New Poll Underscores Frailty Of U.S. Relationship With Saudi Arabia

President-elect Donald Trump has encouraged rising anti-Saudi sentiment as part of his general message that Muslims should not be trusted.

WASHINGTON ― Forty-seven percent of Americans think Saudi Arabia, a U.S. partner since the 1940s, is unfriendly or an enemy, according to a new survey conducted by The Huffington Post and YouGov.

Voters who supported President-elect Donald Trump are especially wary. While Hillary Clinton voters are split about Saudi Arabia ― 36 percent consider it friendly or an ally, and 38 percent say it’s unfriendly or an enemy ― 59 percent of Trump voters say the nation is unfriendly at best. Americans younger than 30 are the least likely of the age groups surveyed to see it as friendly.

The numbers emerge after a year when traditional U.S.-Saudi alignment has looked surprisingly shaky.

The kingdom’s U.S.-backed campaign to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemen has become increasingly controversial as awareness spreads about the hundreds of civilians killed by Saudi airstrikes and the way terrorist groups have benefited from the war.

Lawmakers, particularly Democrats unhappy with President Barack Obama’s facilitation of the Saudi effort, have sought ways to punish Saudi Arabia, including by signaling growing opposition to arms transfers. (While the Obama administration has halted some weapon shipments, it continues to provide the Saudis and their partners with intelligence and with aerial refueling that enables them to take longer bombing runs.) Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leader of the movement, has said he wants to speak about more than Yemen ― that he seeks to fully reevaluate the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The majority of senators have yet to publicly adopt that view, but voices that will publicly praise the partnership are rare.

A different congressional fight has already resulted in precisely the outcome Saudi Arabia was dreading.

In September, Democrats and Republicans united to pass a bill that would allow victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia ― and then jointly overrode a veto by Obama, who was concerned it could open up the U.S. to litigation abroad.

The fight over the legislation, known as the Saudi 9/11 bill, reopened the question of whether Saudi Arabia facilitated the tragedy. Though the Saudis have battled al Qaeda for years and had their reputation cleared by U.S. government investigations (including those 28 pages), congressional leaders chose to score an easy political win that encouraged conspiracy theorists.

Prospects for valuable U.S.-Saudi engagement ― including on terrorism, women’s rights and Islamist radicalization ― have since plummeted. Saudi leaders were already frustrated with the U.S. because of Barack Obama’s interest in diplomacy with their rival Iran and his perceived under-appreciation of their support for U.S. strategy abroad. After the slight from Capitol Hill, they faced growing public pressure at home to stand up to the Americans. Now they are debating pulling back from the relationship, including by moving billions of dollars of investment away from the U.S. economy.

The poll numbers suggest Saudi leaders might be correct in reevaluating the relationship ― and wise to think about new ways to shore it up, given the clearly limited influence of their scores of high-paid American lobbyists.

Protests calling for tougher moves against Saudi Arabia over Yemen and in support of the Saudi 9/11 bill were a common sight in Washington in 2016.
Protests calling for tougher moves against Saudi Arabia over Yemen and in support of the Saudi 9/11 bill were a common sight in Washington in 2016.

At a different political moment, there could be less cause for worry. Greg Gause, an expert on Saudi politics at Texas A&M University, told HuffPost the Saudi-U.S. partnership has never relied heavily on public or congressional approval. “I’ve never gotten the sense that people on Capitol Hill like Saudi Arabia. I think they’ve always been distrustful of Saudi Arabia on a number of counts,” Gause said. “They’re good liberals who don’t like Saudi policies on women, or they’re conservatives who, now that we don’t have the Cold War to keep us together, worry about Islam and some new enemy.

“There just isn’t a domestic constituency for Saudi Arabia in the United States… this idea that the Saudis have a lot of control in Washington ― I think it’s ludicrous, it’s part of our general propensity for conspiracy theory thought.”

As a result, Riyadh has always relied on the executive branch to recognize the national security value of U.S.-Saudi ties and keep relations warm, Gause said.

While Obama has openly criticized the kingdom, he has not tried to sever its ties to the U.S. Instead he has offered the country record arms sales and done little to prevent or punish moves that threaten Saudi stability and the U.S.’s reputation as its close friend, such as the execution earlier this year of a dissident Shiite cleric or the 2015 launch of the war in Yemen. In the telling of Bruce Reidel, a former CIA agent now at the Brookings Institution, the president was willing to violate an important rule: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.

The incoming administration could be very different.

Trump supported the Saudi 9/11 bill, and he used anti-Saudi sentiment as a wedge issue against Hillary Clinton. One of Trump’s favorite talking points, that Clinton should return Clinton Foundation donations from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim-majority countries because they throw LGBT citizens off roofs, is a lie that has already been linked to an Islamophobic murderer.

By conflating countries like Saudi Arabia with the vicious Islamic State group (which does engage in that atrocity), Trump was encouraging a line of thought that had already become popular. The Saudis ― with their reputation for excess, moral hypocrisy and repressive quasi-Islamic justice ― have become a favorite target for Islamophobes and other racists seeking ways to slam the Muslim-majority world.

The Saudis and other Muslim-majority U.S. partners are eager to write all that off as campaign trail babble, speak of the business understandings they could reach with someone of Trump’s background and note the president-elect’s selection of Iran critics for top jobs. They could be encouraged by the fact that the HuffPost/YouGov poll shows Americans still very wary of Iran (74 percent see it as unfriendly or an enemy). And they know it would be complicated and costly for the U.S. to fully extract itself from its embrace.

But the president-elect’s toughness on Iran may well have been more of a campaign stunt than a policy conviction. And he has repeatedly proved eager, even after the election, to echo controversial aides and speak of U.S. relations with the Muslim-majority world as a clash of civilizations. “Trump has vowed to be daringly different, as he likes to boast,” Robin Wright wrote in The New Yorker this month. “But his narrow-minded ideas and bombastic rhetoric risk remaking the world order — and potentially spawning a full-scale holy war.”

With Americans wary of Saudi Arabia and another top Muslim partner (NATO member Turkey, which 34 percent see as unfriendly at best, compared with 33 percent who see it as friendly), the president-elect could claim a mandate for foreign policy maneuvers that Muslim friends of the U.S. might never have imagined. He has already proved willing to fudge numbers. What’s clearer now is how limited the opposition to such actions could be.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Dec. 13-14 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls.You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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