Why the West cannot turn its back on Saudi Arabia

Beyond oil and arms sales, Riyadh has been seen as a stable partner in the Middle East for decades.

Mohammed bin Salman and Donald Trump during the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, the 30th of November 2018. Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

To what extent can a journalist’s death upset geopolitics and threaten a relationship that has survived disagreements over the Arab-Israeli conflict, tensions after the oil crisis of 1973, distrust following 9/11 and disappointment after the Iran nuclear deal?

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s in his country’s consulate in Istanbul has had a resounding effect in Western countries and caused them to question and rethink their relationships with their old ally. In the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe, politicians, former diplomats, intellectuals and journalists have come forward in recent weeks calling for a change of policy. They want their countries to distance themselves from the kingdom and to see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, suspected of being behind the assassination, held accountable.

“We should reevaluate the nature of our relationship, but I would hope that if we do, it should be clear-eyed, and not based on current emotions,” Gerald Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen and current vice president of the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, tells L’Orient-Le Jour.

The stakes in the Saudi-US relationship are enormous both economically and politically. They include the stability of oil prices, the fight against radical Islam, the containment of Iranian influence and money and weapons from defense contracts. Riyadh is also a key player in all major issues in the Middle East. If the West were to distance itself from the kingdom it would risk destabilizing the region and even the global economy. "Even if Saudi Arabia is not the most perfect country in the world, Westerners cannot afford the luxury of ending up with an unstable country,” says Frédéric Charillon, a professor of international relations at Sciences Po Paris.

For its part, the new leadership in Riyadh has signaled that it is willing to use the threat of chaos to cling to power.

Good ally

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter and biggest importer of weapons. But the relationship between the kingdom and western countries cannot be reduced only to petrodollars. Saudi’s diplomatic position is at least as important. "One cannot have an Arab policy without going through Saudi Arabia at some point,” a Western diplomatic source, who wished to remain anonymous, told L’Orient-Le Jour.

For decades, the West, led by the US, has made its alliance with the kingdom a pillar of its regional policy. "Saudi Arabia and the United States have been good allies. Their partnership dates back to the end of the Second World War, in terms of security and stability in the region. Riyadh stood beside Washington to counter Soviet expansionism in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and finally in the Gulf War (1991). During all these years, we worked very closely with the Saudis and they were very good partners,” says Feierstein of MEI.

"When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was shaping the region, Saudi Arabia was a moderating actor in the Arab world,” adds Michel Duclos, former French ambassador to Syria and current geopolitical advisor at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.

In general, for years the West has seen its relationship with Riyadh in a positive light. Despite changes in power, the alliance has never really been reassessed, and the kingdom has earned a reputation as a loyal, moderate actor and crucial partner in an unstable region. Neither the oil crisis of 1973 - caused by Saudi Arabia - nor deep differences over the Arab-Israeli conflict have had a lasting effect.

The September 11 attacks, however, were a turning point. The fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia created tensions that never existed before. "Since then, something was broken in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. It was later repaired, but the anti-Saudi sentiment nevertheless remained, latent and deep, within the American political class,” adds Duclos.

After 9/11, substantial gaps began to appear between US and Saudi positions on crucial issues. The Saudis protested as the US prepared to go to war in Iraq in 2003, fearing that the fall of Saddam Hussein would give their bitter regional rival, Iran, an opportunity to extend its influence. Their objections went unheeded. Then, with Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential elections, the closeness of the US-Saudi relationship was questioned like never before, and the distance between their policies grew. The Obama administration refused to intervene militarily in Syria, even after the Assad Regime used chemical weapons in 2013. And in 2015, the US signed the Iran nuclear deal.

The Saudis felt betrayed by their once staunch ally, while the influence of their Iranian enemies was steadily growing throughout the region. This is what led to the birth of a new Saudi Arabia marked by an abrupt change in policy away from caution and military non-interventionism.

