WASHINGTON -- The U.S.'s relationship with Saudi Arabia has weathered disagreements over how to rein in Iran, regime change across the Middle East and several large military adventures. Now it faces a new question, which was crystallized Friday in a speech by influential progressive Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
"No one has a particularly credible long term strategy [for the Middle East] because it would involve facing some very uncomfortable truths -- about the nature of the fight ahead of us, and imperfections of one of our most important allies in the Middle East,” Murphy said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
The carefully worded address pointed to Saudi Arabia's backing of extremist Islamic ideology and its reckless military intervention in Yemen as evidence of the need to question unwavering U.S. support for the kingdom.
"For all the positive aspects of our alliance with Saudi Arabia, there is another side to Saudi Arabia" that America doesn't often see, Murphy said. "And it is a side that we can no longer afford to ignore as our fight against Islamic extremism becomes more focused and more complicated."
For all the positive aspects of our alliance with Saudi Arabia, there is another side.... that we can no longer afford to ignore." Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn)
Murphy's frank and measured critique is one of the most high-profile of its kind, evidence in itself that questioning the relationship between Washington and Riyadh is becoming less of a political heresy.
Initially rooted in a shared interest in protecting the kingdom’s vast oil reserves, the U.S.-Saudi partnership has evolved into a broad, shadowy military relationship that is difficult to fully detail.
The two countries cooperated to funnel fighters into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s, together kicked Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait during the Gulf War, and have now grown closer in the broader war against groups like al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. The two are now supporting groups fighting in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond.
Saudi Arabia has an outsized role in these efforts despite its relatively small population and weak military because it has bought more weapons from the U.S. than any other country in the world. Between 2009 and 2014, the U.S. delivered over $12 billion of weapons to the kingdom, much of which is being used in the bloody Saudi-led war in Yemen.
To Murphy, this relationship and the general assumption that it cannot be questioned has been risky and occasionally self-defeating.
It has required the U.S. to largely ignore the Saudis' decadeslong funding for fundamentalist thinking in the Muslim world -- a mindset that experts say makes communities more vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups like ISIS. "Less-well-funded governments and other strains of Islam can hardly keep up with the tsunami of money behind this export of intolerance," Murphy said, noting that the monarchy in Saudi Arabia relies heavily on its alliance with hardliners known as Wahhabis. “It is important to note the vicious terrorist groups that Americans knows by name are Sunni in derivation, [rather than Shiite, the sect of Islam most common in Iran], and greatly influenced by Wahhabi, Salafist teachings,” he said, citing an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam.
Murphy acknowledged that Shiite clerics supported by Iran also often invoke religion to inspire violent acts. But the U.S. does not provide Iran with billions of dollars of weapons annually or support its military endeavors.
The costs of aligning with Saudi Arabia are especially clear now because that friendship has led the White House to join the controversial Saudi campaign in Yemen. Almost 6,000 people have died there, including thousands of civilians, since Saudi Arabia launched a U.S.-supported campaign to restore the country's government last March, according to the United Nations. Some of the strikes by the Saudi-led, pro-government coalition may count as crimes against humanity, the U.N. said this week.
The question of how to manage the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has become more complicated since July, when the U.S. and five world powers finalized a nuclear agreement with Iran, the kingdom’s regional rival. The deal has created the perception among some in the Middle East and Washington that the U.S. and Iran are gradually moving towards improved relations.
On Capitol Hill, where a majority of lawmakers voted to scupper the deal, there is a push to reassert the U.S.’s unwavering commitment to Saudi security -- even in instances where it isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the U.S.
"In the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement, there are many in Congress who would have the United States double down in our support for the Saudi side of this fight in places like Yemen and Syria, simply because Saudi Arabia is our named friend, and Iran is our named enemy,” Murphy said Friday.
The view Murphy described has a host of supporters in Washington, from scholars at Saudi-funded research institutions like the Arab Gulf States Institute to some of Obama's top aides and Murphy's colleagues.
Obama's State Department has approved billions in various military sales to Saudi Arabia since the Iran deal wrapped up, including $11 billion in warships and over $1 billion in new bombs. Though it is not explicitly stated, observers see the Obama administration’s efforts to shore up the Saudi military and continued support for the disastrous war in Yemen as a tacit trade-off for the kingdom's accepting the nuclear deal.
Advocates for the U.S. relationship with the kingdom, like Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Foreign Relations Committee Chair Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), continue to tout its importance.
“Saudi Arabia is one of America's closest and oldest partners and deserves our continued support," McCain said in a statement after the kingdom executed 47 prisoners earlier this month, including prominent Shiite cleric and anti-government activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Corker's staff says he believes that supporting the Saudis in Yemen is will bring peace to that country.
Veteran politicians are urging current U.S. leaders to stay loyal to this thinking -- especially at times when it is challenged. Last year, the Saudi royal family faced global criticism for mismanaging the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah and therefore enabling the deaths of thousands. "Friends support each other in times of tragedy," former congressman Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) wrote in The Hill five days after the Makkah stampede. "Now is the time for the U.S. to develop new ties to those who will build a new Saudi Arabia. With two-thirds of all Saudis under the age of 30 and hundreds of thousands attending US colleges and universities on Saudi government scholarships, Saudi Arabia is likely to look forward and outward in the years ahead."
The January execution of the Shiite cleric sparked protests across the Muslim world. But most political outcry in Washington was directed not at the kingdom but at the Iranian government, which failed to prevent protesters in the capital from attacking the Saudi Embassy there. Even the Obama administration stopped short of condemning the execution, instead voicing “concerns at high levels” with the kingdom’s legal processes.
There is growing evidence our support for Saudi-led military campaigns in places like Yemen are prolonging humanitarian misery and aiding extremism.
To Murphy, defending the Saudis as a knee-jerk reaction rather than as a deliberate strategy is unsustainable. “The Middle East doesn’t work like that anymore,” he said. “There is growing evidence our support for Saudi-led military campaigns in places like Yemen are prolonging humanitarian misery and aiding extremism.”
The freshman senator and other Democrats on the foreign relations committee placed a hold on bomb transfers to Saudi Arabia in October because they wanted more answers about U.S.-aided Saudi conduct in the Yemen campaign. The committee also increased its oversight of weapons shipments to the kingdom in December.
Though a Murphy aide said the hold has now been lifted, the senator made clear Friday that he would like to suspend all U.S. military support for the Yemen war -- “at the very least, until we get assurances that this campaign does not distract from the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda, and until we make some progress on the Saudi export of Wahhabism.” He urged his colleagues to abide by similar conditions before approving future arms sales.
He made that argument based on tangible consequences of the campaign -- notably that it has given breathing room to Yemen's Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most lethal branch of the terror group, and that it has distracted Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar from the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
In doing so, the senator largely avoided the pitfalls that plague much criticism of Saudi Arabia. Invectives referring to the kingdom as "an ISIS that made it" and suggesting it is completely irreconcilable with the West often undermine legitimate criticism. And arguments focusing on the widespread human rights abuses there are easily rebutted by pointing out that the U.S. works with many infamous rights violators (and hardly has a sterling record itself) and that others in the region, including Iran, are tyrannical as well. (Many speak of Saudi Arabia's policy of executions as indistinguishable from ISIS's brutal justice while ignoring that Iran executes more prisoners each year.)
Though the U.S.'s friendship with Saudi Arabia is unlikely to erode anytime soon, for a long list of strategic reasons, Murphy's questioning suggests that in some months, or years, that relationship could come with more conditions.