With the web of interests and conflicts emanating from the Middle East growing increasingly complex, many observers have begun to voice more and more skepticism about the decades-long Saudi-U.S. alliance.
Objections to the United States continuing its relationship with the Saudi Kingdom fall into two basic categories. The first is the issue of the country’s less-than-perfect human rights record. This was a major factor within the Obama administration for forming its distancing stance towards the Saudis.
In regards to the country’s overt oppression of its women, for instance, Obama once remarked in 2016, “a country cannot function in the modern world when it is repressing half of its population.” It is this perception of Saudi Arabia as a gross human rights violator has that no doubt contributed to the massively deteriorating public opinion toward the country within the United States.
Second is the issue of support for global terror sourced in Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia, as a whole, espouses support for jihadist groups and contributes to fueling radicalism. This is primarily expressed in the educational and religious infrastructure in the country that both advances the principles of radical Islam and supports it financially.
This realization first hit the West following the September 11th attacks, in which 15 of the 19 perpetrators were Saudi. As New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman wrote months after the attacks: “The idea people who inspired the hijackers are religious leaders, pseudo-intellectuals, pundits, and educators [in] Saudi Arabia, which continues to use its vast oil wealth to spread its austere and intolerant brand of Islam, Wahhabism.”
Over the past several years, this reality has only increased in severity. Take, for instance, the insights gained from Wikileaks-exposed State Department communications from 2010, in which then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote unequivocally that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Clinton expressed her frustration that “it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”
The educational support for radicalism continues to be strong to this day. As David Andrew Weinberg, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, testified before Congress in July, Saudi culture still strongly supports and espouses radical ideology, and these principles are still part and parcel of the country’s educational system. Weinberg laid out examples of explicit directives to kill non-adherents to Islam, as well as messages that were violently anti-Semitic and anti-Christian, all being taught to school-age children.
Weinberg summed up his statement to Congress by categorizing this phenomenon in Saudi Arabia as a “national security issue,” as it directly produces radicalization, and in turn terror perpetrators, in the long term. This threat, explained Weinberg, is not limited to Saudi Arabia, but pertains to other countries as well. Elements in Saudi Arabia have exported educational material to countries throughout the Middle East, Asia and even Europe.
While these arguments contain weight, and should not be dismissed within specific policy discussions, they miss the boat on honing in on the benefits of the Saudi alliance for the United States.
First off, regarding the Saudi support for terror, specifically, the issue is not as clear-cut as many critics would like to portray. Saudi Arabian leaders also have an interest in eliminating jihadist groups, as many of them threaten their own soil. Al Qaeda, for instance, has been highly critical of the Saudi Royal Family, (who Osama Bin Laden thought of as a group of indulgent infidels) and is a sworn enemy of the Saudi state.
Saudi security forces have regularly targeted cells of militants in the country, often arresting groups involved in highly organized plots against the government. As for the indoctrination to radicalism within Saudi religious and educational institutions, even Andrew Weinberg admitted that Saudi officials have acknowledged the problem and have–at least in words–committed to correcting it.
But even this is engaging in apologetics, which has less significance within a geopolitical discourse. The importance of maintaining a relationship with the Saudis is not in vindicating the country’s leadership and culture.
The value of maintaining Saudi Arabia as an ally comes down to keeping a working relationship with a country that can help advance America’s interests in the Middle East. This is expressed primarily in two U.S. foreign policy concerns.
First is the issue of Iran’s containment. While the former administration may have sidelined its connection to Riyadh in order to solidify better relations with Iran, it is becoming increasingly clear that Iran’s quest for regional dominance, and even global reach, requires some strong-handed action.
From exporting weapons and training to regional conflicts, such as in the cases of the Houthis in Yemen and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, to indirectly supporting terror group operations in the Western Hemisphere, Iran has grown bolder over the past several years. This has only increased with the financial breathing room granted the Islamic Republic by the conditions of Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia has a substantial interest in keeping Iran busy and at bay. The coalition it leads in Yemen to combat Iran’s proxy fighters is the most obvious example of this interest in action.
The second interest in keeping ties with the Saudis strong may involve a long-term investment on the part of the U.S., but may prove to have profound implications for the Middle East.
Many signs are pointing to a genuine shift within Saudi Arabia to normalizing relations with the international community. One of the most important events in Saudi political history took place in early November when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began a series of arrests of political opponents on “corruption” charges. This move was perceived by many as the beginnings of a reform program by Prince Mohammed that could drastically alter Saudi Arabia’s character.
Since emerging as a central power holder in Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed has taken some surprising actions, uncharacteristic of the ultra-conservative, isolationist stance generally attributed to the country.
On the diplomatic side, Salman invited the Maronite Patriarch of Lebanon, Beshara Rai at Al-Yamamah, to Riyadh, shortly after the purge took place. This was the first instance of such a Christian leader visiting the Saudi Kingdom. Culturally, Prince Mohammed has loosened many of the intense restrictions on public activities and events. The Comic-Con convention, for instance, that took place in February in the city of Jeddah was said to have been the result of Muhammed’s efforts.
Economic reform has also seen some significant progress as of late. The recently announced “2030 Plan” seeks to move the country’s economy away from the oil sector, expand the private sector, and perhaps most importantly, attract foreign development and investment. While the actual effectiveness of these programs is still in question from economists, the very fact that they were even proposed shows a profound shift in how Saudi leaders are looking to interact with the broader international community.
While Saudi Arabia is far from a beacon of Western values, and likely never will be, recent reforms in the country have shown elements that important to the U.S. from a strategic perspective. They are: (1) efforts to rid the leadership of corruption, (2) efforts to create a diversified economy, networked more broadly with global markets, and (3) an openness to normalizing relations with international partners.
As this trend continues in the Saudi Kingdom, it will become increasingly beneficial for the U.S. to maintain its relations with the country. Over time, the progress of the Saudis could produce a nation that is exporting reform and modernization instead of Wahhabism. It is important that the U.S. stay close to the Saudis as they are undergoing this change, and show their support for every step leadership takes in this new direction. In this way, America will continue to cultivate its relationship with a powerful Middle East partner, one capable of cooperation on a diverse spectrum of economic and security interests.