The Myth of the Mideast Ally: The Moral and Strategic Failure of American Foreign Policy Toward Saudi Arabia
As a student of Latin America, I am in no way blind to the historical moral shortcomings (to put it lightly) of American foreign policy. When I lived in Asunción, Paraguay, my school’s first field trip was to the Museo de las Memorias, a museum housed in a former detention and torture center used by the Alfredo Stroessner regime. Stroessner was a Cold War-era dictator responsible for the deaths of thousands of his own citizens, and like many of his regional contemporaries, he was supported by the United States solely because he opposed communism. (A recent World Mind article brilliantly questions the legacy of Henry Kissinger, the architect behind these alliances.)
One would hope that the American foreign policy establishment recognized the damage wrought by decades of autocratic rule, learned from its mistakes, and then ceased the practice of abetting dictators in exchange for money and influence. Unfortunately, this iniquitous style of transaction remains in the U.S. foreign policy toolkit, as evidenced by the current American partnership with Saudi Arabia. In spite of a laundry list of human rights abuses and an enduring legacy of violent extremism perpetrated or enabled by the regime, the Trump Administration has not shied away from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), the charismatic young heir to the throne. Since taking office, President Trump has expanded operational support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, significantly increased weapons sales, and refused to acknowledge the crown prince's involvement in the gruesome assassination of Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.
The Administration argues that in our alliance with Saudi Arabia, the benefits outweigh the costs. Popular talking points center on money and combatting extremism; according to the executive branch, increased defense sector employment, cheap oil, and counterterrorism cooperation are invaluable to U.S. interests.
However, upon closer examination, all of these arguments fail to justify the American alliance with the Saudi regime, especially when placed in the context of the Kingdom’s atrocious domestic and foreign policies. By analyzing these policies, it becomes clear that such an alliance is not only immoral to the liberal internationalist, but also counterproductive for the conservative realist. The U.S. stands to gain nothing – neither as devout moralists nor cutthroat strategists – from the robust commercial, political, and military partnership with the Kingdom that the current administration goes great lengths to maintain and defend.
Saudi Human Rights Abuses and the Global Perception of the U.S.
During the spring of 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embarked on a three-week tour of the United States as part of an ambitious attempt to revamp Saudi Arabia’s global image. Eager for a piece of the royal family’s opulence and influence, American investors, politicians, and movie stars rolled out the red carpet. Harvard University and MIT both welcomed the young prince. He visited Wall Street, Washington, and the Silicon Valley. He sat down with Oprah and dined with Morgan Freeman and Dwayne Johnson.
Would these individuals still entertain the crown prince if they were provided a detailed report of the Kingdom’s human rights record? If they could see the contrast between MBS’ extravagance and the plights of Saudi Arabia’s tremendously disadvantaged citizens? If they understood the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen sparked by the Saudis and exacerbated by U.S. arms sales?
Although MBS’ American tour came some 10 months before the highly publicized October 2nd assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s prior transgressions were already widely known. According to the 2018 edition of the Human Right Watch (HRW) World Report, the Kingdom “has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law” in Yemen, including scores of “unlawful attacks… some of which may amount to war crimes.” The report notes that coalition airstrikes have repeatedly struck “homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques.” To date, an estimated 10,852 civilians have been killed or injured by coalition airstrikes.
Domestically, Saudi activists and dissidents are silenced, and women are subject to some of the most archaic laws in the world. The same HRW report details the arrest of numerous peaceful, pro-reform activists, some of whom received multi-year prison sentences and travel-bans. The Kingdom is known for its use of the death penalty, performed inhumanely and often for non-violent offenders, as well as torture; as recently as March 31st of this year, The Guardian reported that leaked medical documents describe up to 60 political prisoners suffering from “malnutrition, cuts, bruises and burns.” While Saudi women were recently granted the right to drive, the most critical regulation barring gender equality in the Kingdom remains in place: according to the BBC, under the “guardianship law,” a woman’s male relatives “[have] the authority to make critical decisions on her behalf.” As long as such a law exists, any concessions the regime makes to Saudi women’s rights activists should be considered insincere.