As long as the Saudis kept it low-profile, the West looked away from their ally’s darkside, choosing to overlook the fact that Saudi Arabia did not share Western values and the ambiguous role it played in the rise of radical Islam and the spread fundamentalist ideology. "In Europe, since the attacks of the Islamic State started, the suspicion that the Wahhabi ideology was a component of the rise of jihadism has been increasingly present," Duclos says.

This perception, although simplistic, has been a main factor in the deterioration of the kingdom’s image in American and European public opinion.


The kingdom’s reputation has been further tarnished by the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, the alleged kidnapping of Lebanese Prime minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh last year and, most recently, Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination. Following these events, western countries are now facing the accusation that they have turned a blind eye to Saudi excesses.

Some people in the Western political establishment have been calling for a more detached policy for a couple of years now. But it took the brazen killing of Khashoggi for a consensus to emerge that the relationship had to change and for many to start questioning whether Saudi should be considered an ally at all.

In an article published on Politico, Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller argued that the Saudis “are an occasional and often reluctant, half-hearted security partner and their interests, particularly under the influence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as MBS), only episodically align with ours.”

Miller, who served as an adviser to six US secretaries of state, dismantled the arguments of people who say the kingdom is an indispensable ally. Instead, he asserted, Saudi Arabia has become a destabilizing force whose actions have only strengthened Iran’s influence. Washington, now energy self-sufficient, no longer needs Riyadh for its oil supply, he concluded.

Under the leadership of the crown prince, Saudi Arabia has undertaken impulsive and ineffective policy initiatives at home and abroad. The Trump administration has given bin Salman the green light in these initiatives because it considers the kingdom a key ally in countering Iranian expansion and an important factor in its hopes for normalizing relations between Arabs states and Israel.

But MBS is now being resoundingly criticized in Washington, and according to Charillon of Sciences Po, some consider him to be a threat to the relationship and to the stability of Saudi Arabia as a whole. "Riyadh is a strategic ally and this relationship is worth preserving, but not at all costs. Our position in the world and our national security will be more affected if we ignore MBS, than if we take care of him,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a close confidant of President Trump, stated recently.

The idea of looking at the alliance with Saudi Arabia as separate from the relationship with MBS is now starting to gain traction. "Some want to preserve the first by changing the second,” says Charillon.

"Trump is increasingly isolated in his enthusiasm for MBS and now the West will be more demanding vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia,” adds Duclos.

Last week, the Republican controlled Senate voted to end American military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The Senate also approved a separate resolution condemning Khashoggi's murder. The resolution stated that MBS, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, was "responsible" for the death.

On Monday, the kingdom condemned the resolutions as “interference” by the US Senate in its internal affairs and warned that the move could have repercussions on its strategic ties with Washington.

But despite the recent discord, common interests have not disappeared. Washington is less dependent on the Saudi oil, but cares deeply about the overall stability of the market . "Defeating islamist extremism, containing Iran and making progress in the israeli-palestinian conflict: Saudi Arabia is a key player in all of these issues,” says Feierstein of MEI. "Maybe Saudi Arabia is not as essential as it used to be, nevertheless, it's still an important partner.”

Meanwhile, while President Trump has refused to hold MBS accountable for the Khashoggi killing, the Senate made it clear that Washington will no longer be giving the kingdom carte blanche in its activities. Saudi Arabia is currently facing fresh pressure to end its war in Yemen and reconcile with Qatar, which the Saudis and their Gulf allies placed under embargo in June 2017. These moves are a clear message from the West that the kingdom crossed a line and that it is time for it to readjust its policies. The expectation is that the Saudis will return to their traditional role in the region while continuing to modernize economically and in terms of social values.

What remains to be seen is whether Riyadh will respect these new red lines. If it does, this would require a reevaluation of Mohammed bin Salman’s vision for a Saudi Arabia that is an aggressive, strong-willed and independent power able to call the shots all over the Middle East.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 12th of December 2018)

To what extent can a journalist’s death upset geopolitics and threaten a relationship that has survived disagreements over the Arab-Israeli conflict, tensions after the oil crisis of 1973, distrust following 9/11 and disappointment after the Iran nuclear deal?

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s in his country’s consulate in Istanbul has had a resounding effect in...

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