Mainly because of domestic American politics and the workings of the U.S. Congress, everyone has a right to be confused about U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia, including the Saudis themselves. The first Congressional override of any veto by President Barack Obama has come on the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA); Saudi Arabia is the obvious, if unstated, target of this legislation, which permits private lawsuits against foreign governments on grounds of alleged involvement in acts of terrorism. The significant drawbacks of the legislation, motivating the presidential veto, include the precedent it sets for U.S. actions abroad becoming the stuff of foreign lawsuits, and the needless riling of the Saudis with a measure that is unlikely to bring any monetary award to families of 9/11 victims anyway. Most of all, as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) aptly put it, this departure from the principle of sovereign immunity leads to “exporting your foreign policy to trial lawyers.”
Of course, a gesture in favor of the 9/11 families at the expense of the Saudis is exactly the kind of feel-good legislation that no member wants to be seen voting against and to have that vote exploited by an opponent in a future election. So we have the bipartisan spectacle of members voting in favor of a bill with problems that they were openly acknowledging even before their vote, and with the members already talking about the need for further legislation (after this fall's election) to fix the bad law that they were about to enact.
Just one week before the vote on the Saudi-bashing JASTA, the Senate was saying that it has the back of America's Saudi friends by voting down a resolution that would have blocked a sale of tanks and other armaments of the sort that Saudi forces have been using in its military intervention in Yemen. The highly destructive and indiscriminate nature of that intervention, with an alarmingly large and growing number of civilian casualties, motivated the sponsors of the resolution. But a majority of senators evidently were motivated more by other considerations, including the desire to show support for anyone in the region who opposes supposedly nefarious Iranians. Indeed, the political need to “compensate” for doing business with Tehran in negotiating the agreement that restricts Iran's nuclear program was one of the reasons the Obama administration allowed itself to get sucked as deeply into the Yemeni tragedy as it has.
So the political posturing has sent two contradictory messages about U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, and each in the wrong direction. A bill about suing the Saudi government over terrorism is passed even though no investigation or previously secret 28 pages has shown that government to have been involved in 9/11. And an arms sale is approved that associates the United States ever more deeply with one of the more destabilizing and indefensible things that the same Saudi government has been doing.
While American politicians have been absorbed in these two forms of posturing, they have been giving insufficient attention to larger questions that ought to be carefully considered in shaping America's relationship with Saudi Arabia, which still is commonly labeled a U.S. “ally”. These questions partly involve a weighing of possible benefits of a close relationship such as military access rights against the disadvantages of the closeness, or what may be even more important, the perception by others of such closeness. This gets into such things as region-wide sectarian conflicts that Saudi leaders feel obliged to wage but can never be anything but a losing proposition for the United States.
It also gets to the ways in which Saudi political and social values are vastly different from American ones. In many respects it is hard to imagine two purported partners being more different. Saudi Arabia is a family-run autocracy. (To relate this to a Western context, imagine that the United Kingdom, instead of being the fellow democracy that we know, were a family-run state called Windsor Britannia.) There is no freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia. It is ironic that some in the United States who express worry about the spread of sharia have no problem with taking sides in the Middle East with a regime that considers the Koran to be its constitution and that prohibits the open practice of any religion other than Islam.
Another fundamental, and even longer-term, consideration involves the longevity or fragility of a regime that is an anachronism. This gets to prudent thinking about possible scenarios that, for understandable and legitimate reasons of diplomatic sensitivity, never get openly and officially discussed, but must be thought about nonetheless. The nightmare scenario is that the revolution comes to the kingdom and one day we would face not the family enterprise known as Saudi Arabia but instead a radical-dominated Islamic Republic of Arabia.
Many knowledgeable observers see little chance of such a scenario materializing. David Ottoway, for example, in the course of criticizing JASTA, writes of Saudi Arabia as “a relative paragon of stability” in which the regime's main domestic enemies “have so far been held in check.” One reassuring aspect of recent history is the mere fact that the Saudi regime, as well as its fellow Arab monarchies, has survived despite the six years of regional upheaval we know of as the Arab Spring or Arab Awakening. Jack Goldstone has offered plausible explanations for why the traditional Arab monarchies have been more successful at adapting to the upheaval than have what he calls “sultanistic” regimes, by which he means pseudo-republics with hereditary qualities such as the Assad regime in Syria.
Another source of optimism is that there seems to be enough sagacity among Saudi royal family members with clout to recognize the need for their kingdom to become less of an anachronism. Some of the Saudi kings, especially Faisal but also the most recently deceased monarch, Abdullah, took steps that could genuinely be considered modernization. Now modernization, at least of the economy if not of politics, is associated with the youthful deputy crown prince who has become in many respects the de facto ruler: Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS. He has won fans in the West who express optimism about what he is doing and what it implies for Saudi Arabia's future.
But although MbS may have big plans, he and what he is trying to do also involve two sets of reasons the kingdom's future may be far darker than the optimists expect. One set is economic and involves such things as low oil prices and what the fracking revolution implies for Saudi Arabia's changed role in the oil market. Simply put, it has become harder for the regime to continue to buy off the populace with an oil-funded welfare state. MbS emphasizes a need to diversify the economy, but among the obstacles he faces are national habits nurtured during the decades of oil-fueled abundance that have relied on expatriate labor and do not stress hard work and entrepreneurship.
The other set of reasons focuses on MbS being parachuted into his current position of power by his father, King Salman, with this position perhaps being a steppingstone to becoming king himself. This development marks one of the sharper departures in the kingdom's political history. Since the death of the current kingdom's founder, Abdel-Aziz Ibn Saud, in 1953, the succession has passed among his dozens of sons, from older to younger but skipping (or ousting, in the case of the first son, Saud) ones who were not sufficiently competent or interested. Everyone realized that eventually the kingdom would run out of sons of even the fecund Abdel-Aziz, but why should Salman be the one who, as the torch finally gets passed to the next generation, gets to pass it to his own favorite son? There are many sons of Abdel-Aziz still around (including Muqrin, who was crown prince before being sidelined by Salman) as well as grandsons who are both older than MbS and talented (including the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef), some of whom are themselves sons of kings (such as the sons of Faisal). Intra-family politics is largely a black box to outside observers, but there is greater potential now for fractures breaking into the open than ever before.
Shared interests among the princes in retaining their privileges and wealth, even without a shared interest in the distribution of power at the top, will continue to work against open fractures. But there is a chance that divisions within the family could interact with sources of discontent outside the family, perhaps with a frustrated and ambitious prince making appeals for broader support.
Even if that does not happen and the House of Saud presents a unified front, the elements of instability in this still-anachronistic system persist. One cannot have high confidence in the continued contentment of a population that lacks political rights, whose welfare has become more difficult for their rulers to secure, whose place in a globalized economy is still uncertain, who are exposed daily to messages about alternative ways of organizing politics and society, and who see above them a royal family numbering in the thousands whose privileged existence is funded by raked-off oil profits. The optimists may be right about Saudi Arabia's future, but there is a not insignificant chance that they will be wrong. That is one of the reasons a close relationship with the Saudis is risky.