What do the crimes committed by one distant nation have to do with the U.S.? 100 years ago, when even the world’s hegemons largely operated within their own geographic regions, human rights abuses in a nation as far away as Saudi Arabia might not have demanded the attention of U.S. policymakers, but today is a different story. As long as the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia, it cannot expect to have the respect or cooperation of fellow nations as it attempts to shape the world order. Any American policies put forth in the name of peace, freedom of speech, or women’s rights are liable to objection by even our closest allies; for example, suspension of aid toward a nation due to human rights violations could be easily deemed hypocritical given the overwhelming security assistance we provide the Saudi regime. In such a case, the effect of American aid suspension would have diminished impact, as the international community might not be compelled to join.
In short, a lack of global moral standing means a lack of global influence, too. Surely, arms deals that have limited impact on the American economy are not worth our ability to enact beneficial international policy.
Wahhabism and the Perpetual War on Terrorism
The instances of regime-led crackdowns on dissent outlined above are typical of a highly-centralized power structures terrified of losing control (think North Korea and Venezuela). In addition to brutality and oppression, however, the royal family employs another form of social control: ultra-conservative religious ideology.
The rise of the House of Saud, Saudi Arabia’s namesake and longtime ruling family, is indebted to the 18th century merging of politics and religion on the Arabian peninsula. In 1744, Muhammad ibn Saud, an influential tribal leader, and Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, an iconoclastic Muslim scholar, swore an oath to form a state guided by Islamic principles. Al Wahhab’s interpretation of Islam was not widely shared –in fact, it condemned many Muslims then inhabiting the peninsula– but Saud was desperate for a “clearly defined religious authority” he could use to establish authority. This authority would stretch far into the coming centuries, as noted by a 2008 CRS report on what is now known as Wahhabism:
[After 1930,] Wahhabi clerics were integrated into the new kingdom’s religious and political establishment, and Wahhabi ideas formed the basis of the rules and laws adopted to govern social affairs in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism also shaped the kingdom’s judicial and educational policies. Saudi schoolbooks historically have denounced teachings that do not conform to Wahhabist beliefs…
Saudi-born professor Madawi al-Rashid of the London School of Economics echoed this analysis in a 2015 BBC article:
The Wahhabis were given full control of the religious, social and cultural life of the kingdom. As long as the Wahhabi preachers preached that Saudis should obey their rulers, the al-Saud family was happy. In the 1960s and 1970s the Arab world was full of revolutionary ideas. The Saudi government thought the Wahhabis were a good antidote, because they provide an alternative narrative about how to obey rulers and not interfere in politics.
By relinquishing significant societal control to Wahhabist clerics, the regime created a united and obedient populous over which it could rule. Additionally, it cultivated and promoted an intolerant and often violent ideology that would later form the basis for violent extremist groups.
Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and fearing the global spread of secularism, the Saudi regime weaponized Wahhabism, imploring its citizens to travel to fight the spread of communism. Terence Ward, in his book The Wahhabi Code, describes how the Kingdom funded Wahhabi schools in Pakistan to indoctrinate both Pakistani youth and Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion. These foreign fighters, inspired by the Wahhabist interpretation of holy war, are the first example of the exportation of Wahhabism and violence. Future examples include al-Qaeda, Daesh, and related fundamentalist groups operating in Syria.
The connection between Saudi-promoted Wahhabism and global terrorism is not a new revelation. For years, analysts have commented on the absurdity of our relationship with the country that produced 15 out of the 19 9/11 hijackers; one Brookings Institute scholar quipped that the Saudis are “both the arsonists and the firefighters”, and a 2015 New York Times op-ed refers to Saudi Arabia as “the ISIS that made it.”
In defending their sustained support of the Kingdom, the Administration again points to arms deals, in addition to joint counterterrorism efforts, as justification for our partnership with Saudi Arabia. My argument regarding U.S. arms sales to the Kingdom is simple –quick profits are not worth a long-term fight against extremism– but what about the Saudis’ counterterrorism operations?
