Saudi Arabia’s execution last week of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, for peacefully protesting the kingdom’s discriminatory anti-Shiite policies has escalated sectarian tensions in the Middle East and plunged Saudi-Iranian relations to a new low. The rupture in diplomatic ties between the two countries could worsen the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and complicate efforts to end them; it could also undercut the U.S.-led campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.
The execution of Nimr is the latest episode in a broader pattern of Saudi foreign and domestic policies that has caused serious rifts in a once close partnership and raises profound questions about its future.
At home, the Saudi government is a serial abuser of human rights, and its treatment of women and the kingdom’s large Shiite minority is sharply at odds with U.S. values and global norms. Its intolerance has become more troubling since the succession in early 2015 from King Abdullah to King Salman. Salman seems more inclined than his predecessor to appease the ultraconservative and puritanical Wahhabi clerical establishment and other conservative Islamist forces in the country. His 30-year-old son, Mohammad, the deputy crown prince, second deputy prime minister, and minister of defense, also seems to be a major impetus for the harsher, more irresponsible Saudi policies, in part because of his competition for power with Muhammad bin Nayef, the crown prince and minister of the interior, which creates incentives for the king’s son to curry favor with conservatives.
Abroad, the Saudis have been a wellspring of extremism. The kingdom bears a historic responsibility for the spread of Salafi jihad in the region. The theology propagated abroad by Wahhabi clerics, with the full support of Saudi rulers, is one of the major influences behind ISIS’ odious religious doctrine. To be sure, Riyadh has made significant progress curbing private Saudi financing of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Nonetheless, private Saudi money is still reaching Islamist extremist groups in Syria, and wealthy Saudis continue to donate funds to Islamic militant groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Saudi royal family has also been less than diligent in cracking down on wealthy Saudi individuals and charitable organizations that pump vast sums of money into fundamentalist religious schools and mosques throughout the Islamic world. Many of these institutions preach a twisted interpretation of the Koran that is intolerant of other religions and easily used to justify barbaric acts against “nonbelievers.”
Saudi Arabia’s moves in the Persian Gulf have likewise been less than helpful. In 2011, the Saudis aided the government of Bahrain as it brutally put down peaceful pro-democracy protests. Although Riyadh recently reopened its embassy in Baghdad, it has generally refused to engage Shiite-led governments in Baghdad, which has undermined incentives for Shiite-Sunni cooperation.
The Saudi government has recently played a constructive role in trying to organize the Syrian opposition for peace negotiations, but it continues to arm and finance extremist groups in Syria that the United States would prefer to exclude from negotiations. The Saudi military has made only a token contribution to the U.S.-led global coalition against ISIS, and Saudi aircraft have reportedly participated in no strikes since September of last year. ISIS poses an existential threat to the Saudi monarchy—it is no such threat to the United States.
Even though Saudi actions have exacerbated the extremism now engulfing the Middle East, successive U.S. governments have continued to coddle Saudi rulers. While Saudi Arabia has taken a back seat against ISIS, its bombing of Houthi rebels in Yemen has continued with great fervor, diverting forces that the Saudis and their Arab allies should be using to defeat ISIS. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama supported the Saudi intervention to buy Saudi quiescence on the Iran nuclear deal and to reassure the Saudis that the United States was a reliable ally. Washington also saw the intervention as a positive example of a regional ally dealing with its own problems rather than asking the United States to solve them. There are probably many administration officials who now regret this decision: Saudi military intervention in Yemen has been a disaster. It has caused thousands of civilian deaths and enormous damage to civilian infrastructure; a naval blockade by the Saudi-led coalition has prevented the delivery of humanitarian relief to thousands of suffering Yemenis. ISIS and al Qaeda fighters are filling the vacuums created by Saudi military intervention.
Riyadh’s recent announcement of a 34-nation Islamic alliance to combat global terrorism—which excluded the important Islamic countries Afghanistan, Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, and Iraq—is window-dressing. Its real motivations, most experts believe, are to pursue the kingdom’s obsessive anti-Iranian and sectarian agenda and to deflect U.S. and Western criticism that Saudi Arabia is not doing enough to combat jihadist extremism.
Even though Saudi actions have exacerbated the extremism now engulfing the Middle East, successive U.S. governments have continued to coddle Saudi rulers. To calm the Saudis’ never-ending anxieties, Washington has repeatedly issued private and public high-level statements reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Saudi security. As any good psychologist could have predicted, this approach has only fed more anxiety and more requests for reassurances that Saudi rulers do not believe. Over the years, Washington has also fed Riyadh a steady diet of sophisticated weapons to demonstrate its security commitment. These weapons have been grossly misused in Yemen, possibly in violation of international law; have been used very sparingly in the fight against ISIS; and are irrelevant in dealing with domestic instability, the most serious threat to the House of Saud.
Washington has been the kingdom’s chief enabler for five reasons. First, there was the United States’ consumption of Saudi oil. Contrary to popular perceptions, Saudi Arabia never supplied the majority of U.S. oil imports. The country used to ship oil to the United States at a discount for political reasons, and now it ships to the United States because it has financial stakes in the U.S. oil refinery market. The Saudis currently supply only 10 percent of a shrunken amount of U.S. imports. Oil prices continue to head south and are likely to remain low for quite some time thanks to a glut of oil in the market. More to the point, Riyadh needs the revenue from oil sales more than the United States needs Saudi oil, and it will export oil to its main customers in the Asia-Pacific region.
