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Getting Rid of the Saudi Burden for Good

When we needed oil, cozying up made sense. Now the relationship is unfit for the 21st century.

US President Donald Trump (R) meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Can Washington afford tough love with the House of Saud? Recent reports seem to answer affirmatively, revealing that the U.S. military recently removed its Patriot antimissile systems from Saudi territory and that serious U.S. threats prompted the kingdom to de-escalate its oil price war with Russia.

Some commentators responded that the U.S. should use its leverage more often in order to accomplish other foreign-policy goals. Yet beyond the question of leverage, the incident reveals the dysfunction of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, where the increasingly blatant absence of mutual interests results in a strategic partnership kept afloat through ultimatums.

As the world becomes more multipolar, the United States will find that its partners are less willing to abide by American policy preferences. The Saudis, who have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to flout U.S. objectives, are no exception. However, the U.S. should view this shift as an opportunity to re-evaluate its partnership with the ruling family in Riyadh while retaining sufficient clout to establish favorable terms. The oil price war is merely the latest crack in a U.S.-Saudi relationship forged in the twentieth century but increasingly unfit for the twenty-first.

The United States has expended $6.4 trillion on the Global War on Terror over the past two decades. Terrorism is not unique to the Middle East, yet much of this money has been spent in the region, fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The origins of America’s massive security commitment to the Middle East lie in dependence on oil, which simultaneously generated the conditions that precipitated acts of terrorism. The interaction between oil dependence and violence creates a self-perpetuating cycle that keeps the U.S. expending ever greater resources in the region, despite stated intentions to reduce American involvement there. The collapse of oil prices since the beginning of 2020 illustrates the need to fundamentally rethink U.S. strategy towards the Middle East. Despite the present economic pain, reduced demand for oil offers an opportunity to realign foreign policy with U.S. interests in the region.

The U.S. initially established a military presence in the Middle East to secure its access to oil reserves after World War II. This relationship came under severe strain in 1973-74 when the Saudis initiated the Arab oil embargo in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Following the first Gulf War, no longer impeded by the possibility of antagonizing the Soviet Union, the U.S. government sought to prevent any single country from achieving the status of regional hegemon and threatening global oil supply.

Yet the ongoing presence of U.S. troops, as well as support for Arab autocrats, generated frustration among local populations and in some cases, led to acts of violent extremism that culminated in the atrocity of 9/11. If Americans were not protecting Middle Eastern oil supplies, the U.S. would no longer be a prime target of Salafi jihadi terrorist groups. Therefore, if the U.S. could shrink its troop commitment to the Middle East, it could achieve two objectives at once: reduce the threat of terrorism and support American energy interests. 

The oil-for-terrorism dynamic is most clearly illustrated by the case of Saudi Arabia. The relationship between the American government and the House of Saud extends back to FDR’s famous meeting with Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, on the U.S.S. Quincy in the Suez Canal in 1945, which evolved into a tacit quid pro quo that the United States would protect the young kingdom in exchange for Saudi oil. Yet Saudi Arabia proved an awkward partner to defend. The Al Saud family justified their rule on the basis of enforcing and spreading Wahhabism, a puritanical reading of Islam that required strict gender segregation and abhorred any alternative interpretations as blasphemous. 

Time and again, Saudi Arabia used its oil wealth to export its preferred version of Islam, seeding intolerance that some adherents used to justify violence. The 9/11 attacks highlighted the dysfunction of the American relationship to Saudi Arabia: Osama bin Laden had become radicalized, in part, by the presence of U.S. troops in his native country, the homeland of the Prophet Mohammad. Yet despite Americans’ justifiable anger and confusion in the wake of 9/11—especially after it emerged that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi—the U.S. had no choice but to continue protecting global oil supplies, and by extension the House of Saud, whose presence, it was claimed, was an essential component of regional stability.

Saudi Arabia changed its behavior following 9/11. Crown Prince Abdullah, who had served as the de facto ruler since his half-brother Fahd’s stroke in 1995, became king in 2005. Abdullah implemented greater oversight for the Saudi educational system as well as the large networks of charitable donations, some of which had sent funds to Al-Qaeda prior to 2001. Abdullah lifted official restrictions on women working, although gender segregation largely remained the norm, and he sent hundreds of thousands of Saudis, female as well as male, to study abroad, especially in the U.S. and U.K. Abdullah’s reforms were often subtle, but they established the conditions that enabled Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to undertake the more visible changes that have transformed Saudi society since 2016.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s efforts to align its social practices more closely with global norms, the oil price war that erupted in March demonstrates the extent to which Saudi interests no longer align with American interests. This is only the latest example of how Saudi Arabia pursues policies that harm U.S. objectives: since 2019, Congress has pushed for measures to sanction Saudi Arabia for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the war on Yemen.

U.S. Congressmen expressed outrage and disbelief at Saudi Arabia’s decision to increase oil production levels, despite the collapse in demand for oil as a result of Covid-19 and the resultant harm to U.S. producers. Thirteen senators representing oil-producing regions penned a letter to MBS, and subsequently met with Saudi ambassador Princess Reema bint Bandar, demanding that America’s long-time partner curb the glut in supply. The outrage among Republicans from energy-rich states has eroded further the base of political support for the U.S.-Saudi relationship which had already been narrowed by Democrats’ anger over Khashoggi and Yemen and has left the Saudis over-reliant on the most transactional White House in recent history for goodwill. The decision to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Saudi Arabia following the spat over the price of oil appears potentially intended to remind MBS of his dependence on the U.S. security umbrella.

Defenders of the status quo would argue that the U.S. must retain its leverage over the kingdom by continuing to provide military support and security guarantees. They point to Saudi Arabia’s recent social reforms as indications of America’s moderating influence. Yet Saudi reforms are not the result of U.S. pressure. The impetus for the social change is financial: Saudi Arabia can no longer afford a national economic model where the government pays the salaries of its male citizens in a bloated and overstaffed state sector, salaries generous enough to also provide for female citizens not permitted to work, and to pay foreigners to do the actual labor required to keep society functioning.

Despite MBS’ high-profile initiatives to improve Saudi Arabia’s global image on human rights and especially women’s rights, the system of male guardianship persists, and women remain minors in the eyes of Saudi law. While efforts by Saudi Arabia to expand personal freedoms for its citizens and especially for women are commendable, these reforms merely bring Saudi Arabia in line with the norms of other Gulf states, where women never lost the right to drive, travel, or work. A group of female Saudi activists who advocated for women’s rights remains imprisoned and subject to torture, despite the fact that the state now permits several of the freedoms they had demanded, such as the right to drive. MBS seems to fear that if he appeared to respond to protestors, he might inspire more of them.

The presence of the U.S. military in the Middle East, and especially in Saudi Arabia, will continue to provoke antagonism from populations frustrated with corrupt, despotic rulers and their American mercenaries. When the U.S. was dependent on Arab oil, this dynamic seemed unavoidable. But the opportunities provided by the shale revolution and advances in alternative energy technologies mean that the U.S. does not have to endanger national security for the sake of energy security. The U.S. should continue to pursue energy independence, but not by further exposing U.S. energy producers to the volatility of the global oil market. Instead the U.S. could achieve true self sufficiency by developing local renewable energy resources that cannot be threatened by foreign governments and conflicts.

Annelle Sheline is a research fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @AnnelleSheline

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