On May 19, President Obama delivered a long-awaited speech on his policy toward the changing Middle East and North Africa. He voiced support for peaceful protests and democratic reforms and admonished a number of corrupt and autocratic rulers, but made no mention of the al-Sauds or of Saudi Arabia. This omission was presumably not because of Saudi Arabia’s respect for representative government, human rights or social and economic justice, but was instead perhaps a reflection of the importance the US administration attaches to Saudi Arabia as a “strategic ally.” Is this presumed alliance indeed strategic to US national interests? What should the administration’s policy toward Saudi Arabia be?
The White House purportedly sees the dimensions of this strategic alliance as important for: (i) maintaining energy security, (ii) countering Iranian expansionism, (iii) fighting Islamic extremism, (iv) fighting terrorism, (v) helping the Arab-Israeli peace process, (vi) selling US arms, and most broadly (vii) providing a cornerstone to US Mideast policy. Are these reasons truly strategic or are they in fact a Washington smokescreen?
Yes, Saudi Arabia sells the US oil and is our third largest source of foreign oil supplies, but as I have said before, this hardly means that the US has to protect the al-Sauds in order to have stable energy supplies at market prices. Such a proposition is the nonsense perpetrated by those who either don’t understand oil markets or who benefit from US ties to the al-Sauds. What would actually happen if Saudi Arabia refused to sell its oil to the US? We would get our oil from another oil exporter while Saudi Arabia sold what it would have sold the US to another importer. For most major oil exporters, oil is all they export. They need oil revenues as much as we need oil. It would be a problem if one or two countries took over all the Persian Gulf oil, cornered the market, acted as a monopoly and jacked up prices to punish importers, but that is not the case today. The world, China included, would not stand for such a concentration of oil resources. Also don’t forget that while Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter today, another exporter at some point in the future may replace it in this role; some executives in the oil industry expect Iraq to replace Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil exporter within the next ten years. We cannot have a special relationship with whoever happens to be the largest oil exporter at any given time. What matters is that oil markets are orderly and supplies do not become concentrated in one or two hands. We have no need to support the al-Sauds.
The mullahs have been their own (and Iran’s) worst enemy and have embarked on a number of stupid things, but expansionism has not been one of them. They have interfered here and there, especially in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza, because they have felt threatened by US military encirclement and growing Saudi influence in the region. If Iran had expansion in mind, Kuwait, not Saudi Arabia, would be its obvious target. After the demise of Communism, the Saudis and the other Arab monarchies have adopted Iran as the convenient bogeyman. Blaming everything that goes awry on Iran seems to be the best way to get US support and the attention of the rest of the world.
Fighting Islamic Extremism:
Anyone who says that Saudi Arabia is a helpful partner in fighting Islamic extremism has his head in the sand! Saudi schools, more precisely their curricula and books, and Saudi-financed madrassas are the breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Read the fatwas and pronouncements of Saudi religious ‘scholars’ to get an idea of their views on democracy. They have even determined that peaceful protests are un-Islamic. Social conditions in Saudi Arabia—no constitution, no free press, no national elections, no freedom of worship, no church or synagogue, no freedom to congregate and protest, severely limited rights for women—make the Iran of the mullahs look wildly liberal.
Partner in Counterterrorism:
While it is possible that Saudi Arabia has provided the US with useful intelligence, it should be remembered that Saudi Arabia has been the financier of al-Qaeda, bred Osama bin Laden and provided fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers.
Key Player in the Arab-Israeli Peace Process:
How did Washington dream this one up? Yes, King Abdullah has put forward a “plan,” as have many others, but with no earth-shattering new ideas. Saudi Arabia’s money has influenced Fatah, Arafat and now Abbas, while to Palestinians the al-Sauds are a symbol of Arab decadence and ineptitude. These credentials hardly add up to the label of ‘key player’ in the peace process.
Top US Arms Importer:
This nobody can deny. The US arms industry is a big supporter and lobbyist for the Saudi regime. Selling arms to Saudi Arabia provides American jobs, reduces the unit cost of US military purchases and in case of an emergency provides the United States with potential access to prepositioned military equipment. While Saudi arms imports provide these limited benefits to the US, don’t forget the harm they do. Vast Saudi military expenditures impede Saudi economic progress, especially for future generations when oil runs out, and lethal US military hardware may be turned on Saudi citizens to quash peaceful protests one day.
Saudi Arabia as Central to US Mideast Policy:
Undoubtedly Saudi Arabia should be a highly important partner for Washington’s policy in the Arab world, but could collaboration with the al-Sauds despite continuation of their rule as before, especially with the ongoing sea change in a number of Arab countries, be of benefit? The answer is an emphatic no. The citizens of the Middle East, if not of the entire world, will simply dismiss US claims of supporting self-determination if the administration continues to support change everywhere except in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. The omission of Saudi Arabia from Obama’s presidential addresses cannot protect the US from ridicule.
On the one hand, if most countries in the region succeed in adopting representative government, better institutions and progressive economic systems, then US support for the al-Sauds will be seen as the sole reason for the plight of Saudis and other GCC citizens. On the other hand, if most countries in the region fail to adopt change successfully, the US will be blamed for not providing sufficient leadership and momentum, thus encouraging those opposed to change to reverse the success of initial protests in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. The administration policy course is a dead end.
Washington is planning to authorize huge arms sales to the GCC, principally to Saudi Arabia followed by the UAE. The US firm Blackwater, with a contract in the hundreds of millions of dollars in Abu Dhabi, is reportedly training an elite rapid deployment mercenary force of nearly one thousand men. The US military, for its part, is training and equipping a new 45,000-man force in Saudi Arabia. The GCC is reportedly planning to build joint-military bases in each of its member countries. Most recently, the al-Sauds have decided to actively lobby against US initiatives toward representative government. In other words, Saudia Arabia is directly undermining Washington’s efforts. All of this is being justified on the basis of the alleged “Iranian threat.” Middle Eastern activists have already voiced the opinion that future crackdowns are likely to be harsher than anything we have seen to date. In this event, who will Middle Easterners blame? In the end, change will come to Saudi Arabia and the GCC. The only questions are how and when.
To his credit, President Obama acknowledged the fact that the political transformation of these societies must be accompanied by dramatic economic reforms and forward-looking policies. Middle Eastern economies are languishing with high unemployment and little hope for a sustained turnaround. Oil exporters with their immense oil revenues have still to develop a significant non-oil sector to provide jobs. But sustained and widespread economic progress will not come before political change; real economic progress needs good institutions as its foundation. Unfortunately, rulers across the Mideast will not champion good institutions, such as the rule of law, because good institutions would impinge on their corruption.
President Obama’s approach in the Mideast is also exacerbating the Sunni-Shia divide in the region and in particular in the Persian Gulf. How long does he expect the Shia, the majority Muslim sect in the Persian Gulf, to do nothing while their brethren in Bahrain are being arrested, tortured and imprisoned by Saudi and Bahraini forces?
In the Middle East as elsewhere in the world, countries are known by their policies as well as by the company they keep. This administration’s implicit and explicit support of the al-Sauds will identify it with their abusive policies, destroy what popularity Washington enjoys in this region, embarrass the United States on the global stage and endanger our national interests. Only special interest groups—those selling arms, Washington lobbyists and others with service contracts in Saudi Arabia and in the rest of the GCC—could support this administration’s flawed policy.