A 2018 CRS Report identifies the Kingdom as a strong partner in the fight against extremism, claiming that the “U.S. government now credits its Saudi counterparts with taking terrorism threats seriously and praises Saudi cooperation in several cooperative initiatives.” There is little evidence to suggest otherwise; in 2014, the Kingdom’s leading Islamic authority denounced Daesh and al-Qaeda, and a 2017 State Department report detailed Saudi Arabia’s “strict supervision” of illicit funding of terrorist groups. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia itself is frequently the target of terrorist attacks perpetrated by extremists.
However, multiple reports suggest that Saudi Arabia’s promotion of Wahhabism and religious intolerance domestically carries global effects. A 2016 New York Times article details the role one Saudi-funded mosque in Kosovo played in sending 314 men, women, and children to join Daesh, and 2017 Voice of America article cited experts linking an uptick in terrorism in Africa to Saudi scholarships provided to regional youth. Another Times article cautions observers from heaping blame on solely on Saudi Arabia, as grievance-related factors also contribute to radicalization. Still, it notes that Daesh used official Saudi textbooks in its schools until it was able to publish its own, much to the embarrassment of the regime.
Thus, while Saudi Arabia deserves credit for its kinetic counterterrorism efforts, it is losing the long-term ideological war against extremism by funding and promoting religious intolerance. In partnering with the regime rather than pushing it to alter its policies, the U.S. is losing as well, effectively implementing a counterterrorism strategy that neglects the root of the problem and perpetuates terrorism. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria might have put it best: “The Saudi monarchy must reform itself and its export of ideology,” he wrote in 2016, “But the reality is, this is far more likely if Washington engages with Riyadh rather than distancing itself, leaving the kingdom to fester in isolation.”
Moving Forward: Talk to Saudi Arabia, But Don’t Reward Them
In Ben Rhodes’ memoir, The World as It Is, the former national security adviser and speechwriter recalls one particular instance of Barack Obama’s frustration on the 2008 campaign trail. Members of the foreign policy establishment had just ridiculed the young senator for suggesting he would engage in diplomacy with historically hostile nations, much to his bewilderment. “It. Is. Not. A. Reward. To. Talk. To. Folks,” the future president emphatically argues, pounding his palm on a table as he does. “How is that working out with Iran?”
Obama’s point was this: a U.S. presidential administration can engage with an undesirable foreign government without promoting its detrimental interests. His flagship piece of foreign policy, the Iran Deal, is a perfect example of this in that it edged Iran toward membership in the responsible international community without granting it nuclear weapons or excusing its autocratic domestic policies.
The U.S. should handle Saudi Arabia in a similar fashion. Cooperation can continue in the areas that it has worked well, such as counterterrorism, but U.S. officials should not hesitate to publicly criticize and seek to curb the regime’s oppressive domestic policies, illegal military strikes in Yemen, and exportation of intolerance. Thanks to the Texas shale revolution, an abysmal economic outlook in Saudi Arabia, and significant U.S. commercial investment in the Kingdom, the regime has little in its arsenal to counter hypothetical demands from American policymakers; the U.S. is insulated from OPEC’s whims, and sanctions leveled on U.S.-Saudi business interactions would seriously damage the Kingdom’s economy.
It’s clear that the Trump Administration has no interest in molding Saudi Arabia into a respectable ally, otherwise it would have already started down that path. Whether Mr. Trump’s eagerness to buddy-up to MBS is the result of greed, myopia, or personal affinity is anyone’s guess – presently, the most that Americans can do is hope that the next president, Republican or Democrat, does not perceive the Kingdom through the same ignorant lens. Such perception will only result in further human rights violations at the hands of the regime, the continued implementation of an ineffective counterterrorism policy, and lastly, almost irreparable damage to U.S. global standing. After all, as Asunción’s Museo de las Memorias demonstrates, history does not forget those who side with tyrants.