Saudi Arabia is angry with Washington. In Riyadh's view, the U.S. government isn't doing enough to support tyranny and war in the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry has attempted to pacify the angry royals. Instead, the Obama administration should tell America's foreign "friends" that Washington acts in the interests of the American people, not corrupt dictators.
Riyadh long has been an embarrassment for the U.S. Cooperation on issues of mutual interest is a reasonable approach in a region where there are distressingly few genuine "good guys." However, U.S. officials have gone much further, lavishing support and attention on their Saudi counterparts. Indeed, Washington treats the Saudi royals--who oppress and mulct their own people--as, well, royalty. Riyadh's former ambassador to America, Bandar bin-Sultan, became one of Washington's most celebrated and renowned political operators.
Some Americans justify Washington's sycophancy as necessary to protect access to Saudi oil, but energy is an international market in which the sellers want to sell as much as buyers want to buy. Indeed, the Saudi royals need petroleum revenue to subsidize their lavish lifestyles, maintain state institutions of repression, and purchase public support.
If the money stopped flowing, members of today's pampered elite might find themselves hanging from lamp posts. So Riyadh is going to ship oil to Americans even if Washington acts in America's rather than Saudi Arabia's interests. (Never mind new energy discoveries elsewhere in the world, including in the U.S., are steadily diminishing Riyadh's relative energy role.)
Nevertheless, Washington has begun to resist Riyadh's demands, leading to reports that the King Abdullah is "angry." One former U.S. official told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that "Somebody needs to get on an airplane right now and go see the king," since the latter is "very tribal" and believes that "your word is your bond."
More dramatically, the Saudi government successfully campaigned for one of the ten elected term seats on the Security Council, only to then ostentatiously announce that the kingdom would not take its seat. "This was a message for the U.S., not the UN," said Bandar.
Riyadh's apparent bill of particulars against the U.S. is impressive for its irresponsibility. As one unnamed U.S. officials said of Bandar: "Obviously he wants us to do more." Obviously.
The Saudis are upset because Washington did not bomb Syrian government forces after the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. Saudi officials attacked the U.S.-Russia agreement to eliminate Damascus' weapons as a "capitulation." UN Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi complained that "Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stands by idly" demonstrated the Security Council's incapacity. Turki al-Faisal, Riyadh's ambassador to America, argued that international oversight of Syrian chemical weapons "would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious, and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad butcher his own people."
Yet the very same royal regime subsidized Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its aggressive war, which included use of chemical weapons, against Iran. Riyadh said nothing then about the killing and burning of Iranians in a conflict that cost perhaps a million lives. But mass butchery by Riyadh's de facto ally mattered less to the Sunni Saudi royals than defeating a Shia Islamic regime.
Similarly, today Saudis actively oppose human rights in next door Bahrain, where Riyadh has offered military backing for the repressive Sunni royal family against the Shia popular majority. With American ships stationed at a naval base there U.S. policy has been conflicted, torn between democracy and stability. Washington has said little about Manama's brutality, but even so apparently has irritated the Saudis by offering less than fulsome praise for the Bahraini royals' willing to shoot and imprison demonstrators and dissidents alike.
Nor do the Saudis worry about the poor and oppressed in Egypt. To the contrary, Riyadh is firmly on the side of Egypt's murderous military, which shot down as many civilians in Cairo as the Chinese military killed in Beijing's Tiananmen Square a quarter century ago. Argued Foreign Policy blogger Kori Schake: the Saudis want "the return to power of the deep state in Egypt (a model they would perpetuate throughout the region)." Thus, the Saudi royals are upset because Washington has cut much of its funding for a politicized military long subsidized and equipped by America. Finally, the Saudi government is appalled that Washington is negotiating with rather than bombing Iran. Riyadh also wanted the Obama administration to put more ships into the Gulf to protect the regime if the Iranians chose to retaliate, given Saudis' none-too-secret support for U.S. military action against Tehran.
Apparently Riyadh isn't only worried about the prospect of an Iranian nuke. The Wall Street Journal's Karen Elliott House noted that the royals were concerned that a deal would boost "Iran's prestige and influence at the expense of Saudi Arabia." Riyadh even complained that the Iranians--shock!--were working against Saudi Arabia as the latter opposed Iran in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, and Iraq. Said Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, until recently in charge of Saudi intelligence: "You can't deal with us and then go and support somebody who wants to overturn us." Indeed, explained the Journal, the Saudis denounced Tehran for trying to "exploit Shiite populations in Arab countries across the region to try to undermine Sunni Muslim governments and their interests." Actually, it would be more accurate to state that Saudi Arabia and, even more so, Saudi ally Bahrain, are exploiting their Shia populations to remain wealthy and in power. At least Iran appears to be backing the natural desire of subject Shia populations--a minority in Saudi Arabia but majority in Bahrain--not to be exploited by repressive Sunni monarchs.
While Washington shouldn't be concerned about maintaining Saudi influence, the U.S. understandably prefers that Tehran not get a nuke. However, the costs of yet another war against another Muslim nation in the Middle East almost certainly would greatly exceed the benefits. Not that the Saudis care about how many Americans (and Iranians) might die and how much American wealth might be squandered. Even if the cost likely would be low, however, Washington shouldn't hire out its military personnel and materiel to the Saudis or anyone else.
