Ellen Wald offers us a helpful reminder that Saudi Arabia is not and never has been an ally of the United States. She cites a recent Democratic presidential debate question about the relationship with Saudi Arabia as a starting point:
The New York Times recently asked Democratic candidates for president if they “still consider Saudi Arabia an ally” after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, ongoing human rights violations and the war in Yemen.
But the question is based upon a false premise: Technically, Saudi Arabia has never been an ally of the United States. The two countries have never signed a treaty or a mutual defense pact, and the relationship between them has never gone beyond a narrow partnership on select issues.
Instead, the myth that Saudi Arabia and the United States are allies was built and perpetuated by two powerful forces — the Americans who owned and ran the oil company in the kingdom and the Saudi state itself.
The U.S. has no binding obligations to Saudi Arabia, but for decades our government has acted as if it does. In addition to being unnecessary for U.S. security, thinking of Saudi Arabia as an ally has had a pernicious effect on U.S. policies in the region, and it has led successive administrations to cater to their preferences at our expense. The Trump administration has been more abjectly pro-Saudi than most of its predecessors, but it has just taken a bad relationship to an absurd extreme.
Even in terms of the “narrow partnership” Wald mentions, the Saudi government is not a very useful partner and has increasingly become a liability. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has been extremely reckless and destructive in the last decade, and it been extremely dangerous over the last five years since King Salman came to power. The Saudi coalition war on Yemen is the most prominent and damning example of this, and the U.S. bears significant responsibility for that as their chief supplier of weapons and supporter. U.S. backing for the Saudi-led war was justified as a way of “reassuring” the despotic clients that wanted to attack Yemen that they could count on Washington, and this was one of the most disastrous decisions driven by this phony idea that Saudi Arabia is our ally. Defenders of the war have frequently invoked Saudi Arabia’s supposed status as an ally to excuse the inexcusable, so it matters that there is no alliance and the U.S. is not obliged in any case to enable war crimes by a client state. Backing the war on Yemen was not required by any commitment, formal or otherwise, but two administrations of different parties have supported it anyway. Thinking of Saudi Arabia as an ally has paved the way for truly calamitous blunders. It is therefore very important that we reject this idea that the Saudis are an ally, and the relationship should be downgraded accordingly.
While powerful forces have mythologized it for their own reasons, the United States and Saudi Arabia are not and never have been allies.
The U.S. owes Saudi Arabia nothing, and the U.S. doesn’t get very much out of this “special” relationship. Whatever benefit the U.S. might have gained from this arrangement in the past has diminished significantly, and it is now no longer worth the compromises and headaches that maintaining it requires. A foreign policy that truly prioritized American interests would recognize this fact, and the “special” U.S.-Saudi relationship would be brought to an end as quickly as possible. The first step in changing that relationship is cutting off all U.S. military assistance and arms sales to the kingdom.