The Obama administration supported the overthrow of an unpopular dictator in Tunisia, called for Mubarak’s ouster, initiated a NATO attack on Gaddafi’s forces, froze his assets and called for him to step down, accused Bashar Assad of brutality and suggested targeted sanctions, and warned Iran against interfering and supporting oppression in Syria. Yet when it came to Bahrain, statements in support of the legitimate rights of protesters were mute once Saudi forces intervened. With Saudi troops oppressing Bahrainis, invading hospitals, arresting medical professionals and breaking international laws and conventions in support of minority family rulers, all the U.S. administration could muster was the statement that foreign intervention was “unhelpful” and that it was “concerned.”
While it may be tempting to stress the importance of the U.S. naval base in Bahrain to justify the hands-off approach, the motivation is almost exclusively al-Saud driven. Why does the U.S. pander so to the al-Sauds? With no constitution, no parliament and no elections for national office, the al-Sauds can hardly claim electoral legitimacy. Yet they are quick to endow themselves with an intangible religious right as the “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques” because of the location of Mecca (Kaaba) and Medina (the mosque of the Prophet Mohammad) on Saudi soil and the endorsements from religious scholars who are on their payroll. The al-Sauds waste the country’s oil revenues, they build palaces that overlook the Kaaba, they live lavishly while many of their subjects languish in deprivation, they ban protests (on March 29, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia was printing 1.5 million copies of an edict by religious scholars outlawing protests as un-Islamic), they imprison all those that oppose them, they do not permit freedom of the press, they discriminate among their citizenry, and they ban all religions besides Islam.
Are the al-Sauds a great U.S. ally? No. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. King Faisal was the force behind the Arab oil embargo targeting the U.S. in 1973. Saudi citizens, and possibly the Saudi government, are the principle backers of Muslim extremists around the world, who in turn target the United States. The majority of suicide bombers in Iraq came from Saudi Arabia. The al-Sauds deceived the United States in their secret dealings to strengthen economic ties with China. They have opposed democratic reforms throughout the Arab world and they attempted to prop up Mubarak with cash—they are now doing so with force in Bahrain.
Are Washington’s economic and financial links to Riyadh indispensable to U.S. national interests? American business ties to Saudi Arabia include: exports (especially of military hardware), imports of oil, and Saudi investments in the U.S. (in particular, purchases of U.S. government securities). In 2010, the Obama administration informed Congress of its plans to sell Saudi Arabia $60 billion in military equipment over a number of years. While U.S. exports to Saudi Arabia—which range from $10-15 billion per year—are not significant in comparison to total U.S. exports of about $2 trillion, exports of military hardware are important for the U.S. defense industry. At the same time, pre-positioned military equipment is useful to the U.S. in case of an emergency.
On the import side, the U.S. imports $20-25 billion, largely crude oil and some refined products. If Saudi Arabia refused to sell us oil, what would happen? We could get it from elsewhere as we did initially in 1973 during the Arab oil embargo. The al-Sauds, Chavezes, Ahmadinejads and other oil-rich potentates of this world must sell their oil for badly needed revenues to fill the bellies of their people. They sell oil at the market price and we get no discount. Yes, there could be a problem if a handful of countries had all the oil (through new discoveries or through aggression) and cornered the market, but that is not the case today. Americans should realize that politicians and business executives justify pandering to the al-Sauds by using catchphrases such as “access to Saudi oil” and the “free flow of oil.” This is fearmongering.
One thing is for sure. The al-Sauds cannot prevent change in Saudi Arabia. Change will come. The only questions are how and when. Arab countries are going through a political sea change and Saudi Arabia will be no island. The al-Sauds have no more legitimacy than Mubarak or Assad. The citizenry in the Middle East is crying out for social and economic justice. Middle Eastern economies are languishing with high unemployment and little hope for a sustained turnaround. Saudi Arabia with all its oil revenues has still to develop a significant non-oil sector to provide jobs for the growing number of entrants into its labor market. Sustained and widespread economic progress will not come before there is revolutionary change. Corrupt rulers cannot abide institutions that diminish their privileged positions. In Saudi Arabia institutions are about as bad as anywhere else.
If the U.S. administration selectively supports peaceful protests only when its perceived interests are not threatened but is mute when it is confronted by oil-rich absolute monarchies, it will alienate the vast majority of Muslims and the entire Shia community in the Persian Gulf. Such duplicity can only exacerbate the Shia-Sunni divide and fuel future conflicts. For how long can the Saudis and the GCC forestall democratic change? Supporting the al-Sauds in their stand against reform is a policy that cannot be maintained. It will destroy what popularity the U.S. enjoys in the region. It will end up embarrassing Washington. And above all it does not serve U.S. national interests.