However, hypocrisy comes easily for licentious libertines living off of their subject peoples. America's pampered allies are unhappy and issuing threats. For instance, bin-Sultan, who now heads Saudi intelligence, reportedly has downgraded ties with the CIA in training and arming Syrian rebels and threatened a "major shift" in dealing with America. Ignatius noted that Saudi officials were expounding on their frustration even two years ago, and said "they increasingly regarded the U.S. as unreliable and would look elsewhere for their security." Moreover, the Saudis apparently announced they no longer will favor U.S. munitions makers, after spending $33.4 billion on U.S. weapons in 2011.
Americans should respond, so what? Prince Bandar reportedly told European diplomats that "Saudi doesn't want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent." Reducing Saudi dependency is in America's interest.
In fact, Washington should encourage the Saudis to find another sucker to protect their exploitative regime. The Chinese? Not likely. Beijing has no spare aircraft carriers and no love for Islamists subsidizing Islamic fundamentalism around the globe. How about the Russians? They don't have the forces necessary to police the Persian Gulf. And after years of war in Chechnya and terrorist attacks in Russia, helping the publicly pious royals isn't likely to top Moscow's list either. The Europeans? They ain't got much of a military and even less will to use it. Especially for a regime which couldn't be more at odds with liberal European values. Who else? India or Brazil? Kenya or Indonesia? Japan or South Africa? Candidates to take over pampering the Saudis are in short supply. Author Christopher Davidson argued that "Saudi Arabia is retreating into its shell of countries that surround it and who rely on its aid and good will." If so, why should Washington object?
Riyadh could limit or even end intelligence sharing and anti-terrorism cooperation with Washington. However, many of America's enemies target Saudi Arabia. Attempting to punish the U.S. in this way would increase the royals' vulnerability.
Nor is Riyadh's refusal to serve on the Security Council a problem for America. The Saudi Foreign Ministry said that the royals would not join until the council was "reformed so it can effectively and practically perform its duties and discharge its responsibilities in maintaining international security and peace." Why, then, did Riyadh seek a seat in the first place? The Council's ineffectiveness is no secret and has no solution.
Presumably the Saudis really meant to send a message to Washington, but the U.S. should file their protest in the round file. One wit, the anonymous blogger The Saker, observed: "With the predictable exception of Kuwait and Bahrain, who is going to be heartbroken at not having the Saudis sit at the horseshoe table? Kosovo?"
As a U.S. diplomat told Foreign Policy blogger Colum Lynch, "Our interests increasingly don't align." In fact, the two nations' interests long have been substantially out of sync. Warned Schake: "bringing U.S. policies into alignment with Saudi Arabia is likely to create a Middle East even less in America's interest than the Obama administration's bungling has."
The Saudis support radical rebels in Syria who may be as interested in killing Americans as in killing Bashar al-Assad's soldiers. Yet Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma surmised that the Saudis worried about increased pressure "to stop subsidizing Salafist militias in Syria" if they joined the Security Council: "Saudi Arabia doesn't want to reign [the radical rebels] in."
Indeed, the Saudis always have gone their own way with little concern for U.S. interests. Saudi security analyst Mustafa Alani told the Wall Street Journal: "We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States." Actually, they pioneered that sort of treatment.
Riyadh was one of the few governments, joined by another American "ally," Pakistan, to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The royals made little effort to curb funding for al-Qaeda until the latter was foolish enough to challenge the House of Saud--for being corrupt, libertine hypocrites. Only then did Riyadh act ruthlessly to dispatch terrorists who were America's enemies as well. For all the sweet nothings U.S. officials have whispered in the ears of leading Saudis, Riyadh always has been a leading "frenemy" of America.
Almost alone, the U.S. military-industrial complex has benefited from the bilateral relationship, but subsidizing munitions makers shouldn't be the purpose of American foreign policy. If the only way to get Riyadh to buy U.S. weapons is to encourage tyranny and start wars, Washington should say no thanks.
In fact, Ahmad Majidyar of the American Enterprise Institute speculated that the Saudis may just be attempting to pressure the U.S. to get Washington to more closely follow its wishes. After reports of Saudi dissatisfaction surfaced, the Wall Street Journal went into full administration-bashing mode, worrying about Saudi "disgust," "dismay," anger at being "burned" by Washington, and more. But Americans shouldn't be concerned that powerful Saudi elites, used to buying everything they want, are frustrated that they no longer can so easily purchase Washington's services.
Admittedly, it isn't only Saudi Arabia which is upset with the Obama administration's inconsistent approach to the Middle East's endless complexities. The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Turkey, and even Israel have assigned Washington tasks which it has refused to carry out, much to their distress. However, American policy must be designed to serve the interests of Americans.
Former White House aide Elliot Abrams argued that "When you're not viewed as a reliable ally, and as a country no longer as dominant in the region, you lose influence on everything." However, if the current mess reflects decades of dominant U.S. influence, Washington isn't going to lose much from backing away.
Alliances should be a means to an end, a tool to advance U.S. security. Alas, in recent years America's alliances have become ends in themselves, a measure of international popularity a bit like accumulating "friends" on Facebook. It's bad enough when allies are indolent dependents, like the Europeans, South Koreans, and Japanese. At least they still are genuine friends of America.
It is far worse when alliances turn into mechanisms used by undemocratic frenemies to manipulate U.S. policy for their own ends. So it has been for Saudi Arabia. President Obama deserves kudos for refusing to bend American policy to suit the whims of the Riyadh royals. Washington might not be able to stop the Saudis from promoting tyranny and war. But the U.S. certainly shouldn't aid them in their quest.