How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The White House recently announced that U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Saudi Arabia in April as part of an overseas trip, with additional stops in Germany and the United Kingdom. The statement came as no surprise; the United States and the countries that constitute the Gulf Cooperation Council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—had agreed to convene sometime this year after their Camp David summit last May, during which they issued a joint statement reaffirming the United States’ commitment to the Gulf’s security.
The visit does come at an awkward time, however. In the wake of recent statements by Obama and by the candidates in the U.S. presidential primaries, Washington’s commitment to the region is under increasing scrutiny. In a March article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, Obama is quoted as criticizing Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policies and questioning whether Arabia is still a friend of the United States. The article elicited an overwhelmingly negative response from Saudis on social and traditional media.
The most noteworthy reaction thus far has been that of Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was the head of Saudi intelligence for almost 30 years and was ambassador to both the United States and the United Kingdom. In a scathing opinion piece in the English-language daily Arab News, Faisal strongly criticized the president’s assessment of the efficacy of U.S.-Saudi relations, taking particular issue with Obama’s apparent inclusion of Saudi Arabia on a list of allies that he characterized as “free-riders.”
Obama implied that Saudi Arabia was not doing enough in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). He also suggested that the country had contributed to the rise of Islamist militant groups by funding Wahhabi religious and educational institutions around the world. For their part, Saudi officials have become increasingly frustrated with Western dismissals of their contributions to counterterrorism, especially given that they have arrested hundreds of ISIS supporters inside Saudi Arabia and have taken what they see as adequate measures to ensure that the institutions they support abroad—and at home—do not propagate extremist ideologies.
Either way, Obama is not the only U.S. figure the Saudis are watching. Across the world, the rise of the businessman Donald Trump as a contender for the presidency has stunned. In the past, there has been a widespread perception among Saudis that Republican administrations have been stronger supporters of Saudi Arabia than Democratic ones. But that sentiment does not seem to extend to Trump. In light of some of his comments about Islam, which he evidently views as a “problem” that can be mitigated by instituting a ban on Muslim immigrants—he has been portrayed in Saudi Arabia’s mainstream media as a divisive figure out to prey on the fears and insecurities of a relatively small segment of the U.S. population. Although some Saudis have suggested that Trump might moderate his views during the general elections to broaden his support, others fear that the Islamophobia he is stoking will lead to a backlash and bolster the ranks of militant Islamist groups around the world.
Meanwhile, some of Washington’s harshest critics have declared that Trump, far from just a cynical vote maximizer, is the true face of America. The fact that Trump has criticized Saudi Arabia on his Twitter account on several occasions—perhaps motivated in part by a row with Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, with whom Trump has had business dealings in the past—also hurts his appeal.
Although no comprehensive poll has been conducted to gauge how Saudis feel about the prospect of a Trump presidency, dozens of newspaper headlines and hundreds of Twitter comments suggest that it is not one that most Saudis would welcome. Saudi media have gleefully covered the emotionally charged atmosphere that has characterized many of Trump’s rallies as well as some of the violent incidents that have taken place between his supporters and detractors. Meanwhile, Trump’s reluctance—or perhaps inability—to speak about U.S.-Saudi relations in any detail makes it difficult to predict whether he would seek to strengthen relations with the Saudis. In addition, some of the foreign policy advisers he named earlier in the week, including Walid Phares, are known to be unsupportive of strong bilateral relations.
That is not to say that the leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, generates wide enthusiasm among Saudis, either. To be sure, Clinton seems to elicit some excitement from a segment of Saudis; a prominent Saudi female writer tweeted in support of Clinton “not because she is a woman but because she carries a noble civil rights message that will positively impact the entire world.” But much of her backing seems to be due to the fact that she isn’t Trump. Statements on the campaign trail suggest that Clinton might be a stronger preference for the Middle Eastern status quo ante, which includes a strong Saudi Arabia.
