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Is Saudi Arabia really a crucial strategic ally for the U.S.?

Is Saudi Arabia really a crucial strategic ally for the U.S.?
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, left, Saudi King Salman, First Lady Melania Trump and President Trump in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 21, 2017. (Getty Images)

While President Trump has wavered between dismissiveness and criticism in his comments on the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, on one statement he has remained firm and consistent: Saudi Arabia is a crucial strategic ally.

And as such, he argues, any punishment of Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in killing Khashoggi should be limited.

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But how much of an ally on behalf of U.S. interests is the repressive desert kingdom? The two countries have had a long if often fraught relationship in the more than 80 years since the United States, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, recognized the kingdom shortly after the Saud royal family formed it atop vast oil reserves.

The relationship hit a low point in recent years, when President Obama along with allied leaders riled the Saudis by choosing to negotiate a landmark nuclear-containment deal with Iran — Saudi Arabia’s archenemy and main regional rival. The Saudis enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s election, confident they could do business with him.

Today, however, the question is: Who needs whom more, Riyadh or Washington?

U.S. is less reliant on Saudi oil supplies

For decades, the United States relied heavily on other countries for its oil, chief among them Saudi Arabia. In recent years, however, thanks to U.S. development of shale oil reserves and the growth of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the United States has gradually weaned itself away from many outside producers.

Today the U.S. imports only about 11% of its oil from Saudi Arabia, or about 700,000 to 800,000 barrels a day, down from as much as 2 million barrels a day in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But Saudi Arabia remains the major player in the global energy market, and it can readily influence the price of fuel — sending it soaring if it reduces the number of barrels it produces. That is what Riyadh initially threatened to do if the West hit it with reprisals over Khashoggi’s death. The steady and stable flow of Saudi oil is critical to the global economy, experts say.

As it is, Trump has been publicly critical of the Saudi government’s decision not to exploit greater supplies of crude and petroleum products and produce more to keep pump prices down. And oil will become more scarce in the coming weeks — and thus costlier — as the administration slaps sanctions on Iran that could force Tehran to remove millions of barrels from the market.

Many Saudi arms deals have yet to materialize

Trump frequently cites figures as high as $450 billion to $560 billion in U.S. sales to Saudi Arabia of weapons and “other things,” from deals he says he secured last year when he made his first foreign trip as president to Riyadh. The “biggest orders in the history of this country, probably the history of the world,” is how Trump described the deals last week.

In fact, hardly any of those sales have materialized; most of those in the pipeline were executed under the Obama administration. Negotiation, production and delivery of weapons can take years. Also, former U.S. officials say that Saudi Arabia is a bad client, often in arrears or slow to make payments.

Now Congress is pondering blocking some sales, because of both the Khashoggi case and reported atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Trump has also exaggerated the number of jobs that the as-yet-nonexistent deals will create. Shortly after Khashoggi was reported missing Oct. 2, Trump said he did not want to interfere with arms sales because his deals with Riyadh would create 40,000 jobs for Americans; by last week, he was putting the number at more than a million jobs.

Not only is that prospect far-fetched, but the tentative deals provide that many jobs will go to Saudi Arabia, buttressing its effort to diversify its economy from oil.

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Critics point to another, more immediate benefit that Trump could have in mind: revenue for Trump family coffers from its business dealings with the Saudis and from Saudi dignitaries’ regular use of its properties, especially the expensive Trump International Hotel in Washington. Ethics expert Norm Eisen has said that the Saudis believe their patronage has bought them friendship with the White House, and political cover.

During the presidential campaign, in 2015, Trump boasted that he made “a lot of money with the Saudis,” adding, “They buy all sorts of my stuff.” Last week, however, he denied having any “financial interest in Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia’s complex relationship with terrorism and Iran

The administration frequently credits Saudi Arabia with valuable assistance in the gathering and accumulation of counter-terrorism intelligence. Undoubtedly, Saudi agents have cooperated extensively with American counterparts, especially as a bulwark against Iran.

Yet former U.S. officials say even the definition of terrorism can be complicated with Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. Washington typically defines terrorists as militants committing violent deeds, while the Saudis often brand as terrorists people whose views they don’t like, such as members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Shiite clerics or dissidents.

For more than a generation, the Saudis also have exported a fundamentalist view of Islam, and won its acceptance in many parts of the world with the money accompanying its imams. Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, where Islam long existed in a steadfastly secular environment, saw an explosion of Saudi-financed mosques and an influx of Muslims practicing a puritanical Wahhabi faith in the 1990s, as civil war there wound down.

That ideological strain contributed to the creation of Al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden, a Saudi. Most of the men who participated in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudi.

Saudi Arabia helps with Israel, but pulls the U.S. into a Yemen quagmire

Only two Arab countries have formal, if rocky, diplomatic ties with Israel: Jordan and Egypt. Saudi Arabia, by suggesting it is willing to work with Israel, even quietly, opens a rare opportunity for a U.S.-brokered Middle East peace deal.

When the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, toured the United States recently, he praised Israel and badmouthed the Palestinians, according to people who accompanied him. Trump and his son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, staked the success of their Mideast peace plan on the prince’s cooperation and endorsement. They were stunned when his father, King Salman, nixed the plan as it was presented to him this summer, judging it to be far more pro-Israeli than the Saudis could accept.

It was a cold reminder to the Americans that Saudi support for Israel is still largely behind the scenes and limited.

Furthermore, putting the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the hands of two inexperienced scions of wealthy families — 37-year-old Kushner and the 33-year-old crown prince — created numerous risks. Prince Mohammed is now viewed by many in the West as a likely suspect in Khashoggi’s slaying, emboldened by Kushner’s clumsy handling of their dealings.

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That, and the Trump administration’s laser focus on Iran, may also be factors in Washington’s continued support of Saudi Arabia’s calamitous war in Yemen against Tehran-backed rebels. The U.S. military provides weapons and targeting intelligence for Saudi bombings that often claim the lives of civilians — including at least 45 children in a school bus in August — and have pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation.

Mohammed is widely seen as having miscalculated disastrously in Yemen. The United States, as his backer, is being brought in for the same international opprobrium.

Gerald Feierstein, who served as a diplomat throughout the Middle East for nearly 40 years, said that “putting the relationship back into the hands of professional diplomats and national security experts will be a positive first step in normalizing ties between Washington and Riyadh.”

Feierstein, who runs the government relations program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, also urged Trump to appoint an ambassador to Riyadh. The post has sat vacant since just before Trump assumed office, perhaps reflecting the personal interest of Trump and his son-in-law in controlling the Saudi portfolio.

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