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

THE HOUSE of Saud may be attempting to modernize its economy, but the gulf between U.S. and Saudi values and national interests is deepening. The divide in values is stark, but it should not obscure the divide in interests—most notably, the role that the Saudi government has played in promoting those very interpretations of Islam that have wreaked havoc across the Middle East and world. A reassessment of the benefit and terms of this alliance is overdue. The Saudi government’s egregious human-rights record has been ignored by a long line of American administrations of both parties in favor of maintaining intelligence sharing, access to oil markets and the joint goal of countering Iranian regional ascendency. This willingness to ignore the actions of the Saudi government toward its own citizens in favor of preserving the status quo has shaped America’s diplomatic relationship. Nothing could be more mistaken.

The divides between America and Saudi Arabia could hardly be starker. For one thing, Saudi women lack nearly every freedom that Americans value. Women are legally dependent on men from birth to death, simply trading in their father for their husband as their guardian. According to Saudi law, every woman must have a male guardian, typically her most immediate male family member, who is responsible for making all legal or public decisions on her behalf, including the signing of any official documents, enrolling in university, seeking the benefit of government social-welfare programs or travelling internationally. Perhaps most humiliating, a woman’s own son can be her guardian if her father or husband is unable to serve in that role.

Although women were permitted for the first time to vote in municipal elections in 2015, their legal and societal status inhibits their ability to get to the polls. The ability to travel independently and register to vote without the presence of a guardian, familial and social pressures, and religious fatwas keep women at home every day, including election day. Furthermore, there are no elections for positions of national significance in Saudi Arabia; the municipal elections in which any Saudi citizen is allowed to participate are for local councils. While the lack of women’s suffrage has long served as an emblem for Western observers of the dearth of civil and political rights in Saudi Arabia, this policy change has falsely given U.S. and European audiences the impression that the daily lives of Saudi women are significantly improving.

Moreover, Saudi citizens who identify as anything other than Sunni risk grave discrimination at an institutional level. This goes beyond the mere establishment of a national religion, as practicing no religion, another religion, or another sect of the same religion is punishable by imprisonment or execution. In January 2016, a well-respected Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was executed on charges of disloyalty to the ruling family and for instigating peaceful, public protests against the Saudi monarchy. His trial was far from fair, and lacked many of the rights cherished by Western norms of due process. During his arrest, he was shot by security forces multiple times and then detained for months without charges. Al-Nimr was denied access to medical care and the bullet that was lodged in his body during his arrest remained there for months. During the trial, the judge prevented him from adequately preparing for his defense, meeting with his lawyer or exercising his right to cross-examine witnesses. In 2012, as part of the Saudi protests during the Arab Spring, al-Nimr’s nephew, Ali al-Nimr, was also arrested and sentenced to death as a minor. Ali is currently in a Saudi prison, awaiting the same fate as his uncle. Both Ali and Nimr are just the most recent in a long list of Saudis who have been sentenced to death for attempting to create a society in which they are treated equally under the law.

Religious “crimes” join a frightening list of nonviolent offenses that are considered grounds for execution. Hundreds of Saudis are publicly executed each year, mostly for committing such crimes as adultery, sodomy, sorcery and drug use. In 2015, Saudi Arabia conducted at least 157 public executions, marking the regime’s deadliest year in two decades. The government is on track to break its record again, having sanctioned ninety-two executions by May. Even when the penalty is not death, political activists receive excessive sentences and medieval public lashings. The founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, for example, were recently sentenced to at least ten years in prison for their attempts to advocate political and human rights. This repressive response keeps a stranglehold on any semblance of a Saudi civil society.


BASED SOLELY on respect for human rights, Saudi Arabia is an incompatible ally of the United States. But while human rights is an important lens through which to view any partnership, realpolitik has been the ostensible basis of the alliance. So how does it stand up under interest-based and strategic considerations? The authoritarian practices of the Saudi regime not only fail to come close to the international norms governing acceptable treatment of citizens, but they also have been unsuccessful in securing regional order. The Saudi government has failed to keep its allies in Egypt and Bahrain stable by enabling white-knuckled repression, take a leadership role in the Syrian Civil War and contribute to a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Riyadh has succeeded, meanwhile, in wreaking havoc in Yemen.

The disparity in strategic priorities between Washington and Riyadh is most pronounced in the Saudi government’s mass export of extreme Islamic practices—which conclusively belies the premise that it is a consequential counterterrorism partner. The release of the heretofore classified twenty-eight pages of the 9/11 Commission Report sustain the conclusion that Saudi government or senior officials did not back the hijackers, and Saudi officials assert political and military opposition to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). But the government has continued to internationally support the similarly extreme practices of Wahhabism through mosques, Islamic cultural centers and schools. Many of these religious and educational establishments have created opportunities for training terrorists around the world, and contribute to the radicalization of previously peaceful communities across the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It is estimated that the Saudis have allocated over $100 billion from their official budgets to these projects, and have tacitly permitted far more to be spent through private contributions and charitable organizations.

The proliferation of Wahhabism underpins the rise of Islamic fundamentalism from Bangladesh to Nigeria, from Kosovo to Pakistan. As a result, in Southeast Asian and West African villages where, just a decade ago, young people frequented clubs on weekends and lived largely secular lives, women now feel pressure to dress in burqas and men are expected to pray five times a day. The increasing prevalence of Wahhabi imams and madrasas worldwide manifest at a minimum in absolutist thinking in populations that completely reject religious tolerance or, in extreme circumstances, correlate with an increase in violence. As Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, noted:

The ideology that’s propagated by these schools is so significant in shaping minds in the Muslim world. If regular schooling is not schooling people, and schools that propagate fanaticism are schooling people, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what would be the impact.

Although Riyadh has heavily invested in its counterterrorism and counter-money-laundering operations, extremist publications and educational materials continue to flow out of Saudi Arabia and into communities around the world. There has been little change in the decade since Freedom House’s 2006 Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques. The report analyzed hundreds of publications produced by official and private Saudi entities and concluded that “the Saudi government propaganda examined reflects a ‘totalitarian ideology that can incite violence.’”

Concerns over the connection between Wahhabism and violent extremism have been realized over the past few decades. In Bangladesh, for example, Wahhabi-trained citizens organized themselves into a fundamentalist group that was implicated in violent protests in 2014. According to a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Saudi-funded Pakistani madrasas pay families an average of $6,500 for allowing their sons to be trained for “martyrdom.” Both European Parliament and U.S. government reports have found Saudi Arabia directly responsible for financing terrorist attacks in multiple regions.

Freedom House has documented in annual surveys democratic backsliding around the world, particularly in freedom of expression, freedom of association and rule of law, with 105 countries exhibiting regression over the last decade. In many circumstances, these instances of regression are supported by Wahhabi organizations and charities. Yet, there is some good news. One key example is in Nigeria, where terrorism and corruption plagued an already economically vulnerable country under the rule of President Goodluck Jonathan. Wahhabi charities with Saudi ties recognized an opportunity to influence economically vulnerable, predominately Muslim Nigerians. Even though President Muhammadu Buhari has made anticorruption and antiterrorism key components of his platform in his first year in office, Islamic extremists continue to threaten the lives and livelihoods of communities in both the Middle Belt region and Northern Nigeria. On a continent that has seen a marked narrowing of U.S. government funding related to democracy and governance, Nigeria has remained a priority out of necessity.

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.

Washington’s second policy change would see the enforcement of rights-based sanctions. As the State Department’s ambassador-at-large and director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, I visited Saudi Arabia and saw firsthand the pervasiveness of forced labor. Men and women from South and East Asia, the Middle East and Africa are recruited by Saudi Arabia as migrant workers, and are subsequently forced into debt bondage with their papers withheld. In my diplomatic visits from 2007 to 2009, only in Riyadh did I encounter such a distinct air of indifference toward U.S. démarches. Not least among the reasons for such disrespect for American diplomatic requests was the choice of Washington to provide a waiver for the sanctions that should have been triggered by Saudi Arabia’s Tier 3 ranking in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, the very lowest rating. The country has made modest improvements, lifting its rating to the Tier 2 Watch List, but there is still much work to be done.

In February 2016, Saudi Arabia was redesignated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (IRF). Both the IRF designation as a CPC and the previous Tier 3 TIP ranking are supposed to trigger penalties including economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel and visa restrictions. The rationale for these sanctions is to signal that the country’s relationship with the United States would be palpably affected, thereby providing motivation for a country to improve its record. When an American president, however, believes that strategic interests outweigh human rights, they are likely to waive these sanctions. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush both waived TIP and IRF sanctions for Saudi Arabia when the kingdom made no attempt to improve its record on either front. If the United States is willing to risk the status quo in the Middle East (in favor of a longer-term perspective on stability) by finally putting more pressure on the Saudi government, it should implement deserved sanctions on religious freedom and trafficking if there is slippage back to Tier 3 on TIP. American credibility is at stake.

As for Riyadh, an audit of Wahhabi charities is desperately needed. The export of Wahhabism by the kingdom and its subsidiaries represents the most acute threat to U.S. interests in the Muslim world (as well as Saudi Arabia’s professed interest in counterterrorism). The funding streams are so diverse and muddled, with thousands of imams and mosques around the world as beneficiaries, that a blanket request to block these financial streams would be unlikely to illicit a response and impossible to implement. But the exporting of Wahhabism is too dangerous to let stand and, unlike the other egregious human-rights violations documented above, may eventually pose a direct threat to the security of the United States. In many cases, the organizations that purport to serve orphans and the poor only spend a fraction of their budgets on relevant charitable services, while the rest is dedicated to building mosques, training local imams and producing Islamic texts that promote radicalization. Washington should call on the Saudi Ministry of Finance to audit all Islamic charities registered in the kingdom that do work abroad.

Secondly, the kingdom must rescind the oppressive “guardian requirement.” Although an ambitious request, abolishing the guardian requirement would provide tremendous advancements both for the women and economy of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has made symbolic improvements on the status of women over the past five years, suggesting that it is open to change. However, the actual policies that have been enacted are largely window dressing. Whether providing women the opportunity to vote in mostly meaningless municipal elections, or loosening restrictions on employment, these new policies do not actually solve the daily inequities that keep women confined to their homes. Real change will come when the kingdom realizes that empowering half of its population will alleviate economic pressure caused by the transition from an oil-based economy. Allowing women to fully participate in society will accomplish the government’s goal of increasing employment rates of nationals instead of relying on foreign labor (an alleged necessity Saudi authorities spoke of when I was U.S. antitrafficking envoy). The percentage of women who are seeking higher education has increased significantly; as we speak, more than half of Saudi university students are women. But bars on the professions in which a Saudi woman can work, and the requirement that she must have her travel, employment and educational decisions approved by her guardian, stunts her personal potential and the growth of the country’s economy. Legally allowing Saudi women to make their own decisions will solve a glaring market inefficiency, and will serve to protect those women who may live under the abusive control of domineering fathers, husbands and sons.

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