Is Saudi Arabia More Trouble Than It's Worth?

Is Saudi Arabia More Trouble Than It's Worth?

It is time to reconsider partnerships that directly contradict both American values and interests.

Which brings us to Kosovo. Recently, the New York Times published a dramatic story about Saudi-underwritten Wahhabist extremism in Kosovo. However, in 2015, the government passed the Foreign Terrorist Fighter Law, which has yielded over fifty arrests of Kosovars who have travelled to fight with ISIS and similar terrorist groups. Pristina has proven its commitment to combatting radicalization in spite of Saudi-sponsored teachers and preachers minting extremists. In both Nigeria and Kosovo, U.S. governance and security goals are being undercut by the troubling spread of Wahhabism, which bears a “Made in Saudi Arabia” sticker.

By failing to cut off supposedly charitable donations from Saudi nationals to known terrorist groups, Saudi Arabia is tacitly encouraging the export of an extreme interpretation of Islam. This brand of Islam rejects religious freedom, women’s rights and free expression, crowding out healthy debate within Islam about how to more moderately reconcile religion with individual rights. While direct linkages between Al Qaeda, ISIS and Saudi government funding have yet to be concretely substantiated, there is no doubt that Riyadh countenances and protects those exporting this radical ideology—and, by extension, fuels the terrorism that both America and the kingdom claim to be fighting.

There is little time left in Barack Obama’s presidency to seriously recalibrate the bilateral relationship. President Obama and King Salman have exchanged their share of snubs and seem to find each other mutually frustrating. Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office in 2017, a change in U.S. leadership provides an opportunity to realign strategic relationships to favor more reasonable and responsible allies. For decades, U.S. policy has embraced a Faustian bargain with Saudi Arabia as an alleged necessity. Based on the premise that Washington needs a close partnership with a major power broker in the region, a turn away from Saudi Arabia presumes a diplomatic pivot toward Iran. Tehran’s practice of openly sponsoring terrorist organizations and its legacy of equally egregious human-rights violations make it an unpalatable alternative partner. But it is a false dichotomy to suggest that the United States must either preserve a close relationship with Saudi Arabia or assertively freeze it out. Two countries can, at times, pursue joint strategic gain without requiring the United States to compromise its moral obligations, but Washington must not ignore Saudi threats to American interests.

Altering the U.S.-Saudi relationship does not require a complete diplomatic freeze. Too drastic a shift could unintentionally embolden Iran and complicate the situation in Syria. Instead, the United States should define its range of options in incremental, but diplomatically symbolic, terms. A prudent policy reorientation must include actions significant enough to signal the gravity of the situation to Riyadh without shredding veritable U.S. interests. Washington must stop treating Saudi Arabia with kid gloves. A postoil world is not yet a reality, but as the dependency balance continues to shift, U.S. diplomacy can increasingly prioritize human rights. Washington should no longer allow its own resources and reputation to be manipulated by a Saudi agenda discordant with America’s own. The United States can make judicious, firm demands of Riyadh aimed at achievable change—not least for the House of Saud’s own good, lest it be hoisted on its own petard due its brittle rule and export of extremism.


SAUDI ARABIA has systematically violated universal human rights while simultaneously undermining U.S. strategic interests. But it would be a pipe dream to expect results overnight by asking for grand gestures and systematic change. Washington should embrace two policy changes and U.S. officials should push Riyadh to adopt two key reforms.

The United States should draw down military-to-military financial, logistical and intelligence support. The Obama administration took an important step in May to block the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia in light of their actions in Yemen. The end of an overly cozy partnership should constrict U.S. support of Riyadh’s aggressive and regionally destabilizing military escapades. The United States should use the cluster bomb freeze as a first step in its effort to tangibly decrease the amount of weaponry, logistical and intelligence support it provides to the Saudi military. Between May 2015 and March 2016, Washington sold its Gulf allies $33 billion in weapons. Some of this cache was targeted for joint activities in Syria, but it also represented a tacit approval of Riyadh’s war in Yemen. This foreign-policy expedition is not the first of its kind. During the Arab Spring, Saudi forces provided significant military assistance to Bahrain to quell popular uprisings and remained in the country to ensure the Bahraini regime’s grip on power. The United States should not tolerate such behavior; decreasing defense cooperation would be an appropriate response.

