to castigate the president for deference to Riyadh, however, because so many Republican presidents and secretaries have also sucked at the Saudi teat. Freed from the Saudi constraint, how might U.S. policy be different?
  • There is a reason why Saudi Arabia has been an ally. Saudi Arabia may have incubated al-Qaeda and extremism, but they have also cooperated greatly on counter-terrorism. If the Saudi regime falls, would a new government be so forthcoming with counter terror aid and assistance?
  • Next to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is most likely to fracture into its constituent parts if it ever faces state failure. The Hejaz might be more cosmopolitan and moderate, but Iran would make a full-court press to become the predominant influence in the Eastern Province. That could be the death knell for a more moderate regime in Bahrain. The question is what extremists in the Nejd would do, and whether they could be contained. What might happen if more extreme elements consolidate control across the country?
  • Whether or not Saudi Arabia has been an American ally, its influence across the Islamic world has certainly been as malignant as Iran’s. If the Kingdom collapsed, would such subsidies continue? As some of my AEI colleagues have pointed out, for all the billions of dollars they have expended, the Saudis have failed to win hearts and minds across the broader region. Simply put, no one likes the Saudis. If the Western economy was shielded from a Saudi descent into chaos, would anyone really care?
  • The end of the Saudi gravy train would reverberate not only across countries, but also among institutions in the United States. The Saudis have generously funded universities, think tanks, public relations firms, lobbyists, advocacy groups like CAIR, and writers. The Mujahedin al-Khalq in recent years may have exposed how so many American figures follow the dollar sign rather than principle, but that’s nothing compared to what the Saudis have managed. Who would fill that void, if anyone?  Perhaps the world would be a better place if the advice put forward on the back of Saudi petrodollars no longer received such a favorable hearing in Washington, and if students were no longer indoctrinated by the curriculum Saudi oil money bought.

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