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

Very rarely does a “perfect” opportunity to implement a difficult foreign policy shift emerge. This moment represents a coalescing of circumstances that may prove the most feasible for Washington to implement these recommendations and weather strain on its relationship with Riyadh. The Saudi economy is reeling from the global overproduction of oil. Saudi Arabia depends on oil revenue for 77 percent of its budget (as compared to Iran, which only relies on oil for 33 percent of its budget). New fracking technologies have likely permanently relieved the United States of its dependence on foreign oil, which simultaneously reduces some of Saudi Arabia’s strategic relevance while threatening to upend their economy. Experts expect that the kingdom has sufficient cash reserves to last for about five years, but for long-term survival it will need to diversify its entire economy. The Saudi government must simultaneously find a new source of economic growth, as well as convince the United States that its alliance is about more than oil. Washington has leverage; it should use it.

Saudi Arabia has been a problematic ally for a generation. In earlier eras, American dependence on its oil and strategic alignments in the Middle East have convinced policymakers they had very little room to change course. An unquestioning alliance with Saudi Arabia is no longer a necessary pill to swallow. It is time to reconsider partnerships that directly contradict not only our values—from women’s rights to religious freedom to executions—but our interests.

Mark P. Lagon is Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and former U.S. ambassador to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department. He wishes to thank Katharine Nasielski for her research assistance and colleagues at Freedom House for their advice.

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

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