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Has the U.S.-Saudi Relationship Outlived Its Usefulness?

Has the U.S.-Saudi Relationship Outlived Its Usefulness?

Salman ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud, King of Saudi Arabia since 2015.

Intelligence Squared U.S., or IQ2US, organizes a regular series of debates on issues of public concern and broadcasts them via livestreaming, NPR, YouTube, and podcasts. The organization’s purpose, proudly proclaimed, is “to restore civility, reasoned analysis, and constructive public discourse to today’s often biased media landscape.” (Since it sounds a lot like me, I tend to like it.) The most recent debate, which I had the honor to attend, posed the provocative proposition “The Special U.S.-Saudi Relationship Has Outlived Its Usefulness.”

The debaters arguing for the proposition were Madawi Al Rasheed,* a Visiting Professor at the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and a research fellow at the Open Society Foundation, and Mark P. Lagon, Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and former Ambassador-at-Large in charge of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Arguing against the proposition were F. Gregory Gause III, the John H. Lindsey ’44 Professor of International Affairs and head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University, and James Jeffrey, a Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and formerly Deputy National Security Advisor and Ambassador to Albania, Turkey, and Iraq.

Life, of course, is not really as binary as a debate proposition, and in reality neither was the debate. No one said that the United States should abandon its relationship with Saudi Arabia altogether, and no one claimed that there were no problems. While that might strike debate professionals as a bit sloppy on the edges, it does mesh well with the world as we know it.

Those arguing for the proposition focused primarily on negative aspects of the Saudi regime and domestic Saudi policies. They argued that support for the regime undermines U.S. policy there and elsewhere in the Middle East. They believed that the support had been “unconditional” and that the U.S.-Saudi relationship was strong enough that the United States could insist on certain domestic reforms in exchange for that support. Thus they did not call for ending the U.S.-Saudi relationship but for modifying it in a way that would be beneficial to the Saudi population and to U.S. foreign policy interests.

Those arguing against the proposition basically agreed about the negative aspects of the Saudi regime and that, while the situation has improved somewhat over the years, the regimes efforts at reform tend to be rather superficial. They disagreed, however, on the question of whether it was appropriate for the United States to insist that another country modify its domestic political and social system to our liking and whether the United States had the capacity to achieve such changes in any event. The proper and presumably more successful approach, in their view, was to focus on the strategic situation, bolstering Saudi Arabia as a bastion of stability in a region steeped in turmoil.

Personally, I am of a realist bent and my natural tendency is against the proposition. When I hear the argument that our support should be conditioned on their reforming their political and social structures to suit our cultural norms, I find myself being grateful that the Saudis don’t say, “Sure, we’ll sell you oil, the day you stop making your women walk around in public like hussies with their hair showing.”

Yet I do not dismiss the other side out of hand. Their strongest case, I thought, concerns what happens to U.S. policy and U.S. strategic interests if Saudi Arabia’s domestic structures prove so intolerable that its own people overthrow it and then reject the United States for having supported the old regime. This argument was made by Professor Al Rasheed. While she described Saudi Arabia as a “pressure cooker,” the other three, including her debate partner, were more willing to accept the fundamental stability of the regime. One pointed out that Saudi Arabia has been described as a pressure cooker for decades and has yet to stumble. They may well be correct, yet, as Professor Al Rasheed pointed out, people said exactly the same thing about Iran right up to the moment that the Shah was chased out of the country. The complications are that you cannot work with the country at all if you do not cooperate with the regime in power, and the possibility that your own efforts to force reform might trigger the very revolution you seek to avoid.

Although leaning toward the realist perspective, I did not necessarily agree with every point made by that side. In particular, Ambassador Jeffrey made a statement that struck me as very curious. When asked by someone in the audience why the United States should care whether Saudi Arabia or Iran becomes predominant in the Middle East, the ambassador described Iran as a revisionist or revolutionary power not unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, he saw as a force for stability.

I am sure this is the common understanding in this country and probably the basis for policy, but think about it for a moment. Iran, while a revolutionary regime, is operating in Iraq and Syria because it was invited there by their respective governments. In Iraq at the moment, it is a de facto ally of the United States in the fight against ISIS. In Syria the situation is harder to describe: Iran backs the government against various insurgent groups. The United States—officially—is not fighting the government but is supporting one group of insurgents (who would rather be fighting the government) against another group of insurgents, who are the same enemy that the United States and Iran are fighting in Iraq. (Unofficially, of course, the United States is also backing insurgents against the government, but that’s a secret.)

Saudi Arabia, is the one that has established madrassas throughout the region that have inspired Salafi-jihadi insurgents, and Saudi Arabia has encouraged freelance Islamists to join the jihad against the Syrian regime. Individual Saudi donors have contributed to insurgents in both countries and elsewhere in the region as well. It is easy to say the Saudi Arabia and the United States are forces for stability, while Iran is the disruptor, but is it really true?**

Finally, one question that struck me was not raised, a question to those arguing against the proposition. If we are relying on Saudi Arabia for strategic reasons, is it important that Saudi Arabia may not view the world the same way we do? All four panelists agreed, for instance, that world politics is not a zero-sum game and that we can maintain relations with Saudi Arabia and try to improve relations with Iran at the same time if we want to.

I believe that as well, yet I ask myself: Does Saudi Arabia believe it?

The United States and five other countries negotiated an agreement with Iran designed to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons (nuclear weapons that could have been used, for instance, against Saudi Arabia), and Saudi Arabia seemed to treat it as if it were an act of treason. If the United States and Saudi Arabia come to diverge in their understanding of what constitutes strategic interests, then that could be a problem even if we do not try to interfere in their domestic arrangements.

*The “Al” in the name Al Rasheed is not the Arabic article “al-” (which is, indeed, a common element in Arab names), but rather an Arabic word meaning family, clan, or dynasty. The House of Rasheed (Al Rasheed, or Al Rashid) was a rival to the House of Saud (Al Sa’ud) in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the two fought many battles for control of the Arabian Peninsula’s Najd region. Allied with the Ottomans, the Al Rasheed forces were defeated after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. When this past rivalry was pointed out at the beginning of the debate, Professor Al Rasheed quipped that she had not taken part in any of those battles.

**Note that we are talking about stability here, a separate question from whether Assad deserves to be overthrown. Remember, too, that outside intervention, regardless of whether it is Russia or the United States that is intervening, tends to lengthen civil wars and ultimately to increase the overall number of deaths.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.