Middle East

The United States and Saudi Arabia: Is Partnership Necessary?


Jamal Khashoggi’s death has called into question the relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When a Saudi critic and lawful permanent resident of the United States is murdered, apparently at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), Americans will naturally wonder whether an ostensible U.S. ally really should be treated as such. President Trump stands by MBS—even as the CIA believes the Crown Prince ordered Khashoggi’s death—but few American policymakers likely believe him.

President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Meeting in the Oval Office
Image Courtesy of the White House © 2017

Even before Khashoggi’s death, though, Americans had reasons to doubt the benefits of close ties to Saudi Arabia. With the Kingdom’s disastrous intervention in Yemen, changes in the global oil market, and the dark side of MBS’s modernization drives, U.S. policymakers have ample cause to reconsider how beneficial an alignment with the Kingdom truly is. For both moral and strategic reasons, Americans should begin to reevaluate U.S.-Saudi relations.

For more than three years, a Saudi-led coalition has waged a devastating war in Yemen to eject Iranian-supported Houthi forces from power. The conflict has led to the deaths of over 17,000 civilians and displaced approximately two million more. In April 2018, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the situation in Yemen as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” noting that, “more than 22 million people–three-quarters of [Yemen’s] population–need humanitarian aid and protection.” All the while, both Presidents Obama and Trump approved billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

But there is momentum in Congress to reevaluate the U.S. role in Yemen. As early as March 2017, 55 Representatives wrote to President Trump to oppose “direct support for the anti-Houthi coalition,” which he was then considering. In September 2018, after the U.S. State Department certified that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were “undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians,” Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) called the statement “a farce.” A month later, in response to the death of Khashoggi, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) argued the United States “really needs to discontinue [its] arms sales to Saudi Arabia.” And on November 28, the Senate voted 63 to 37 to advance a resolution to sharply limit U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict, over the objections of the Trump administration. These are encouraging steps.

Another rationale for close U.S.-Saudi relations is the protection of Persian Gulf oil. In his 1980 State of the Union address, President Jimmy Carter declared that if “any outside force” (in practice the Soviet Union) attempted to dominate the Gulf area, he would consider it “an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America.” A decade later, when Iraq invaded Kuwait–and observers worried it would attempt to seize Saudi oil fields next–President George H.W. Bush sent nearly 600,000 troops to the region to repel the invasion.

Events over the past decade, however, have fundamentally shifted America’s role in the global oil sector. Thanks largely to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the United States has become the world’s largest producer of crude oil. This makes it difficult to justify the resources America devotes to protecting oil half a world away. In September 2018, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) compared six estimates by economic, scientific, and security experts of how much the U.S. military spends protecting Gulf oil supplies. The estimates averaged $81 billion in 2017. Even as approximately one-third of all oil transported by sea flows through the Strait of Hormuz, an America less dependent on Middle Eastern oil can afford to place the flow of that oil lower on its list of priorities.

Finally, there is Mohammad bin Salman’s ruthless authoritarianism. The Crown Prince has earned plaudits for his efforts to modernize the Kingdom, from diversifying the Saudi economy to lifting the country’s ban on women driving cars. But even before allegedly ordering Khashoggi’s death, there were signs that MBS was wielding power in a heavy-handed manner. In November 2017, his government detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and attempted to force him to resign for being, in the words of the New York Times, “not sufficiently obedient to his Saudi patrons.” That same month, more than 200 Saudis, including princes, government ministers, and businessmen, were arrested on corruption charges, a move that to some observers seemed more like MBS undermining possible rivals.  And since May 2018, at least a dozen women’s rights activists, some of whom had campaigned for the right to drive, have been arrested. In an October 16 column, the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman declared, “I believe that the promise of M.B.S., however much you did or did not think he could bring…reform, is finished.”

Arms sales to Saudi Arabia make the United States complicit in a humanitarian catastrophe, with no gain for the United States. America’s abundance of domestic oil means it can spend less protecting Gulf oil. And MBS’s unnecessary brutality makes a mockery of his image as a reformer. For these reasons, the United States must ask itself whether it truly needs to consider Saudi Arabia a partner.

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