Is Saudi Arabia More Trouble Than It's Worth?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses Saudi and American reporters in Riyadh. Flickr/U.S. Department of State

It is time to reconsider partnerships that directly contradict both American values and interests.

November-December 2016

Which brings us to Kosovo. Recently, the New York Times published a dramatic story about Saudi-underwritten Wahhabist extremism in Kosovo. However, in 2015, the government passed the Foreign Terrorist Fighter Law, which has yielded over fifty arrests of Kosovars who have travelled to fight with ISIS and similar terrorist groups. Pristina has proven its commitment to combatting radicalization in spite of Saudi-sponsored teachers and preachers minting extremists. In both Nigeria and Kosovo, U.S. governance and security goals are being undercut by the troubling spread of Wahhabism, which bears a “Made in Saudi Arabia” sticker.

By failing to cut off supposedly charitable donations from Saudi nationals to known terrorist groups, Saudi Arabia is tacitly encouraging the export of an extreme interpretation of Islam. This brand of Islam rejects religious freedom, women’s rights and free expression, crowding out healthy debate within Islam about how to more moderately reconcile religion with individual rights. While direct linkages between Al Qaeda, ISIS and Saudi government funding have yet to be concretely substantiated, there is no doubt that Riyadh countenances and protects those exporting this radical ideology—and, by extension, fuels the terrorism that both America and the kingdom claim to be fighting.

There is little time left in Barack Obama’s presidency to seriously recalibrate the bilateral relationship. President Obama and King Salman have exchanged their share of snubs and seem to find each other mutually frustrating. Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office in 2017, a change in U.S. leadership provides an opportunity to realign strategic relationships to favor more reasonable and responsible allies. For decades, U.S. policy has embraced a Faustian bargain with Saudi Arabia as an alleged necessity. Based on the premise that Washington needs a close partnership with a major power broker in the region, a turn away from Saudi Arabia presumes a diplomatic pivot toward Iran. Tehran’s practice of openly sponsoring terrorist organizations and its legacy of equally egregious human-rights violations make it an unpalatable alternative partner. But it is a false dichotomy to suggest that the United States must either preserve a close relationship with Saudi Arabia or assertively freeze it out. Two countries can, at times, pursue joint strategic gain without requiring the United States to compromise its moral obligations, but Washington must not ignore Saudi threats to American interests.

Altering the U.S.-Saudi relationship does not require a complete diplomatic freeze. Too drastic a shift could unintentionally embolden Iran and complicate the situation in Syria. Instead, the United States should define its range of options in incremental, but diplomatically symbolic, terms. A prudent policy reorientation must include actions significant enough to signal the gravity of the situation to Riyadh without shredding veritable U.S. interests. Washington must stop treating Saudi Arabia with kid gloves. A postoil world is not yet a reality, but as the dependency balance continues to shift, U.S. diplomacy can increasingly prioritize human rights. Washington should no longer allow its own resources and reputation to be manipulated by a Saudi agenda discordant with America’s own. The United States can make judicious, firm demands of Riyadh aimed at achievable change—not least for the House of Saud’s own good, lest it be hoisted on its own petard due its brittle rule and export of extremism.


SAUDI ARABIA has systematically violated universal human rights while simultaneously undermining U.S. strategic interests. But it would be a pipe dream to expect results overnight by asking for grand gestures and systematic change. Washington should embrace two policy changes and U.S. officials should push Riyadh to adopt two key reforms.

The United States should draw down military-to-military financial, logistical and intelligence support. The Obama administration took an important step in May to block the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia in light of their actions in Yemen. The end of an overly cozy partnership should constrict U.S. support of Riyadh’s aggressive and regionally destabilizing military escapades. The United States should use the cluster bomb freeze as a first step in its effort to tangibly decrease the amount of weaponry, logistical and intelligence support it provides to the Saudi military. Between May 2015 and March 2016, Washington sold its Gulf allies $33 billion in weapons. Some of this cache was targeted for joint activities in Syria, but it also represented a tacit approval of Riyadh’s war in Yemen. This foreign-policy expedition is not the first of its kind. During the Arab Spring, Saudi forces provided significant military assistance to Bahrain to quell popular uprisings and remained in the country to ensure the Bahraini regime’s grip on power. The United States should not tolerate such behavior; decreasing defense cooperation would be an appropriate response.