The United States’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is now more enigmatic than ever. Since 9/11, in which fifteen of the nineteen al-Qaeda hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has held a heightened skepticism of Saudi military pursuits. Recent developments such as the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (a bill allowing 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia) have even more directly called into question the moral dimensions of the U.S.–Saudi relationship. Yet the basic fabric of the alliance seems largely impervious to these developments. For the most part, the deep-rooted alliance formed between the two countries in the early 1930s, based on the trade of U.S. arms for Saudi oil, remains intact. But in the past few years, the U.S. has become the foremost domestic producer of crude oil; the original terms of the trade is no longer as mutually beneficial. Saudi Arabia remains a profitable outlet for the U.S. military industrial complex, but the U.S. should resist the temptation to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia that are already unravelling.
President Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East has been principled enough to worry Saudi Arabia. Yet it has not been principled enough to prevent a U.S. policy of appeasement toward Saudi Arabia in response to the worries of the Saudis. Obama has refused to let the U.S.’s relationship with Saudi Arabia dictate the terms of democracy at home and abroad. During the Arab Spring revolts that began in 2010, Obama did nothing to preserve the rule of Sunni Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had long been an ally to the similarly autocratic Sunni leadership system in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Instead of working to strengthen our alliance with Saudi Arabia by stabilizing autocratic rule in the region, Obama opted to uphold the principles of democracy and liberty that the initial wave of the Arab Spring revolts advocated for. From a U.S. perspective, this seems to be an admirably principled position, but to Saudi Arabia, it was a warning sign. Saudi leaders began to question U.S. commitment to their country’s ruling regime. Would the U.S. protect the Saudi government against similar uprisings if they were to occur in Saudi Arabia?
Obama’s second principled position that has strained relations with Saudi Arabia is his agreement with Iran on a nuclear deal. After the destructive U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran emerged in the region as a relatively unchecked power. The Sunni Saudi Arabians and the Shi’a Iranians are now major rivals in the region. Due to the nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabians are concerned that the U.S. is establishing ties with Iran and that the U.S. may switch sides (these concerns have been exacerbated by the fact that both al-Qaeda and ISIS are Sunni Arab groups). The Saudi Arabians see the deal as a dangerous precursor to continued U.S. ties with Iran; as a result of the deal, Iran has gained increased economic and diplomatic power with no immediate costs. Although Obama has marketed the deal as a principled safety measure to help keep nuclear weapons away from a dangerous state, Saudi Arabia has demanded reparations for this offense.
One such reparation is an increased flow of arms from the U.S. to the Saudi government in Riyadh. According to the Center for International Policy, the Obama administration has offered far more weapons to Saudi Arabia than any other administration. The arms sales have been worth a total of $115 billion dollars, including a $1.15 billion dollar deal in September 2016. The monetary incentive provided by the U.S. remains the primary force that keeps the Saudis in business with the Americans, but this is an empty cyclical incentive. The U.S. makes money because it sells arms. But this is only because the U.S. has spent the money to make these arms in the first place. More problematic than the sale itself, however, is the way this money is being used.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are currently struggling against Russia and Iran in a proxy war in Syria. Saudi Arabia, however, in its intense pursuit to topple Shi’a Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has pursued a different strategy and level of discrimination between rebel groups than the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden summed up the troubling contradiction in 2014: “Our allies in the region were our largest problem. [They] were so determined to take down Assad and have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
Yet Saudi Arabia’s most egregious human rights violations continue to occur in Yemen. After Shi’a Houthi rebels forced a deal to remove Saudi-backed president Ali Abdullah Saleh and drove out his successor, Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the country descended into civil war. Saudi Arabia views the Houthi rebels as proxies for Iran, and has been trying to drive them out of the country. In the process, however, according to United Nations reports, Saudi air strikes have killed four thousand civilians and injured another seven thousand civilians. This includes one thousand dead children and another sixteen hundred injured children. In October 2016, U.S.-backed Saudi forces bombed a Yemeni funeral, killing one hundred forty people and injuring another five hundred. The level of bloodshed has even led U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to suggest that the strike may constitute a war crime and that the matter be investigated as such.
