The Saudi-U.S. Alliance Is More Than ‘Complicated’

During a meeting at the 2015 APEC summit in Manila, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asked former U.S. President Barack Obama, “[A]ren’t the Saudis your friends?” Obama replied, “[I]t’s complicated.”

The Saudi-U.S. alliance has spanned the last eighty years and is, indeed, nothing short of complicated. Yet, it is also an increasingly unstable relationship for both parties. As President Donald Trump’s isolationist-oriented policies shrink the number of names on the United States’s friend list, it may well be worth reconsidering whether or not one of America’s oldest friends is in fact its most reliable partner.

The Saudi-U.S. relationship has become even rockier, fueled by anti-American sentiment fomented by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia itself is also becoming progressively more unstable domestically. One must take a step back in history to see how we got here.

The 1953 coup in Iran, backed by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), overthrew elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and brought to power Shah (King) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The U.S.’ motives for orchestrating this regime change, however, had little to do with its interest in Iranian domestic politics and everything to do with preserving the superpower’s own national interests. The regime change in Iran secured Western geopolitical interests in the region by safeguarding Iranian oil from the Soviet grasp and placing it under Western control.

Fearing that the Shah was susceptible to opposition forces from within Iran’s borders, similar to those that ousted pro-U.S. governments in Iraq in 1958 and Cuba in 1959, the U.S. promoted policies to counteract what it considered to be Iran’s weaknesses: an unrepresentative regime and an unstable economy. The Shah’s political liberalization policies, aimed at gaining U.S. support, initiated extensive repression of the opposition, and ultimately resulted in the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew him.

The Saudi monarchy may fear a similar fate to that of the Iranian Shah, particularly as it is seen as being too close to the West. Yet, the al-Saud dynasty has faced domestic and international challenges from its own ultra-conservative Islamist movements since the monarchy’s inception, long before 1979. Its alliance with the West is nothing new.

In the 1920s, King Ibn Saud had to subdue Wahhabi tribal warriors for fear of upsetting the inhabitants of the holy lands in the Hijaz, not to mention upsetting the kingdom’s British allies. This existential fear helps illuminate Saudi Arabia’s reliance on, and simultaneous mistrust of, the U.S., that contributes to the instability of the relationship. This distrust of the U.S. should not, however, be conflated with the ongoing Saudi crackdown on moderate reformists.

The Saudi-U.S. alliance began in 1933 when the two countries first established full diplomatic relations. The same year, Standard Oil of California (Chevron) was granted a concession to explore Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province for oil, which it found in 1938.

When the U.S. emerged from World War II, nearly a decade later, as one of the world’s two superpowers, most nations divided their allegiances between either the Soviet or the U.S. camp. Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and the PLO sided with the USSR, while ultraconservative Saudi Arabia gravitated towards the U.S.

The alliance was cemented in the Suez Canal on February 14, 1945, aboard the USS Quincy, an American warship. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia, met over the course of two days on the vessel, during which they agreed that the U.S. would provide Saudi Arabia with military training and other forms of logistical support in exchange for access to the new nation’s oil and the Saudis’ political backing of U.S. policies in the region. Roosevelt later wrote in a follow up letter to the Saudi King, “I would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people.”

That meeting established the foundation for today’s Saudi-U.S. relationship based upon security and, of course, oil. Riyadh and Washington cooperated militarily during the first Gulf War in 1991 under the U.S.-led coalition that removed Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The U.S. continues to station more than half a million of its troops throughout Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia continues to be America’s top arms purchaser.

Along with security, the second pillar of the Saudi-U.S. alliance is oil. Saudi Arabia holds the largest supply of crude oil reserves in the world. In May 2018, it exported 6.98 million barrels per day (MBD). In return, U.S. foreign policy has often focused on protecting Saudi Arabia and turning a blind eye to Saudi human rights abuses and policies that blatantly run counter to American values and principles.

The alliance has, however, faced many obstacles since Roosevelt’s initial meeting with the Saudi King in 1945. President John F. Kennedy upset the Saudis when he initially wanted to support Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, viewing pan-Arabism as a more positive alternative to communism. In June 1962, Kennedy wrote Nasser a letter, stating that despite the differences, the two could still cooperate.

