May 01, 2016
The visit of President Obama to Saudi Arabia last week came at a time when it is becoming clear that this continental relationship is in a realignment mode. For decades Saudi Arabia has been an inimitable Arab ally for United States in the Middle East. It has been a marriage of convenience that has given both partners many things to share over the years. The liaison deepened significantly after the 1973 OPEC oil crisis when the Americans in return for its own oil security offered safety for the House of Saud. In time other geo-political events reinforced the Saudi role as an important bulwark in the region; both against the rising tide of radical Islam -in the form of Iranian Shiite Islam- and communism. The fight against Russia had both countries providing joint financial support to the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan. The relationship has also conveniently involved Saudi’s buying large quantities of weapons from the US from $312m in 1972 to over $60bn in 2010 and overall around $95bn during President Obama’s administration.
As part of the devil’s pact the US accepted and turned a blind eye to Saudi export of Wahhabism to the region and beyond as far out as Malaysia and Indonesia. Qurans were printed with Saudi money that had the ‘acceptable’ translation. Madrassas were supported all over the world to produce individuals with the ‘right’ understanding of Islam. Saudi support to extremist groups continues despite the disastrous results that have long been highlighted; most recently they have been shown to have ties to the Al Nusra militants fighting Bashar Al Assad in Syria, who are calling for an Islamic Caliphate to be set up in the region.
The swan song of President Obama with Jeffery Goldberg published in the Atlantic Monthly in April 2016, mirrored the view of many in the US. He expressed dissatisfaction with the country’s ‘high maintenance allies’ and called them ‘free riders’ for accepting US provided security in the region; whilst engaging in proxy wars of their own. The Saudis in particular were asked to accept a ‘cold peace’ and ‘share the neighbourhood’ with Iran and to focus on dispelling ISIS from the region. Furthermore, a growing and strident bipartisan criticism has started targeting Saudi Arabia, particularly on its human rights record, its reckless foreign policy in Yemen and Syria as well as its role in creating extremism. In a recent Arab youth survey conducted, 82 percent of Yemenis aged between 18-24 years old viewed the US as an enemy, this is not surprising as Saudis use US bought technology to bomb them and have wantonly killed over 6,000 Yemenis since the war started. This has led to questions in the US as to why it is supporting the Saudis to create a humanitarian crisis; especially, when they have no interests involved.
In line with this, the legislative branch has seen the introduction of two bipartisan bills: the Arms Control Act and the 9/11 Bill. Both want accountability to play a bigger role in the U.S relationship with Saudi Arabia. Senator Chris Murphy speaking at the Brookings Institution said it was ‘difficult to ignore the holes in the US/Saudi Arabia relationship any longer’; he along with Senator Rand Paul (R) is introducing the Arms Control Act which will set conditions on U.S. military sales to Saudi Arabia by demonstrating they are minimising harm to civilians in Yemen as well as facilitating humanitarian assistance. The 9/11 bill will allow the relatives of the victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi government, in the US courts, if any links by its officials to the terrorists are proven. Although the administration has stated that President Obama will veto this legislation, since it weakens and puts into jeopardy US troops and civilians abroad.
For the US the pull factors keeping the relationship together have weakened over time. The large production of Shale gas by 2009, has helped to reduce the country’s dependence on Saudi oil, communism died over twenty years ago and even the earlier Iranian ogre of Shiite Islam has come to look like a babe in the woods compared to the monster of ISIS emanating from radical Sunni Islam. President Obama has decided that the best way to keep a check on Iran’s nuclear capabilities is through engagement and not isolation. In addition, he has also tried to move away from the middle-eastern focus of US foreign policy, which he believes is driven by self-interested lobbies in the US. He is on record stating that the US needs to concentrate on China and Southeast Asia; addressing the rise and challenge of China being the key to the future for the US To that extent, the threat of terrorism and squabbling countries engaged in proxy wars, which are keeping the US bogged down in the morass of the Middle East is seen as a needless distraction.
This desire of the US to pivot towards Southeast Asia has come at a time when the Saudi monarchy itself has seen a change of guard after the death of King Abdullah in Jan 2015. This has further accelerated the divergence of interests between the two countries. Saudis already disillusioned with the US for not attacking Syria in 2013, after it crossed the ‘red lines’ drawn by President Obama, saw the Iran-US deal as a direct affront to their ‘constant and strategic’ relationship with the U.S. This disaffection coupled with their decision to curtail the influence of Iran themselves, armed with American weapons and training under the direction of the new deputy Crown Prince and Defense minister, Mohammad bin Salman, they started an aggressive foreign policy in the neighbourhood. Moreover, Saudi dismay over the 9/11 bill, which is seen to put further salt into their wounds, left them threatening to withdrew $750bn in assets from the U.S. if passed. It is no wonder then that in Riyadh President Obama did not get the red carpet welcome by King Salman bin Abd al Aziz himself.
However, tectonic plates we know move slowly and the strategic impetus in the short term to control ISIS and radicalism has to remain a focus for US policy. It seems unlikely that the 9/11 bill will be formulated in its current form, but as a palliative the US executive branch will be forced to finally make public the 28 pages that were redacted. Saudi Arabia may no longer be at the acme of its importance; but it will remain a stalwart and necessary partner for US Middle Eastern policy. In the context of an Islamic marriage it will become one of the many wives that the US has in the region.
More by Najma Minhas
The writer is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors.