Saudi Arabia Has Become a Geopolitical Loose Cannon

Saudi Arabia Has Become a Geopolitical Loose Cannon

Why does Washington continue to embrace the Saudi royals? Its relationship with the KSA is embarrassing, counterproductive and unnecessary.

Moreover, MbS launched a reckless and aggressive campaign to extend Saudi influence in the Middle East, which proved to be more threatening than Iran’s activities. Whatever Tehran’s pretensions, the nation is a wreck: economically disabled, politically divided, internationally isolated. The supposedly vast empire that Iran is allegedly amassing is more cost than benefit: destroyed Syria, ravaged Yemen, hobbled Lebanon, enfeebled Iraq. Why would anyone want responsibility for such a list?

Yet Saudi Arabia has been actively destabilizing the region while actively promoting repression and tyranny. In Egypt Riyadh has underwritten the al-Sisi dictatorship, more brutal than the Mubarak regime at its worst. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has killed and arrested members of the Muslim Brotherhood, tried and imprisoned democracy activists and demonstrators, jailed critical journalists and student protestors, shuttered Egyptian and foreign NGOs, “disappeared” political activists, and arrested and tortured foreign critics, even murdering an Italian student investigating regime practices. The Saudis have generously sustained the dictatorship financially, collecting two disputed islands as recompense.

The 2011 Arab Spring encouraged democracy activists in Bahrain, a majority Shia nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy. The regime responded with repression and violence and was backed by Saudi troops. Manama nevertheless denounced Iran for the latter’s alleged interference, which was only made possible by the Bahraini ruling family’s refusal to accept even peaceful opposition.

In 1975 Lebanon slid into a disastrous civil war. At one point the United States intervened amid at least a score of competing military factions, with disastrous results. Even after the conflict’s end in 1990 the country remained fragile as Christian, Sunni and Shia factions jockeyed for power through an explicitly sectarian distribution of political offices. Last year, however, MbS summoned Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, head of the predominant Sunni faction allied with the Kingdom, to Riyadh, where the Lebanese leader was detained and forced to resign, in a bizarre attempt by the Saudi government to pressure Hezbollah, a quasi-governmental Shia force allied with Iran. The result was global shock—even the Saudi Royals are not allowed to kidnap foreign leaders. Under pressure Harari was released, when he repudiated his resignation. Ironically, Hezbollah was strengthened as Lebanese united in their demand for his return.

Riyadh joined with the United Arab Emirates to isolate Qatar for similarly dubious reasons. The KSA cited Doha’s alleged ties with terrorists, but that long was a specialty of the Saudis. Riyadh was more upset about Qatar’s relationship with Iran, with which the Qataris share ownership of a natural gas field. Qatar also hosts unpopular political movements, such as Hamas, the Taliban, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which criticized the Saudi royals and other Arab regimes. (Ironically, UAE originally sought the Taliban “embassy.”) Riyadh also hated Doha-backed al-Jazeera, popular throughout the Arab world and ever-ready to highlight Saudi abuses. MbS’s campaign backfired spectacularly, pushing Qatar closer to Iran and bringing Turkey into Gulf affairs.

The Saudis also intervened in Syria, mostly to empower jihadist forces against the al-Assad government. The KSA military was not particularly effective and soon was diverted to Yemen. Riyadh’s aid mostly went to radical Islamists closer to the Kingdom’s Wahhabist leanings than the supposed “moderates” favored by Washington. Had the KSA succeeded, Syria would have ended up as another extreme Islamist regime hostile to America.

Finally, MbS is the principal architect, along with UAE, of the disastrous attack on Yemen. The latter has suffered through almost continual civil war and violent strife for a half century. At one point Egyptian and Saudi soldiers intervened on opposite sides. In 2014 the long-time obstreperous Houthis, religiously Zaydis borrowing from both Shiites and Sunnis, joined with their former antagonist, recently ousted President Ali Abdallah Saleh, to defenestrate his successor, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Iran played only a minimal role in the Yemeni saga.

However, the Saudis desired to ensure a puppet government in Sanaa and intervened on Hadi’s behalf. Since then Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have diverged in their aims, with UAE abandoning Hadi and promoting separatism in what had once been the nation of South Yemen. The Obama administration intervened to back the KSA, providing munitions, aerial refueling and targeting assistance. The conflict has been a human horror. Humanitarian groups figure the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for at least three-quarters of the civilian deaths, which top ten thousand. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have destroyed Yemen’s health care system, triggered a cholera epidemic, and created widespread malnutrition and starvation. As a public-relations exercise the Kingdom offered “aid” to the country that it systematically destroyed.

Again, MbS’s policy backfired. Tehran offered modest support to the Houthis, bleeding Saudi Arabia, which discovered that tens of billions of dollars in sophisticated weapons do not a competent military make. Observed Peter Salisbury of London’s Chatham House, “The Yemen war was meant to be a demonstration of Saudi Arabia’s ability to push back against Iran’s role in the region. The opposite has happened though.” The KSA’s international reputation suffered as it murdered helpless civilians for no serious geopolitical purpose.

Why does Washington continue to embrace the Saudi royals? Its relationship with the KSA is embarrassing, counterproductive and unnecessary. America is moving ahead of Saudi Arabia in oil production. New sources elsewhere have reduced the Kingdom’s once dominant role as a supplier. Israel and the Gulf States easily can constrain Iran without U.S. backing.

That doesn’t mean the United States should treat Riyadh as an enemy. Rather, Americans should deal with the Kingdom when convenient, without the pretense of friendship. Washington should freely criticize what is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, applying the same standards to the Kingdom as to Iran, for instance. Noted Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch: “Mohammed bin Salman’s well-funded image as a reformist falls flat in the face of Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe and scores of activists and political dissidents languishing Saudi prisons on spurious charges.”

U.S. policy should reflect the fact that MbS is impulsive, reckless and authoritarian, despite his willingness to liberalize Saudi social life. If he is serious about reform, then his agenda must include allowing greater freedom of expression and religious worship by non-Muslims, advancing the rule of law over that of men, and restraining international adventurism. Until then, the KSA will be as much foe as friend of American principles and interests.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Image: Reuters


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