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City have further damaged the Saudi-U.S. relationship. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudi nationals. In an effort to spare Saudi Arabia embarrassment, the Bush administration omitted 28 pages from the September 11 report, which remains classified, fueling suspicions of a possible connection between the Saudi authorities and the hijackers. In 2016, despite a presidential veto and Saudi threats to sell off American assets amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars, the U.S. Congress passed legislation permitting the families of 9/11 victim families to sue Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-U.S. partnership was further strained during the U.S.’ invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003, which strengthened pro-Iranian Shiite elements in the nation and empowered Iran. Then, in 2011, King Abdullah, the present king’s predecessor, strongly opposed the U.S.’ support for the pro-democracy protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Riyadh has since helped finance the new Egyptian regime’s violent oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and also led military interventions against political movements independent of Iran, including peaceful protesters in Bahrain and militant revolutionary rebels in Yemen. These actions reinforce the narrative that a Shiite crescent (a phrase coined by Jordanian King Abdullah to refer to the crescent-shaped geographical region in the Middle East occupied by a Shia’ majority) backed by Iran is overtaking the region, might gain traction in the region, and might also later undermine the Saudi monarchy.

More recently, the Obama administration signed a nuclear agreement in 2015 with the Saudis’ main adversary, Iran. For Riyadh, the deal confirmed Iran’s nuclear status rather than serving to halt its aspirations to become a nuclear power. The nuclear deal also exacerbated ongoing fears of U.S. abandonment of Saudi Arabia. Given the rapid fall of longstanding allies during the Arab Spring and the U.S.’s failure to come to the rescue of other leaders, the Saudis evidently took it as a sign that the same fate was possible for them.

The bottom line is that Riyadh is an unreliable ally for the U.S. for two main reasons. First, Saudi Arabia’s duplicitous support of American interests while simultaneously backing the fundamentalist strain of Islam through state-sanctioned madrassas and mosques, domestically and internationally, has fueled anti-American sentiment in the kingdom. Some of the ideological principles of Wahhabism overlap with those of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda, and the spread of Wahhabism has encouraged these groups and provided them with recruits. The presence of U.S. soldiers on Saudi territory starting in the nineties not only stoked the anger of religious conservatives but reinforced Wahhabist arguments that the Saudi regime was too accommodating of Western interests.

The second reason is that the Saudi regime’s repression risks destabilizing the Kingdom from within. Since the 1990s, different groups of Islamists have made gradualist and peaceful calls for reform in the direction of a constitutional monarchy. The Sahwa, or Islamic Awakening, Movement, dates back to the 1960s, when the monarchy accepted political refugees fleeing Nasser’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi Muslim Brotherhood, which became known as the Sahwa, was essentially a merging of the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Salafism. This group of Islamists, however, began to openly criticize the regime during the first Gulf War. Although it broke with the official state clerics when it made its list of demands public, it never called for regime change, and remained a reformist movement. After these activists were arrested or fled into exile in the 1990s, Al Qaeda hijacked the opposition. After the kingdom suffered a series of violent jihadist attacks in 1995 and again in the early 2000s, it realized just how much it could benefit from co-opting, rather than repressing, peaceful activists. In 1999, the Saudis released a leading figure of the Sahwa movement, Salman al-Awdah, from prison. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who would come to lead the regime’s movement against Al Qaeda, effectively co-opted al-Awdah and leading members of the Sahwa.  

Since 2011, however, the remnants of the Sahwa and more liberal groups alike have called for regime change in a democratic direction. As with Islamist movements around the region, the Sahwa crossed red lines in its new receptivity to regime change. The movement’s activity surged once again following the Arab Spring when it continued to advocate political reform by circulating a number of petitions (petition 2) on social media and sending a letter to King Abdullah in March 2013.  

In September 2017, Saudi authorities arrested members of the movement, such as Salman al Awda, as well as some thirty activists, clerics, and intellectuals unwilling to support the Saudi-Emirati blockade of Qatar. In effect, this was retribution for their continued calls for political and social reform. In addition to locking up the same peaceful Islamists who previously supported  to the regime in the fight against Al Qaeda, the current Saudi leadership has imprisoned feminist activists in the name of nationalism, claiming that to do otherwise would be to repeat the Shah’s mistakes of being too “Western.”

Earlier this year, one month before lifting the ban on women driving, the Saudi regime began arresting some of the very women’s rights activists who had called for this reform including Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, in its latest wave of repression. In addition to challenging the driving ban, the activists had been opposed to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system under which women must have a male guardian in order to travel, conduct business, study, marry, or undergo certain medical procedures.

In this climate of arresting moderates of all kinds, scapegoating moderate Islamists, and conflating moderate Islamists with Iran and with real Sunni terrorists, instability in Saudi Arabia is likely to intensify. Domestic instability could surface in a variety of forms — from protests and moderate forms of resistance to more extreme versions, such as a coup against Mohammad bin Salman or even a revolution in the longer term.

In short, Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally. The irony here is that in Trump’s increasingly isolationist America,  the U.S. is not a particularly reliable ally for Saudi Arabia either.