Saudi Arabia: The Choice the United States Has to Make
Paul R. Pillar. The National Interest. December 16, 2018
The simple notion that any enemy of my enemy is my friend is overriding sober calculation of how Saudi Arabia’s conduct does or does not support U.S. interests.
LONG BEFORE “transactional” became a cliché applied to policies of Donald Trump, the term accurately described the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The partnership brought together the world’s most important democracy and a family-run autocracy that was medieval in its mores and allied internally with intolerant religious fundamentalists. Shared values have always been absent, and shared objectives and perspectives have been tenuous.
Over the ensuing decades, American sentiment about Saudi Arabia has strayed from hard-nosed strategic calculations in ways that go beyond personal rapport between leaders. The sheer passage of time has ingrained the habit of thinking of Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally, notwithstanding the absence of a mutual security treaty. Shared opposition to hated adversaries, whether they be godless Soviets or too-godly Iranians, has reinforced the habit.
The Trump White House also seems to hope that the Saudi regime will lean on the Palestinian leadership to declare surrender in its long contest with Israel and to accept a “peace plan” that leaves Palestinians with something less than a sovereign state worthy of the name. There is some basis for that hope in that the interests of the Palestinians may not rank highly among the personal interests of the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the cause of Palestinian self-determination still have resonance among the Palestinians’ Arab brethren in Saudi Arabia. The issue is one of the few on which Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, despite his declining faculties, has weighed in and pre-empted his son. Salman has made clear that the official Saudi position is still to support the Arab League peace initiative—promoted by Salman’s predecessor Abdullah—which provides for a two-state solution in which 1967 borders would be the starting point for any territorial settlement.
Among the changes between then and now, three are especially relevant. First, with the United States extinguishing Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Iran became far and away Israel’s principal bête noire. And the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend logic, applied to Saudi Arabia, works in Israel the same way it works elsewhere. Second, in recent years and especially since MBS took charge in Riyadh, informal cooperation on security matters between Israel and Saudi Arabia has increased, despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations. This is highly important to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government not only because of the anti-Iran flavor of the cooperation but even more so because it suggests that resolution of the Palestinian issue is not necessary for Israel to enjoy worthwhile relations with other regional states. The third change is the Trump White House’s effort to coerce the Palestinians into accepting as a final settlement an arrangement that leaves Israel in effective control of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River—an effort that is music to the ears of Netanyahu’s government.
While the Israel dimension shapes the political context for Trump’s policy toward Saudi Arabia, more personal considerations are in play as well. The Saudis have used their special brand of high-priced cajolery with many foreign leaders, but they have an especially receptive target in Donald Trump. Trump covets the kind of glitter and flattery that were in full display during his visit to Riyadh last year. Then there are Trump’s private business dealings, in which, despite his attempts to downplay the connection, Saudis have played a major role. They have been, for example, among the biggest spenders (as part of their lobbying in Washington) at Trump’s hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The personal relationship between MBS and Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner is especially significant. Whereas Ibn Saud and Roosevelt were two elderly and accomplished leaders who shared a difficulty walking, MBS and Kushner are two thirty-somethings who share inexperience, inherited power and the favor of the family patriarch as well as genuine liking of each other. Kushner reportedly was the key influence in Trump’s highly unusual decision to make Saudi Arabia his first stop in a foreign trip as president. Kushner does not seem to be on the verge of losing presidential favor, and his own status is a form of insurance for MBS insofar as U.S. policy might affect the crown prince’s position.
THE MURDER in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Saudi journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi has seriously complicated plans and intentions in both Riyadh and Washington. The murder was shocking enough by itself. It also caused many observers to look closely at hitherto mostly overlooked aspects of the regime’s behavior and to see that the Khashoggi affair, although especially egregious, was part of a pattern of excesses. These have included intolerance of dissent and harsh repression of dissenters. Externally, the behavior has included destructive recklessness such as MBS’ war in Yemen. The crown prince’s carefully promoted—and frequently echoed in the United States—image as a modernizing reformer has been badly broken. As the shards of the image fall away, people see an autocrat who places no limits on his drive for absolute power.
The operation against Khashoggi also showed how much the regime thought it could get away with. Years of U.S. policies have conditioned it to believe it can get away with a lot. Responses to trouble that Saudi Arabia has caused for the United States—most notably the cultivation of Wahhabi extremism that was reflected in, among other things, fifteen of the nineteen hijackers in the 9/11 terrorist attacks being Saudis—have repeatedly been tempered by a desire to keep the U.S.-Saudi relationship on an even keel. Reportedly MBS was surprised by the magnitude of the uproar over what happened to Khashoggi. It is not surprising that MBS was surprised.
