WASHINGTON – The U.S.-Saudi relationship appears to be on the rocks.
Most recently, the rift of 9/11 has been reopened. This month “60 Minutes” reported on the still-classified final chapter of a 2003 Senate report on the attacks, which it said would show that some Saudi officials, charities and wealthy individuals supported two of the 9/11 hijackers.
The Saudi connection is especially relevant now because Congress is considering legislation to allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for damages. Saudi officials are warning the White House, according to The New York Times, that the kingdom would sell off hundreds of billions of dollars worth of U.S. assets if that bill became law.
Then there is Obama himself. His signature foreign policy achievement, a nuclear deal with Iran, has removed sanctions on a country that is in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia across the region. To make matters worse, Obama has said — in an interview published last month in the Atlantic — that the Saudis must learn how to share the Middle East with Iran. A year earlier, he told New York Times columnist Tom Friedman that the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies faced an internal threat because of the sclerosis of closed political systems.
This is the backdrop of Obama’s visit Wednesday to Riyadh. But the U.S.-Saudi relationship only appears to be on the rocks. Indeed, despite harsh words about how Saudi Arabia is politically organized and how the Iran agreement enhances its security, the president is doubling down on a partnership that has endured since the 1930s. He has deepened military and intelligence ties with the kingdom since he came into office in 2009.
“Obama doesn’t want to look like he is defending an absolute monarchy that won’t even let women drive, but in fact he has been proactively supportive of that monarchy, as have all of his predecessors,” Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA officer and the head of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, told me.
A Congressional Research Service report from February, for example, estimates that the U.S. has sold Saudi Arabia nearly $100 billion worth of “fighter aircraft, helicopters, naval vessels, missile defense systems, missiles, bombs, armored vehicles, and related equipment and services” since 2010. Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen has been aided by U.S. logistical support, intelligence sharing and munitions sales as well.
On the sensitive issue of electronic eavesdropping, the Obama administration in December 2012 authorized more training and intelligence sharing between the National Security Agency and Saudi Arabia’s ministries of defense and interior. According to an NSA memo published by the Intercept in 2014, the cooperation targeted the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. A U.S. official familiar with these programs told me that cooperation has continued.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, told me that the intelligence partnership with Saudi Arabia was driven by threats in the region. “What we saw at that time was the rise of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Iranian desire to take over Yemen from within, backing the Houthi separatists,” he said. “We needed to take bigger steps to get greater insights into the region, and the Saudis were willing to help.”
In this respect Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States in counterterrorism, despite its history in the 1990s of allowing charities, wealthy benefactors and banks to finance terror groups like al-Qaida.
Saudi Arabia began to seriously target radicals after it suffered three major bombings in Riyadh in 2003, Riedel said. Since then, the Saudis have steadily improved their own campaign against jihadi networks. In August, the Saudis arrested Ahmed al-Mughassil, a key plotter of the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, a barracks for U.S. Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia. In 2010, Saudi intelligence helped foil a plot from al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate to place printer cartridge bombs on airplanes. “It would be hard to find another country that has produced successes of that character in the last four or five years,” Riedel said of the Saudis.
Those successes did not come about because the U.S. and Saudi Arabia want the same things for their respective societies or share common values. They don’t. And so Obama’s harsh words make sense. But so does his increased support for and cooperation with Saudi Arabia, because both countries today share a common enemy in the terrorists whom the Saudis once allowed to fester.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He previously was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast.
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