- Michael Stephens
Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and Head of RUSI Qatar
assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
A meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and the founder of the third Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz Ibn Saud on USS Quincy on 14 February 1944 set the scene for seven decades of American policy toward the Arab World. To this day, the United States guarantees the security of Saudi Arabia in exchange for a Saudi commitment to ensure the free flow of oil to global markets. This remains the central pillar of the U.S. posture in the Middle East, alongside its commitment to the security of Israel.
Because the free flow of oil is essential to the stability of the international economy, the oil-for-security bargain has brought important benefits to the United States and its allies. Yet Saudi Arabia is a problematic partner. The human rights situation in the country is abysmal, and there is little prospect that it will improve for the foreseeable future. The partnership is also costly since it associates the United States, even if only indirectly, with Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy choices, most recently including U.S. intelligence and logistics support for the ongoing war in Yemen, which has resulted in the deaths of some 10,000 people according to UN estimates.
But critics of the partnership with Saudi Arabia often confuse the costs of tactical disagreements – which are many – and the benefits of strategic alignment. Viewed through this lens, it is a necessary, if difficult arrangement. Indeed the alternatives are worse: a collapsed or enemy Saudi Arabia would be much more damaging to U.S. interests, and it would not be more democratic.
Still, disagreements between Riyadh and Washington have intensified in the past 18 months, leading to growing doubts about the viability and desirability of the partnership. Both sides still agree that opposing Iranian regional influence and countering terrorism are priorities, but they increasingly disagree on the means to pursue these objectives, and they have come to rank them differently. Riyadh’s belief that the West sold out Saudi interests to reach an accommodation with Iran has, in particular, sowed the seeds of a larger divergence over regional security priorities. Chastened since the failure of the state building project in Iraq, the United States and its Western allies now primarily concern themselves with the struggle against terrorism.
The West’s cost-benefit calculus underlying the relationship with the Kingdom is underpinned by three basic assumptions. It is useful to think in those terms: the more these assumptions are found to be faulty, the stronger the case against the partnership becomes.
The first assumption is that the Kingdom is stable. There is reluctance among the Saudi population to commit to popular unrest; pockets of dissatisfaction exist, especially in Shia majority areas, but the Monarchy remains popular among the population at large. Additionally, the ruling house is adroit at handling dissent amongst family members: disagreements usually remain behind closed doors, and family norms play a strong part in holding the increasingly large House of Saud together. The West, therefore, bets that Saudi Arabia is an acceptable pillar for its regional engagement because of its relative stability.
In the midst of an extended downturn in oil prices, there are serious questions as to whether the Saudis can maintain their ruling bargain. Under Vision 2030, the Saudis have attempted to convince the outside world and their own population that they have the foresight to oversee the transition from a rentier state to a diversified, private sector-driven economy. In truth, many doubt that Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his team of American, business-school-educated advisers can pull this off. Nevertheless, for all its economic and social tensions, the Kingdom will likely muddle along for the foreseeable future.
The second assumption is the understanding that the Kingdom holds a strong preference for maintaining the regional status quo. Riyadh has historically refrained from starting wars or engineering major changes in the regional order, preferring to back friendly regimes with cash and to use its diplomatic weight quietly behind the scenes. For instance, while hostile to Israel, the Saudis never joined the major wars launched by Arab states against it.
Of course, the objective for Saudi Arabia has always been to ensure regional stability, and for the most part, this aligned neatly with U.S. and Western interests, particularly during the Cold War. However, the combination in recent years of growing insecurity in the wake of regional uprisings with the re-emergence of Iran from international isolation post-nuclear deal has turned this notion of stability upside down. The previously shy Saudis have, as a result, begun to forge a more activist policy, using military power and the formation of new alliances to counter Iranian interference, in what some refer to as the Salman doctrine. Stability for Saudi Arabia no longer means the absence of social and political unrest on its borders and the security of allied governments, but rather the absence of political vacuums that can be filled by Iranian proxies. To this end, Saudi Arabia is now willing to expend huge resources to prevent this from occurring, as has already been the case in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Riyadh’s growing propensity for regional activism begs the question as to whether nations in the West who arm, train, and protect Saudi Arabia’s interests should go along with it. The war in Yemen, in particular, has become extremely uncomfortable for Western nations, particularly the U.S. and the U.K. whose aircraft, air-to-ground munitions, and targeting systems are deployed on a daily basis inside the country by the Royal Saudi Air Force. Both countries now face heavy domestic scrutiny for being seen as complicit in the deaths of innocent Yemenis caught in up in the battle between the Kingdom and the Houthi militias that roam the country.
