Is it time for the United States to dump Saudi Arabia?

Published: February 4, 2016


After the recent execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia, the Middle East once again risks devolving into sectarian chaos. A mob torched  the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, prompting Saudi Arabia and a number of its Sunni allies to break diplomatic relations with Iran.

In response to the unfolding chaos, the Wall Street Journal responded by asking “Who Lost the Saudis?” — fretting that the lack of support from the United States could lead to the overthrow of the Saudi regime. This is a provocative query, reminiscent of the “Who Lost China?” attacks against President Harry Truman after the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949. But it’s the wrong question. Rather than wondering if Washington’s support for Riyadh is sufficient, American policymakers should instead ask themselves the following question: Is it time for the United States to dump Saudi Arabia?

Don’t snub the Saudis

The moral case for the United States to question its close relationship with Saudi Arabia is clear. Saudi Arabia is governed by the House of Saud, an authoritarian monarchy that does not tolerate dissent, and the country consistently ranks among the “worst of the worst” countries in democracy watchdog Freedom House’s annual survey of political and civil rights.

Saudi Arabia follows the ultra-conservative Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam, and the public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited. Its legal system is governed by Sharia law, and a 2015 study from Middle East Eye noted that Saudi Arabia and Islamic State prescribed near-identical punishments, such as amputation and stoning for similar crimes. The government is also renowned for carrying out public executions after trials that Amnesty International condemns as “grossly unfair”; Amnesty describes the Saudi “justice system” as “riddled with holes. ”

Given the two countries’ divergent values, the US-Saudi alliance relies almost entirely on overlapping economic and national security interests. The United States long relied on Saudi Arabia as an oil supplier, a steadfast beacon of opposition to communism and a huge buyer of American arms. The Saudis, meanwhile, depend on the United States to protect their security.

Despite these long-standing ties, Saudi Arabia now harms American national interests as much as it helps them.

US relies heavily on Saudi money to support Syrian rebels

First, the Saudis and the United States diverge over American policy toward Iran. Saudi Arabia sees itself locked in a sectarian and geopolitical struggle with Iran for Middle East supremacy. Riyadh is concerned the deal that lifted sanctions against Iran in exchange for Tehran dismantling it’s nuclear infrastructure will empower Iran to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy in the region. Riyadh also fears abandonment by Washington, and worries the nuclear deal is only the first step in a process that could lead to its replacement by Iran as the United States’ primary Persian Gulf ally.

President Barack Obama, by contrast, describes the nuclear agreement with Iran as “a very good deal” that “achieves one of our most critical security objectives.” While no indication exists that the United States seeks to replace Saudi Arabia with Iran, it makes sense for Washington to explore other areas where American and Iranian interests may overlap. As the United States and Iran continue to feel each other out, we can expect tensions between Washington and Riyadh to grow.

Second, Saudi Arabia executed al-Nimr despite concerns expressed by the United States that doing so could damage hopes for peace in Syria. Ending the Syrian war remains a priority for the United States, since Washington hopes a Syrian settlement will lead all parties to unite against Islamic State.

Obama accepted $1.3m in gifts from Saudi Arabia in 2014

Saudi Arabia and Iran support opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, and the prospects for peace depend significantly on cooperation from both countries. With the two countries now at each others’ throats due to the Saudis’ execution of al-Nimr, the Obama administration believes Saudi-Iranian tensions could “blow up” Washington’s objectives in Syria.

Third, thanks to the shale oil boom in the United States, American dependence on Saudi oil has dropped dramatically. According to a Citibank report, by 2020 the United States may produce so much domestic oil that it would become a net exporter, completely freeing itself from any reliance on Persian Gulf imports. Moreover, the Saudis also rely on the American market. They and many other OPEC members produce what’s called “heavy sour” crude, and the US refinery system is the most attractive market for this type of petroleum. As the United States reduces imports, the Saudis must scramble to find other markets such as China. Unfortunately for Riyadh — as the Russians can attest — the Chinese give no quarter when holding the upper hand in negotiations.

The Saudis understand the consequences of the United States’ reduced reliance on imported oil. To retain market share, the Saudis launched an assault on American shale oil producers, hoping to drive them out of business by flooding the market with Saudi oil. The Saudis hope this leads oil prices to recover, but in the meantime much of the American shale oil industrycould face bankruptcy. While cheap oil is good for American consumers, at a certain point the downside for the United States’ economy may outweigh the upsides. Of course, if the United States regains a greater dependence on foreign oil, the Saudis will be the ones to benefit.

Finally — and most importantly — the United States must accept the fact that Saudi Arabia is a major contributor to worldwide Islamic extremism. Washington policymakers clearly understand this. In a leaked Wikileaks cable, former Secretary of State — and now presidential aspirant — Hillary Clinton stated “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Mother of Saudi youth facing beheading urges Obama to intervene

In a 2014 speech at Harvard, Vice President Joseph Biden called out Saudi Arabia and others for contributing to the rise of Islamic State, saying “those allies’ policies wound up helping to arm and build allies of al Qaeda and eventually the terrorist Islamic State.”

In a highly unusual public rebuke in December, Germany’s vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabrielaccused the Saudis of funding extremism in the West. “Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many militants who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany. We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over,” Gabriel said.

Saudi Arabia denies funding extremism, and in 2014 called claims it supported Islamic State “false allegations” and a “malicious falsehood.” Moreover, the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom recently posted a letter charging critics of playing the “blame game” and called the accusations “an insult to our government, our people, and our faith.”

Even so, Gabriel is right — and it’s high time Washington policymakers take a good look at the long-term future of the American-Saudi relationship.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • lkhan
    Feb 4, 2016 - 10:57AM

    Great to read this analysis of Saudi Arabia, especially its views on the export of radical, intolerant Wahhabism to all parts of our planet. It would be still better to ban all intolerant hatred filled preaching at mosques or any other religious centres universally. IS is arguably a direct result of such teachings, bringing converts from EU nations, Asia and elsewhere to join IS in Syria, including girls.The Saudis must not be allowed to export such explosive views with absolute impunity. Such ideas are a threat to democratic systems themselves…Recommend

  • Sodomite
    Feb 4, 2016 - 11:00AM

    ET well done in publishing a very realistic assessment of SA. Its time to call it what it is and given that the SA did not invest sufficiently in broad based education over the last 50 years they do not have a pool of people with critical skills to make SA take off. They will always rely on foreign skills, which after the recent fall in oil prices and a $150 billion fiscal gap is going to make meeting princes purses and domestic welfare state a thing of the past. Recommend

  • Farru
    Feb 4, 2016 - 2:00PM

    The worst thing for Riyadh is that it knows its game is over.

    Self reliance of the US in oil production is the single biggest factor that is helping Washington to make an independent policy in Middle East. And, obviously western capitals are following Washington D.C. Recommend

  • Javed Afridi
    Feb 4, 2016 - 2:23PM

    One-sided assessment, grossly biased against SA. Besides, it downplayed SA’s role in the international economy and politics.
    You are turning a blind eye to the fact that US is more dependent on SA than the other way round.Recommend

    Feb 4, 2016 - 3:57PM

    Nothing new just narration of main stream mediaRecommend

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