HOW WILL Donald Trump deal with Saudi Arabia? Relations with Saudi Arabia deteriorated during the Obama administration, and require a lot of work to repair. But the first question that the new administration will have to address is the extent to which it even wants to. On one hand, the U.S.-Saudi connection is vital to preserving a low, or at least stable, price of oil, traditionally seen as Washington’s most important interest in the region. Riyadh is also the leader of a “moderate” or at least relatively pro-Western camp of Arab states, opposing rogue regimes, like Iran, that sponsor terrorism. In particular, Saudi Arabia is an integral counterterrorism partner, playing a major role in combating terrorism funding and the day-to-day disruption of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and like-minded jihadists.
It is commonplace to say that the two countries need each other and that necessity will keep them close, but shared interests, while still real, have diminished. Although President Obama sold the kingdom over $100 billion in arms, the Saudi media frequently portrayed his administration as unreliable and hostile. Oil prices are half of what they were in 2014. The shale and fracking revolution has transformed the United States into a major oil exporter—and thus a competitor of the kingdom. Saudi leaders were outraged that the United States abandoned Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and they subsequently backed the coup in Egypt, in opposition to U.S. policy. Although painstaking diplomacy may have removed the specter of a nuclear Iran for the time being, the Saudis opposed the deal, fearing a closer relationship between Washington and Tehran. Libya and Syria, once sources of external aggression, are now mired in strife. It is their weakness, not strength, that poses a threat to the region. Most Saudis do not share U.S. values regarding women’s and LGBTQ rights, religious liberty and other basic freedoms that are fundamental to American society, yet the Obama administration largely abandoned criticizing the Saudi regime on human-rights grounds.
Today, what keeps the relationship together is counterterrorism, where Saudi Arabia plays a major role sharing intelligence, countering terrorist financing and assisting U.S. military operations. A number of prominent counterterrorism and national-security officials penned an open letter in the fall, declaring, “Over time, the Kingdom has evolved into one of Washington’s most important and reliable partners in counterterrorism, both globally and within the region.”
Yet even the counterterrorism relationship is troubled. In 2016, Congress overrode President Obama’s veto and passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which narrows the scope of sovereign immunity with regard to counterterrorism, enabling 9/11 victims and others to sue Saudi Arabia for any support it gave to terrorists. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a supporter of JASTA, contended that the Saudis “provided financial support to terror-linked operations.” Sen. Chris Murphy, another northeastern Democrat, offered a broader criticism, noting,
We have largely turned the other way and allowed for the Saudis to create a version of Islam which has become the building blocks for the very groups that we are fighting today. And we have plead with them, we have asked them to stop, and the evidence suggests they have not.
In a leaked 2013 closed-door speech, Hillary Clinton declared, “The Saudis have exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last thirty years.”
The truth is that counterterrorism is complex and defies simplistic labels. Saudi Arabia has made considerable progress in the last fifteen years. But it still has a long way to go. Before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks—and really, until Al Qaeda began to attack the kingdom directly in May 2003—Saudi Arabia was largely uncooperative, more often part of the problem than the solution. Since 2003, the Saudi regime has emerged as a crucial counterterrorism partner, and contributed to several important successes against Al Qaeda. Complicating this picture, however, is an array of preachers and nongovernmental organizations, some of which contribute to regime legitimacy. Depending on the occasion, Riyadh will support, ignore or crack down on these actors. Government support for them contributes to an overall climate of radicalization, making it far more difficult to stem violent extremism. As a result, the kingdom still spews out anti-Semitic and sectarian rhetoric, often glorifying conflicts in which jihadists play an active role.
Donald Trump must recognize that Washington’s ability to influence the kingdom is limited, given domestic sensitivities. In the end, policymakers would do well to remember that Saudi Arabia is a key partner, but not a friend: Washington and Riyadh share many common interests, but they do not share common values or a common worldview.
SAUDI ARABIA has always been a conservative Muslim country, but when the kingdom assumed its modern form in 1932 its religious energy was initially focused inward. In the 1960s, however, King Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz sought to form alliances based on a shared Muslim identity. Religion was meant to thwart the radical pan-Arabism of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser that was then threatening the legitimacy of monarchies throughout the region. Such an identity was meant to unite states against international Communism, which Faisal and the Saudi leadership vehemently opposed, and support Palestinian independence. Domestic politics also played a role: Faisal had essentially usurped the throne from his inept brother Saud, and support from the religious establishment was central to ensuring his legitimacy. To this end, Faisal created the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Muslim World League, and embraced an array of religious causes abroad.