The third assumption states that, for all its flaws, the House of Saud remains the optimal regime from the point of view of U.S. interests. Saudi Arabia holds the world’s largest oil reserves, providing it with significant leverage on oil markets. It is also the spiritual center of the world’s fastest growing religion and, with the collapse of Iraq and the downward spiral of Egypt, it is de facto the primary state in the Arab world. The United States thus has a vital interest in ensuring that the regime does not collapse.
In the short- to mid-term, this would be extremely damaging to the international economy, while in the longer term, any successor regime would likely be less, and possibly far less, cooperative on a range of critical issues, especially oil prices, counterterrorism, and regional security. A successor regime would also be highly unlikely to be democratic. The notion that Saudi Arabia’s governance structure is at fault is, therefore, incorrect. Regardless of what government were to exist in Riyadh the threats it faces would be similar; a Riyadh distanced from the U.S.-led order would have the power to cause much damage to Western interests, not just regionally, but more importantly, globally.
These three assumptions have clearly come under strain. Yet despite growing questions about their validity, they still stand: they are shaky, especially the second assumption, but they continue to provide a rationale justifying the partnership.
The United States – or any other Western state – does not have much leverage on Saudi Arabia and its strategic choices at present. But to shun the Saudis at a time when they are trying to assert themselves as regional leaders would be highly destabilising to the Middle East’s increasingly fragile regional order. Given that Riyadh’s insecurity would be heightened by the absence of a security partner with which to face down Tehran, this would force it to look to Beijing and Moscow as grateful, yet uncritical allies.
Realistically the best – or least bad – option is to maintain engagement with Saudi Arabia. At a time when the Kingdom has begun to reach out more, now is perhaps the best moment to try to shape its long-term thinking. Vision 2030, championed by Prince Mohammed, has pushed the Kingdom to not only seek business opportunities abroad in the pursuit of economic diversification, but also to build its capacities through training and intellectual engagement with policy communities and academic institutions in the West. A serious attempt to understand the Kingdom’s strategic rationale offers scope to try to shape its decisions, and opens the door to mitigate the costs of some of its actions. In the difficult case of Riyadh’s war with Yemen, the only realistic alternative is therefore for Washington to accept that the war will continue while attempting – with, at best, only odds of limited success – to temper Saudi ambitions and steer conversations at the negotiating table toward a more successful outcome.
In sum, it is better to be close to Saudi Arabia when it makes decisions unpalatable to the West, and thus to have the opportunity to understand its rationale and perhaps shape its actions. To be more distant would bring a certain moral gratification, but would only provoke further Saudi actions counter to U.S. interests. This is unsatisfactory. But no amount of American power can prevent the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry from spilling out across the region. Working to contain tension and to ensure that conflict does not escalate into a region-wide conflagration that further damages the Middle East is surely preferable to losing the limited available leverage by walking away. This does not mean uncritically accepting all of Riyadh’s concerns and systematically aligning with every actor favorable to the Kingdom. But a good step in the right direction would be to take a more robust stance on the role on non-state actors across the region by clearly defining which actors Washington is willing to tolerate as challenges to the status quo and which are too damaging to be allowed to proliferate. This would send the message to Riyadh that Washington seeks stability as an end goal of its regional policy. More than anything, this would calm nerves in the Saudi ruling house.
*Photo Credit: thefreethoughtproject.com
*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.