Stuck in the Middle East With You - Reexamining the US - Saudi Alliance

Gregory Brew

The alliance between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), long an enduring and reliable feature of American foreign relations, has recently become highly strained. Relations between the Obama Administration and the court of King Salman are
cool; heavy criticism from U.S. Republican congressmen has greeted a recent $1.15 billion arms deal; and an emboldened U.S. Congress recently overrode the President’s veto to pass JASTA, which allows U.S. citizens to sue the Saudi government for involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

It’s clear that the decades-old relationship between Washington and Riyadh is entering a new phase. With the interests of the U.S. and the KSA no longer aligned, it’s time to acknowledge the new reality: the U.S. needs to back away from the House of Saud and work to end this alliance without upsetting regional stability.

Origins

Since ‘45, the USA-KSA alliance has thrived on mutual economic, diplomatic and military interests. The ultraconservative Saudi government opposed radical Middle Eastern regimes while supporting a stable system of regional energy production. The United States, in return,guaranteed the security of the  Gulf  and the sovereignty of the other five small, conservative, oil-rich Arab monarchies, bolstering the Kingdom’s internal legitimacy and external position. The relationship was bound together through frequent diplomatic relations, arms deals and a considerable U.S. military presence in the Gulf.

The New Order

The environment that gave birth to the alliance no longer exists, and for the USA-KSA relationship to remain relevant it must be re-evaluated. The security threat to Kingdom and the other Gulf States largely came from states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, backed by the Soviet Union. High oil prices made the West dependent upon oil from the Persian Gulf, which retained a significant share of global petroleum production.

With Iraq embroiled in its own problems, the role of regional troublemaker has shifted to the Islamic Republic of Iran, which the KSA sees as a major regional rival. The recent JCPOA deal with Iran has set off alarms in the Kingdom, stoking concerns that the US may no longer be as reliably anti-Iranian as it has before, leaving Riyadh somewhat on its own.   

Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy that governs itself through a mix of religious ideology and state-supported welfare funded through oil revenues. Observers worry that the Saudi state is becoming increasingly vulnerable to internal instability, particularly as oil prices fall and the financial burden on Riyadh grows. Criticism of the regime’s arcane legal system has increased, with the United Nations calling for the end of Saudi laws allowing children over the age of 15 to be stoned, flogged or executed.

Whose interests are served?

While the U.S. commits itself to undermining and fighting terrorism fueled by violent and anti-modern strains of Islam, manifest in groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the House of Saud uses its financial resources to fund Wahhabism, its ultraconservative brand of Islam, which is deeply resistant and antipathetic to the kind of modern, open society favored by the U.S. and its Western allies. Saudi foreign policy, including a bloody intervention in the Yemeni civil war and the funding of Islamist groups in Syria, seem largely in service of Saudi objectives that have little to do with American interests, and in many cases are at direct cross-purposes with them.

The passing of JASTA, while largely symbolic for the moment, represents the growing association within the United States of Saudi Arabia with radical terrorism. Blaming the House of Saud for the 9/11 terror attacks, despite the lack of evidence, shows an anger and distrust of Riyadh among average Americans that mirrors the frostiness in the official US-KSA relationship.

Recommendations

The U.S. does not benefit from its close relationship with the regime in Riyadh as much as it once did.  The US-KSA alliance has been such a fixture of international relations, breaking it quickly or suddenly could have disastrous effects. The United States should not back the KSA when it contributes to regional instability, either through its directionless war in Yemen or its antagonistic posturing against Iran. Neither, however, should it deploy acts like JASTA to put political pressure on Riyadh, or cosy up to Iran, another state led by a conservative theocracy with few mutual interests with the West. Instead, the U.S. should work to slowly move away from a close association with the Kingdom of Saud and shift its attentions towards fostering relationships with states elsewhere.

 

Gregory Brew is a PhD Candidate at Georgetown University studying the history of U.S. foreign relations with the Middle East and Iran, the political economy of international oil and global energy. He also writes on contemporary issues of energy and geopolitics and is a regular contributor to OilPrice.com. The views expressed here are those of the author.