Despite the uproar, Saudi leaders probably still believe they can get away with a lot. Riyadh’s multiple, shifting, implausible and mutually inconsistent explanations for what happened to Khashoggi are intended less to fool people than to go through the motions of accountability while shielding the crown prince from blame. The regime gets comfort from how the Trump administration appears to be going along with this strategy, beginning with the president’s suggestions that this may have been a “rogue” operation. If the administration were to begin to waver, Saudi Arabia could use its lobbying capability to steer politics and opinion in the desired direction. Twenty-eight public relations firms are registered under U.S. law as representing Saudi interests, and numerous financial ties to American think tanks and industry further magnify Saudi influence in Washington. The Saudi regime also has the support of the more formidable Israel lobby, which on this issue is functioning as a pro-Saudi lobby.
The administration is unlikely to waver. Its anti-Iran focus is so central to its policies in the Middle East that it is even more committed than previous administrations to avoiding serious damage to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It will keep talking about arms sales, oil and counterterrorism in addition to confronting Iran as rationales for this course.
Such talk obscures who really has leverage over whom, and how Saudi Arabia depends on the United States for its security and economic development much more than the United States depends on the Saudis. The crown prince’s program of economic diversification relies heavily on American management experience and technology. U.S. military power has protected Saudi territory from external threat (as it did most notably in 1990–1991, after Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait), while Saudi power does nothing to protect U.S. territory. The Saudi military would have much difficulty turning away from its existing commitment to U.S. doctrine, training and supply lines.
Trump’s repeated references to a supposed $110 billion in arms sales and some huge number of jobs at stake are misleading factually as well as in terms of where leverage lies. Most of that figure represents not actual sales but only statements of intent, with most of those statements having been made during the Obama presidency. To the extent sales materialize, they often involve assembly overseas, with jobs more likely to go to Saudis than to Americans. It is worth remembering that the joint statements about intended future arms sales were part of what the Obama administration offered as a concession to the Saudis to reassure them as the nuclear agreement with Iran was being negotiated.
Too often overlooked is what the Saudis would be doing anyway for their own interests without any special deference from the United States. Regarding oil, the adage that suppliers cannot drink their own stuff is more applicable than ever, with prior Saudi leverage having been reduced by the fracking revolution, the decrease in U.S. oil imports and overall diversification of the oil market. Regarding terrorism, it wasn’t until after an Islamist attack in Riyadh in 2003 (in which the specific targets were Western military contractors) that the Saudi regime started to become part of the solution and not just a big part of the problem. But even today, any terrorists the United States might want Saudi Arabia to act against would be ones the Saudis would have their own reasons to quash.
As for confrontation with Iran, it is Saudi Arabia, not the United States, that is a Persian Gulf state in a local rivalry with Iran. Rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh, as has happened at times in the four decades since the Iranian revolution, would be in the interests of all concerned and in the interests of peace and stability in the Gulf region. But a new rapprochement is not about to break out—not with MBS likening the Iranian supreme leader to Hitler and talking about taking the battle “inside Iran.” The governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel are not being dragged into confrontation with Iran; they are doing the dragging.
A SOUND U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia would be truly transactional, while stripping away the personal ties, historical baggage and old habits of rigidly dividing the region into good guys and bad. Such a policy would recognize that embroilment in other people’s local rivalries is not in America’s interests. It would recognize the U.S.-Saudi relationship as important, but not something that requires special deference in which even major transgressions are excused. It should be a normal relationship, with all the diplomatic engagement normality implies (including conducting business through a U.S. ambassador in Riyadh, a post that Trump only recently filled).
The administration’s confrontation with Iran gets rationalized as opposition to a power doing nefarious, destabilizing things in the region. But Saudi Arabia has dallied with terrorist groups in the course of stoking rebellion in Syria, and it has rolled tanks across the causeway into Bahrain to put down popular protests against an unpopular regime. Under MBS it has prosecuted a hugely devastating war in Yemen, has kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon to try to foment a governmental crisis in his home country and has conducted overseas assassinations as part of its persecution of dissidents. U.S. policy is not sound when, in the name of opposing someone else’s supposedly destabilizing behavior, it gives a pass to behavior that is at least as destabilizing as anything the targeted country is doing.
Khashoggi’s murder provides an occasion for steps that should have been taken earlier in response to the disaster in Yemen. This ought to include ending U.S. logistical and operational support to the Saudi-led air war. It also should include curtailment of current shipments of U.S. munitions, some of which are being used in that war. Taking such steps now, although belated, would send the further message that any behavior comparable to what was done to Khashoggi is unacceptable.
The Trump administration, for the reasons mentioned earlier, is unlikely to make any such major course correction. The current course carries the risk of giving a green light to the Saudi regime to do even more destabilizing things, possibly including the sparking of a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation to divert remaining attention from the Khashoggi matter. The United States also is sending an unhelpful message to others of blatantly applying double standards and of giving higher priority to arms sales than to human rights in Saudi Arabia or even to the most basic norms of international behavior. Over the longer term, placing so many U.S. eggs in the MBS basket carries the risk of that basket proving to be fragile. The young prince’s daring and ruthless power play—abandoning a half century of Saudi policymaking in which consensus within the royal family had been important—is apt to have kingdom-shaking repercussions.