February 14 marked the 75th anniversary of the 1945 meeting between Saudi King Abdulaziz Al Saud and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, an event that marked the beginning of what is known today as the longest U.S. relationship with an Arab state.
The alliance between Riyadh and Washington has always been based on common interests and goals rather than shared values or principles.
It is no secret that the alliance between Riyadh and Washington has always been based on common interests and goals rather than shared values or principles. These mutual benefits have dominated the relationship and allowed it to survive several tense moments during its history, including the 1973 oil embargo (which occurred due to Washington’s support of Israel in its war against Arab states) and the September 11 attacks (which caused great frictions to develop because 15 of the 19 men who hijacked the planes were Saudi citizens).
Yet the common strategic goals and economic ties between the two nations have made Washington’s support to Riyadh appear unconditional. The extent of this backing has been underscored, and even intensified, by the current U.S. administration under President Donald Trump.
No Saudi official’s actions have caused more damage to the relations than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)
On the one hand, no Saudi official’s actions have caused more damage to the relations than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the de facto ruler of the kingdom. On the other hand, no U.S. president has ever turned a blind eye toward the human rights violations taking place in the kingdom more than Trump.
For instance, in 2011, two days after Saudi Arabia dispatched its troops to aid Bahrain in response to anti-government protests, Bahraini forces reportedly used tanks and helicopters to drive protesters off the streets in the capital, clearing the camp in Pearl Roundabout, which had become a symbol of the demonstrations. At the time, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Bahrain and its allies, meaning Saudi Arabia without naming it, were on the wrong track.
By contrast, under President Trump, the U.S. has become a cover for Saudi Arabia’s violations. Despite the fact that the U.S. is meant to be a champion for human rights, the current American president did not speak out or take a firm position against the kingdom’s imprisonment of human rights activists. Moreover, although Yemen has become the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis (largely due to the Saudi-led coalition’s actions), President Trump’s support for the kingdom has not wavered.
President Trump’s support for the kingdom has not wavered.
Even after the brutal murder and inhumane dismemberment of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, Trump never directly condemned the person who the CIA concluded had ordered the murder—MbS.
Moreover, Trump vetoed the War Power Act, which was passed with bipartisan support and would have ended Washington’s involvement in Yemen’s war. If the Trump administration was firm in not allowing its weapons to be used by Saudi Arabia to bomb civilians, and if it did not display its current incomprehensible behavior of supporting the crown prince, perhaps the duration of Yemen’s war would not have been prolonged for this long.
Trump’s willingness to condone or ignore these factors suggest that MbS has a steadfast backer in the White House.
However, the cover-up of Khashoggi’s assassination appears to have united several institutions, including Congress, in condemning the actions that the kingdom has witnessed under MbS’ era. This has been illustrated in the widespread outrage to Yemen’s war, which Khashoggi’s murder led the American public to increasingly look at.
“The Trump Administration has sought to cover up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and actively support Saudi war crimes in Yemen,” Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Denver, told Inside Arabia. “This has defied global public opinion which strongly opposes Saudi policy in both of these cases. This has produced a new scrutiny of the US-Saudi relationship, among American citizens. The future of US-Saudi relations looks very dark in the coming days, in large part because of Trump’s embrace of MbS and his violent policies.”
It has only been a little over half a decade since King Salman took the throne, a period which also witnessed the rise of MbS. The prince’s policies have led the kingdom to abandon the “quiet diplomacy” approach that it used to be known for.
Trump’s continuous support appears to have made the situation worse as it may have given the Saudis an impression that since Trump does not seem to be bothered by what they are doing, they can just carry on.
That has clearly impacted the kingdom’s relationship with the institutions in Washington. Trump’s continuous support appears to have made the situation worse as it may have given the Saudis an impression that since Trump does not seem to be bothered by what they are doing, they can just carry on.
One thing, however, which has taken the Saudis some time to realize is, although Trump appears to be a staunch ally, it is unlikely that he will get himself into a war with a country like Iran for their sake. For instance, when the two Aramco facilities were hit on September 14, 2019 – an attack that was suspected to involve Iran — Trump’s response was less firm than what Riyadh may have wished for.
When Trump said he did not promise the Saudis that he is going to protect them, that should have been a wake-up call to Riyadh. “I haven’t promised the Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. And the Saudis want very much for us to protect them, but I say, well, we have to work,” he said. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us.”
Indeed, by such a response, Trump has all but abandoned The Carter Doctrine, which explicitly committed the United States to defend the oil fields of the Persian Gulf against external threats. It appeared to be an example of a Trumpian commitment only to economic ties with the oil-rich kingdom, rather than a commitment to a longstanding, favorable US policy.