WASHINGTON – After the recent execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia, the Mideast 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 U.S. to dump Saudi Arabia?
The moral case for the U.S. 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 Shariah 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 U.S.-Saudi alliance relies almost entirely on overlapping economic and national security interests. The U.S. 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 U.S. to protect their security.
Despite these long-standing ties, Saudi Arabia now harms American national interests as much as it helps them.
First, the Saudis and the U.S. 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 U.S.’ 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. that doing so could damage hopes for peace in Syria. Ending the Syrian war remains a priority for the U.S., since Washington hopes a Syrian settlement will lead all parties to unite against Islamic State.
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 U.S., American dependence on Saudi oil has dropped dramatically. According to a Citibank report, by 2020 the U.S. 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 U.S. refinery system is the most attractive market for this type of petroleum.
As the U.S. 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 U.S.’ 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 industry could face bankruptcy. While cheap oil is good for American consumers, at a certain point the downside for the U.S.’ economy may outweigh the upsides. Of course, if the U.S. regains a greater dependence on foreign oil, the Saudis will be the ones to benefit.
Finally — and most importantly — the U.S. 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.”
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-Qaida and eventually the terrorist Islamic State.”
In a highly unusual public rebuke in December, Germany’s vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel accused the Saudis of funding extremism in the West. “Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists 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.
Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.