The kingdom is also beginning—in rhetoric at least—a massive economic restructuring. Its economy remains dependent on oil, its public sector is bloated, its education system needs to teach more practical knowledge, and Saudis have grown used to massive government subsidies: all daunting challenges. The new king and his son have proposed an ambitious set of reforms to wean the kingdom off oil. Potential changes include a decrease in subsidies, the sale of public lands and a value-added tax. The pace of Saudi reforms, however, is often glacial. To the extent that the kingdom’s own radicalization problems are driven by economic and social ills, little progress is likely in the near term, and things may get much worse.
AMERICAN PRESSURE under the Bush and Obama administrations led the Saudi regime to decrease its backing of extremism at times and has helped transform its capacity to fight terrorism. Even if the key motivation was the change in the perceived threat to the kingdom itself, rather than U.S. influence, these are genuine successes that deserve recognition.
Further altering Saudi policy is a daunting goal. Riyadh must go beyond a narrow definition of counterterrorism and examine its own role in fostering a climate of extremism. Many counterterrorism issues—particularly the promotion of extremism abroad via sectarianism and criticism of non-Muslims—touch on core domestic political issues conducive to the regime’s legitimacy and very survival. Reforms in these areas will come slowly, at best, and the United States should expect regression should the regime face a serious challenge to its reign.
Quiet pressure is almost always most prudent. The small circle of decisionmakers in Saudi Arabia does not take well to public embarrassment, and they believe strongly in the value of close personal relationships. To be effective, U.S. pressure must involve top officials, including the president. Otherwise, it will simply be ignored or may even prove counterproductive.
The Trump administration should recognize that Saudi Arabia is vital to the struggle to defeat the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. But it is not a friend. Demonizing Saudi Arabia does not help advance U.S. interests, and the ties that bind should not be dismissed. But neither should the new administration see Washington and Riyadh as fully aligned, given the profound difference in values.
Daniel Byman is a professor and senior associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Follow him @dbyman.
Image: U.S.-Saudi bilateral machine gun live-fire training. Flickr/U.S. Naval Forces Central Command