Washington’s second policy change would see the enforcement of rights-based sanctions. As the State Department’s ambassador-at-large and director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, I visited Saudi Arabia and saw firsthand the pervasiveness of forced labor. Men and women from South and East Asia, the Middle East and Africa are recruited by Saudi Arabia as migrant workers, and are subsequently forced into debt bondage with their papers withheld. In my diplomatic visits from 2007 to 2009, only in Riyadh did I encounter such a distinct air of indifference toward U.S. démarches. Not least among the reasons for such disrespect for American diplomatic requests was the choice of Washington to provide a waiver for the sanctions that should have been triggered by Saudi Arabia’s Tier 3 ranking in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, the very lowest rating. The country has made modest improvements, lifting its rating to the Tier 2 Watch List, but there is still much work to be done.

In February 2016, Saudi Arabia was redesignated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (IRF). Both the IRF designation as a CPC and the previous Tier 3 TIP ranking are supposed to trigger penalties including economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel and visa restrictions. The rationale for these sanctions is to signal that the country’s relationship with the United States would be palpably affected, thereby providing motivation for a country to improve its record. When an American president, however, believes that strategic interests outweigh human rights, they are likely to waive these sanctions. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush both waived TIP and IRF sanctions for Saudi Arabia when the kingdom made no attempt to improve its record on either front. If the United States is willing to risk the status quo in the Middle East (in favor of a longer-term perspective on stability) by finally putting more pressure on the Saudi government, it should implement deserved sanctions on religious freedom and trafficking if there is slippage back to Tier 3 on TIP. American credibility is at stake.

As for Riyadh, an audit of Wahhabi charities is desperately needed. The export of Wahhabism by the kingdom and its subsidiaries represents the most acute threat to U.S. interests in the Muslim world (as well as Saudi Arabia’s professed interest in counterterrorism). The funding streams are so diverse and muddled, with thousands of imams and mosques around the world as beneficiaries, that a blanket request to block these financial streams would be unlikely to illicit a response and impossible to implement. But the exporting of Wahhabism is too dangerous to let stand and, unlike the other egregious human-rights violations documented above, may eventually pose a direct threat to the security of the United States. In many cases, the organizations that purport to serve orphans and the poor only spend a fraction of their budgets on relevant charitable services, while the rest is dedicated to building mosques, training local imams and producing Islamic texts that promote radicalization. Washington should call on the Saudi Ministry of Finance to audit all Islamic charities registered in the kingdom that do work abroad.

Secondly, the kingdom must rescind the oppressive “guardian requirement.” Although an ambitious request, abolishing the guardian requirement would provide tremendous advancements both for the women and economy of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has made symbolic improvements on the status of women over the past five years, suggesting that it is open to change. However, the actual policies that have been enacted are largely window dressing. Whether providing women the opportunity to vote in mostly meaningless municipal elections, or loosening restrictions on employment, these new policies do not actually solve the daily inequities that keep women confined to their homes. Real change will come when the kingdom realizes that empowering half of its population will alleviate economic pressure caused by the transition from an oil-based economy. Allowing women to fully participate in society will accomplish the government’s goal of increasing employment rates of nationals instead of relying on foreign labor (an alleged necessity Saudi authorities spoke of when I was U.S. antitrafficking envoy). The percentage of women who are seeking higher education has increased significantly; as we speak, more than half of Saudi university students are women. But bars on the professions in which a Saudi woman can work, and the requirement that she must have her travel, employment and educational decisions approved by her guardian, stunts her personal potential and the growth of the country’s economy. Legally allowing Saudi women to make their own decisions will solve a glaring market inefficiency, and will serve to protect those women who may live under the abusive control of domineering fathers, husbands and sons.