Second, massive arms sales to the kingdom have been a huge windfall for U.S. defense contractors and enjoy strong support in Congress. The U.S. military also supports these sales as a way to increase the capacity of Saudi forces to cooperate effectively with and support U.S. forces in coalition operations. This military supply relationship, however, has distorted U.S. policy toward the region because it disposes Washington to give Riyadh a pass on its irresponsible behavior. Further, as in Syria, it hasn’t actually resulted in much joint military cooperation, and unlike in the past, the U.S. military no longer depends on Saudi Arabia to sustain large-scale military operations in the region.
Third, the United States and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed a productive partnership on counterterrorism and intelligence sharing under bin Nayef, the crown prince. But cooperating on counterterrorism also serves Saudi interests in combating terrorist threats to the kingdom. Riyadh is thus not going to cut it off if Washington takes a tougher line on Riyadh’s regional policies.
Fourth, Saudi support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was once seen as critical to achieving a two-state solution. But the peace process is on life support at best, and Saudi Arabia has recently embraced Hamas, a group that is still on the U.S. terrorist list. Faint hopes for a two-state solution tomorrow are no reason to coddle Saudi Arabia today.
Finally, U.S. administrations always fear that a public falling-out with the monarchy could embolden its rivals, which are for the most part reactionary and liable to act even more irresponsibly than Saudi rulers. The United States has stuck to a “business as usual” approach with the kingdom, despite its downsides, out of fear that the royal family is the last bulwark against a radical Islamist takeover. Although this is a long-term concern of many Saudi watchers, it remains a highly unlikely scenario as long as Saudi rulers enjoy the support of the Saudi military and National Guard.
The United States has significant leverage over the kingdom; it just needs the political will to use it. For these reasons, additional reassurance and sales of sophisticated weapons will have little positive impact on Saudi behavior; telling the Saudis to pound sand would be an ill-advised and extreme overreaction that would undermine U.S. credibility with other Middle Eastern partners. Instead, Obama should inform Salman privately that the United States is dissatisfied with its security partnership with Saudi Arabia and that it expects greater Saudi cooperation in protecting shared interests. Until Washington sees Riyadh taking more effective and aggressive actions to combat ISIS, crack down on private charitable networks that fund and support jihadist causes, de-escalate tensions with Iran, tamp down sectarianism, and address domestic threats to stability, the United States will suspend the delivery of all logistics and intelligence support for Saudi forces in Yemen.
The United States has significant leverage over the kingdom; it just needs the political will to use it. The Saudi armed forces are highly dependent on U.S. weapons, training, logistics, and intelligence support. The United States also provides important training and support to Saudi Ministry of Interior forces and for the protection of critical infrastructure. The royal family continues to place a high value on its American connection, symbolized in large measure by U.S. arms sales, and understands that the United States is the ultimate guarantor of its security. Saudi leaders already dread the thought of the United States seeking a more normal relationship with Iran and need U.S. backing more than ever as relations with Tehran deteriorate. Applying all this leverage could help bring about much-needed changes in Saudi behavior.
There is no guarantee that a more confrontational approach would work, but it is almost certain that Saudi Arabia will continue to act in ways that harm U.S. interests if there is no price for them to pay. It is possible, even likely, that Salman will spurn Obama and lash out in some way in response to a cutoff of U.S. military assistance for the war in Yemen. As an alternative to the U.S. security umbrella, Riyadh might conclude major weapons deals with other countries. But it is unlikely to put Saudi security in the hands of Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main backer, or even China, which is assiduously cultivating close diplomatic, energy, and commercial relations with Iran and is loath to make security commitments to other countries. The United Kingdom and France would happily sell more weapons to the Saudis, but neither country can replace the U.S. security commitment. Nor are they likely to tilt too far toward Saudi Arabia lest they jeopardize their budding rapprochement with Iran.
There is also a risk that Saudi Arabia might pursue a nuclear weapons program if it loses confidence in the U.S. security guarantee. This would be a very drastic response, however, with negative diplomatic, security, and financial consequences. The more likely reaction from Riyadh would be to cut off counterterrorism assistance that benefits the United States more than the Saudis; it is also possible that Riyadh could become a more difficult partner in the Syrian peace negotiations, although its positions are more likely to be driven by Saudi interests and priorities in Syria rather than its broader relationship with the United States.
These are serious risks, but they need to be weighed against the costs of a relationship with Saudi Arabia that undermines U.S. security and is ultimately unsustainable. When an ally’s policies threaten important national interests—and when positive incentives have not produced the desired change in behavior—then the United States must use its power to coerce the necessary changes instead. The United States has arrived at this long-overdue moment for Saudi Arabia to pay the piper.
Indeed, the Obama administration has already begun to show the utility of this approach in the run-up to the conclusion of the Iran nuclear agreement. Saudi Arabia objected vociferously, and in a fit of pique, the king stayed away from the May 2015 Camp David Summit that was intended to convince Gulf Cooperation Council leaders of the virtues of the deal. But the United States held firm, and when the headlines faded, the Saudis noticed that they had no cards to play and simply had to swallow the deal. The lesson is clear: the United States has leverage. The only question is whether Washington will choose to use it.