At any rate, for some Saudis, both options may look a bit better (or at least not much worse) than Obama, who is referred to reflexively as “the worst U.S. president” in recent times. To understand why, it is worth remembering Obama’s famous 2009 Cairo speech, in which he positioned himself as an antidote for the George W. Bush years. Perhaps it is because he set such high expectations that Saudis have been disappointed. In fact, a recent article in the mainstream daily Okaz referred to the speech as a grand “deception.” Still others wrote opinion pieces in widely read newspapers such as Al Riyadh, Al Watan, and Al Madina that assailed him for “weakness,” “inconsistency,” and even “hypocrisy.”
Obama’s initial support of the Arab Spring in 2011 confirmed for some that he was a man of principles. But for Saudis, many of whom are weary of the destabilizing effects of sudden changes to political and social institutions, Obama’s perceived abandonment of longtime U.S. and Saudi ally Hosni Mubarak was troubling. Mubarak was considered one of Saudi Arabia’s most reliable allies in the region, and his ouster and replacement with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was viewed as a cataclysmic upending of the political order in Egypt and potentially the entire Middle East. The Saudis have long blamed Muslim Brotherhood affiliates who sought asylum in the kingdom from repression in Egypt and Syria in the 1950s and 1960s for introducing political Islam to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government even designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014, although King Salman’s position on the group seems more ambiguous that than that of his predecessor, King Abdullah.
The ultimate turning point, though, was Obama’s sudden reversal on air strikes against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces after Assad crossed Obama’s self-imposed “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in the summer of 2013. Syria, Saudi officials argue, is where Iran’s meddling in the Arab world must be stopped. They’ve also repeatedly maintained that Assad’s brutality is what enables ISIS to continue to recruit followers from around the world.
And so, by the time the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran kicked off, Saudi Arabia was already primed to be suspicious of Obama. The country still considers Iran as a threat to its security and interests across the region and was concerned that a deal would further embolden Tehran in its sponsorship of instability across the region. Riyadh wanted firm assurances from Washington that the nuclear inspection regime would be robust and that the agreement would contain provisions that would allow sanctions to be “snapped back” in the case of Iranian violations of its terms.
The United States seems to have succeeded in somewhat allaying Saudi Arabia’s concerns about the agreement. Although Riyadh eventually did give its official support to the nuclear agreement, it is largely seen by the Saudi public as a capitulation by the United States. A number of Obama’s interviews over the past few months suggest that he sees an Iran that is reintegrated into the international community as the key to the stability of the Middle East, a sentiment that shocks most Saudis.
Given such a record, Clinton might thus represent an opportunity for some marginal gains in U.S.-Saudi relations; she seems to have a greater appreciation for the value of relations with Saudi Arabia than Obama. Saudis must have been cheered, for example, by the suggestion in Goldberg’s article that Clinton, as Obama’s secretary of state during his first term, advocated a stern response to Assad at an early stage of the conflict. Also welcome have been her remarks during the campaign that indicate that she—unlike Obama—thinks the United States can help bring the bloodshed in Syria to an end by adopting a more assertive role, including the imposition of a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Just as important, Clinton does not seem particularly eager to continue Obama’s rapprochement with Iran and has generally adopted a tougher line on Iranian policies in the region.
And Trump, on the other hand, could usher in a somewhat more complicated era. He maintained during a recent debate that sending 30,000 troops to Syria might be necessary to destroy ISIS; his grandiose foreign policy declarations and simplistic framing of complex social and political problems do not inspire much confidence in most Saudis. And although Trump has promised to “renegotiate” the Iran nuclear deal should he become president, his image in the minds of Saudis might already be irreparably tarnished.
Either way, and in light of the perception that the United States has started to walk back its traditional role as “policeman” of the Middle East, an increasing number of Saudis have advocated lessening the kingdom’s reliance on the United States in security matters. Not only is Saudi Arabia leading a military coalition of ten states in Yemen against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels, but the Saudis have also initiated an even broader “Islamic” coalition whose stated objective is to root out terrorist groups, regardless of their sectarian affiliation. However, few Saudis call for a major parting of ways. Saudis continue to buy U.S. weapons and goods in the billions, and thousands of Saudis visit the United States for education, tourism, and medical treatment. And so, no matter the president, Saudi Arabia will likely continue to stick with the United States because there aren’t too many other options.