The U.S. has not only provided most of the bombs and planes for this attack and others, but it has also offered targeting assistance and midair refueling to aid Saudi Arabia in their efforts. Many Yemenis see the U.S. as clearly responsible for these destructive air strikes, according to Yemeni journalist and founder of Yemen Now, Nasser Arrabyee.
In an interview conducted by Democracy Now!, he explains:
“Well, no single Yemeni doubt that Saudi Arabia was not the one who did this crime at all, because it is not the first, it is not the last. Saudi Arabia has been committing war crimes since March 26, 2015. So, without doubt, it’s Saudi Arabia. But let me tell you what is the—what is also the thing. The big criminal is Obama himself. This is how Yemenis see to the situation, because every Yemeni believe that Saudi Arabia would not have done that at all, would not have done a war in Yemen, without the approval of Obama. And it is very clear to everyone that Obama wanted to appease the Saudis after the Iranian nuclear deal. But, unfortunately, he appeased them by the Yemeni blood.” Senator Chris Murphy has echoed these sentiments. “Inside Yemen, this isn’t a Saudi bombing campaign. This is a U.S.-Saudi bombing campaign.”
Saudi Arabia has always been a questionable ally to the U.S. from a human rights point of view. Saudi Arabia is an ultra conservative Islamic absolute monarchy. In Saudi Arabia, men can be stoned to death as punishment for homosexuality. Women cannot drive or interact with men in public, and the question of whether they should be allowed to show their face is a hotly contested one. It is one thing, however, for the U.S. to be allied with a country with different values; it is quite another thing for the alliance itself to result in heinous human rights violations. In the midst of this problem, Obama’s ability to find the middle ground in the U.S. – Saudi Arabian relationship has begun to spiral out of control. Although Congress approved an arms deal with Saudi Arabia in September 2016, an anti-Saudi Arabian law passed as well. Congress voted to override Obama’s veto on a bill that will allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. The only senator to vote against the override was Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
Senator Rand Paul pointed out the inherent inconsistency in this vote, asking in reference to the Saudi arms deal, “This body voted unanimously to let the 9/11 victims sue. And now this body wants to give them weapons? Does no one sense the irony?” Senator Chris Murphy spoke of the negative implications of U.S. support of Saudi Arabia, suggesting that such support may even jeopardize our national security and integrity. “If you want to look at the roots of al-Qaida, if you want to look at the roots of ISIL, there’s no way of denying that part of those roots run through the export of Wahhabism [an ultra-conservative Sunni religious movement] from Saudi Arabia,” Murphy said.
One recently released Wikileaks email even reveals Hillary Clinton saying, in 2014, that Qatar and Saudi Arabia “are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” Saudi Arabia has been one of the biggest donors to the Clinton Foundation. Without notifying the State Department, the foundation took $1 million from Qatar for Bill Clinton’s birthday in 2011.
Nevertheless, the U.S. maintains strong ties with Saudi Arabia. The established relationship remains because the U.S. values profitable outlets for both its military industrial complex and its allies in an unstable region. But the U.S. is now a far more self-sufficient producer of oil. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is not the stable ally that it once was. Saudi Arabia’s inability to discriminate between democratic rebels and Sunni terrorist groups, as well as the Saudi’s destructive war in Yemen and unyielding rivalry with Iran, suggests that their interests no longer coincide with U.S. interests (at least not to the point of beneficiality for the U.S.). This conflict of interests is also a moral crisis.
Recent developments clearly do not bode well for the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia. U.S. opinion of Saudi Arabia is at an all-time low. So far, Saudi foreign policy under the new King Salman has worsened even more. Salman has pursued more public criticism of the U.S., and he has launched an ill-advised and destructive war in Yemen (with aid from Sudan’s President Omar Bashir, an indicted war criminal). The incoming Trump administration should not ignore these signs. Strong leadership results not only from victory over one’s enemies but also from standing up to oppose moral violations.
Yet the U.S. foreign policy actions in the Middle East do not remotely reflect any consistent opposition to such violations. The ongoing U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia not only condones moral violations, but also assists in them. President-elect Trump would be wise to pursue a policy towards Saudi Arabia of tactful retrenchment. The moral limits of alliance have been breached; it’s time to draw a line in the sand.