Magazine article Foreign Affairs

The Future of U.S.-Saudi Relations: The Kingdom and the Power

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

The Future of U.S.-Saudi Relations: The Kingdom and the Power

Article excerpt

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has come under unprecedented strains in recent years. U.S. President Barack Obama has openly questioned Riyadh's value as an ally, accusing it of provoking sectarian conflict in the region. According to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, when Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's prime minister, asked Obama whether he saw the Saudis as friends, the president responded, "It's complicated." Many Americans continue to believe that the Saudi government was involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks, although the 9/11 Commission found no evidence of institutional or senior-level Saudi support. The Senate has even passed a bill that would allow Americans to sue the Saudi government in U.S. courts for its alleged support of terrorism.

The Saudis have been equally intemperate in their recent comments. The kingdom's officials have threatened to sell off hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. assets if Congress passes the bill, even though such a move would hurt Saudi Arabia much more than it would the United States. And they have made little effort to hide their contempt for Obama, whom they see as too willing to jettison old friends in order to cozy up to enemies. Prince Turki alFaisal-the most outspoken senior member of the ruling family and a former head of Saudi foreign intelligence and former ambassador to the United States-has accused Obama of "throw[ing Saudi Arabia] a curve ball" because he has "pivoted to Iran." The prince went on to say that the Saudis would "continue to hold the American people as [an] ally"-but implied that they no longer view the American president as one.

Several pillars of the two countries' relationship, built after World War II, have started to fracture. The Cold War, which once united the unlikely allies against the Soviets, has long since ended. With Saddam Hussein's downfall in Iraq, the threat of an overt military attack on Saudi Arabia or its smaller Gulf neighbors has faded. And the upsurge in domestic U.S. oil production has revived dreams of American energy independence.

As the foundations of the relationship have weakened, its American critics have grown bolder. They point out that Wahhabism, the ultraconservative form of Islam that Saudi Arabia promotes, directly contradicts American values and that Saudi Arabia stands near the bottom of any world ranking on democracy, religious freedom, human rights, and women's rights. They argue that the Saudi regime, an absolute monarchy in a democratic age, is so anachronistic that it will not survive much longer. And they emphasize the fact that the Saudis share few priorities with the United States in the Middle East. As Washington is attempting to develop a new relationship with Tehran, the Saudis continue to fear Iranian encirclement; they refuse to concentrate their resources on the fight against the Islamic State (also known as isis) and al Qaeda and have instead demanded that the United States support their parochial military adventures in Yemen and elsewhere.

To these critics' dismay, however, both countries continue to work together closely. Obama, for all his public misgivings, went to Riyadh in April to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, where he reiterated his commitment to the security of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Washington continues to sell vast quantities of arms to Riyadh. The Saudis, for their part, have held their noses and publicly endorsed the Iran nuclear deal. And intelligence sharing continues apace.

While such cooperation may cause critics to gnash their teeth, it serves both countries well. The United States has a crucial interest in maintaining a clear-eyed but close relationship with Saudi Arabia. As political authority collapses throughout the Middle East, Washington needs a good working relationship with one of the few countries that can govern its territory and exert some influence in those areas where real governance no longer exists. …

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