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Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, he has yet to put forward a clear foreign policy framework for U.S.-Saudi relations. Instead, observers must wade through a bog of ad hoc comments. This month, Trump made his view clear that Washington should not offer free protection to Gulf states. He has also said that Gulf states “have nothing but money” and that he intends to make them pay for future “safe zones” in Syria. At the same time, Trump has expressed his desire to improve relations with Gulf states in general in order to tackle Iran’s “destabilizing regional activities.”
For their part, and notwithstanding Trump’s harsher comments, the Saudis see in the new president an opportunity to enhance their relationship with the United States and repair the rift created by former U.S. President Barack Obama’s championing of the Iran nuclear agreement. They rejoiced, for example, when Trump described Iran as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and questioned the rationale behind the nuclear deal. If Trump undermines the nuclear agreement and continues to maintain and even expand sanctions against Iran, the Saudis will welcome it. Such moves would assure Riyadh that Saudi Arabia remains at the center of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Regardless of the path Washington pursues with Iran, however, Trump should rethink important elements of the so-called special relationship with Saudi Arabia. Specifically, the United States should cease to offer unconditional support for the regime, as such backing legitimizes the regime’s excesses and makes Washington vulnerable to accusations of supporting dictatorship. To be sure, Washington should not sever relations with Riyadh, but there are good reasons for redefining the relationship in ways that protect the United States.
Ever since U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met the founder of the kingdom, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, on board USS Quincy in February 1945, oil, security, and Saudi Arabia’s strategic location have been reason enough for Washington to support the country against all odds. For more than seven decades, the basic framework of the relationship has remained intact.
But what may have made strategic sense during the Cold War no longer does today. Consider energy. The United States today is nowhere near as dependent on Saudi oil as it was in decades past. What’s worse, Saudi Arabia has in recent years attempted to drive U.S. shale oil companies out of business by flooding the market with cheap oil, making alternative energy sources more expensive and unappealing in the process.
In a similar way, Saudi Arabia was a useful U.S. security ally during the Cold War. In addition to its oil and strategic location, its conservative Wahhabi version of Islam served the purpose of distancing the region’s Muslims from radical nationalism and communism. However, this short-term policy helped foment a global jihadist crisis that was brewing in the caves of Afghanistan in the 1980s, resulting in severe unintended consequences the West is still dealing with today. The 9/11 attacks momentarily fractured the close partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Given that 15 out of 19 hijackers were Saudis, Americans began to ask whether the kingdom was their friend or their foe. Sadly, successive U.S. administrations have never dealt with the question in ways that would allow a reconsideration or reconfiguration of the pledge to unconditionally support the kingdom because they still believed that the Saudis were the best allies in the war on terrorism rather than incubators of terrorism.
According to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Arab human rights organizations, the Saudi regime has jailed hundreds of peaceful activists, bloggers, lawyers, judges, journalists, and religious scholars since the Arab Spring of 2011. If the someone criticizes the king’s policies in the press or on Twitter, for example, it is considered a criminal act and can land someone in jail. Establishing a political party, signing a petition calling for political reform, writing or even reading something deemed subversive: all are criminal acts.
The regime has jailed hundreds of peaceful activists, bloggers, lawyers, judges, journalists, and religious scholars since the Arab Spring of 2011.
Meanwhile, peaceful Saudi activists and demonstrators have been shot by security forces (since 2011, more than 25 Saudi Shiite activists have been killed in the Eastern Province) or faced the death penalty in prison. On New Year’s Eve in 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 49 prisoners in one night. Because the government does not allow any kind of peaceful protest, demonstrations, sit-ins, or petitions, some young Saudis gravitate toward religious extremism and terrorism. In Syria and Iraq alone, by 2013 around 2,500 Saudis had joined the radical rebels, the second-largest cohort of foreign fighters after Tunisians.
Women’s rights are still severely limited in Saudi Arabia. The country has one of the world’s worst gender gaps, standing at 134 out of 145 countries according to the World Economic Forum. The discrimination goes far beyond women simply not being allowed to drive a car. Regardless of age, Saudi women need the permission of male guardians to study, travel, seek employment, marry, and open a bank account. They cannot even receive medical care without the permission of their guardians. Women’s participation in the work force does not exceed 20 percent, despite the fact that they have achieved high levels of education.
Saudi women are totally disenfranchised. The regime delayed their participation in municipal elections until 2015, despite the fact that municipal councils are dysfunctional and remain subject to government control. (Municipalities are not local government councils; they receive their budget form the government and have limited powers. They have not been able to influence urban development schemes in ways that prevent flooding in major cities after flash floods or improve local recreation areas such as parks.) Former King Abdullah may have appointed 30 women to the Consultative Council (a policy that King Salman has continued), but the move was largely a symbolic one and does not translate into true empowerment.
Another reason to rethink U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia is the country’s regional ambitions and wars. In Yemen, the Saudis have used indiscriminate force against civilians in their campaign to eliminate the Houthi Shiites. So far, over 10,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict, many by U.S.-manufactured weapons purchased by Riyadh. The war has also empowered both al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), since both groups seek to destroy the Houthis.
In 2011, Saudi Arabia moved its troops into Bahrain to support the island’s Khalifa rulers in their effort to crush the country’s pro-democracy movement. Between 2011 and 2013, more than 122 Bahrainis were shot by the regime’s security forces. This happened only a few miles away from the Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy, which is stationed on the small island.
Although Saudi Arabia has claimed to support moderate rebels in Syria such as the defunct Free Syrian Army, weapons given to such rebels may have found their way to radical groups, for example Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. Saudi interventions have strengthened Islamist extremists at the expense of pro-democracy forces. In Syria, Saudi Arabia’s main objective has been to win a proxy war with Iran rather than bring democracy to the Syrian people.
Washington should not be seen as unconditionally supporting a counterrevolutionary force such as the Saudi monarchy. Those such as Texas A&M Professor F. Gregory Gause and James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, who argue that the United States has no choice but to continue to support the regime in an unstable and volatile Arab region, are shortsighted. Like Iran, Saudi Arabia is not a stabilizing force but a reactionary monarchy that seeks the survival of other allied authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. Its interventions in the region have contributed to the failure of the genuine drive toward democracy that started in 2011.
Saudi Arabia is not a stabilizing force but a reactionary monarchy that seeks the survival of other allied authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.
U.S. support should be conditioned on the regime introducing real rather than cosmetic political reforms. Washington should put pressure on King Salman and his successor to place the country on the road toward a free and elected government. Only political reform will truly open the public sphere and stifle extremism. A democratic government could absorb jihadist impulses, inspire marginalized and angry youth, and put Saudi Arabia on the right path to entering the twenty-first century on a solid foundation as a modern nation-state. Washington must likewise make arms sales and trade with Saudi Arabia conditional on the regime opening up to this kind of political reform.
Forcing the Saudis to pay for protection, as Trump suggested, is not the solution. Doing so would not only make the United States appear mercenary but also allow the Saudi regime and its ilk to continue their geopolitical blackmail. “Either us or the terrorists” is not a logical regime narrative. Such a discourse undermines Saudis’ ability to imagine a future in which they lead their country peacefully into the ranks of nations that respect their own citizens and the international community. Trump now has the opportunity to reconfigure the U.S.-Saudi relationship in ways that protect U.S. national interests. On this occasion, continuing with business as usual may actually be the riskiest policy of all.