The United States and Saudi Arabia: Marriage of Convenience on the Rocks?

Remarks to the Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning

Saudi Arabia has done it again! On January 23, it dismayed foreign pundits by failing to sink into the anarchy they speculated might follow the death of its king, ‘Abdullah. Instead, the Kingdom carried off yet another flawless passing of the leadership baton. What’s more, the succession process indicated who the next two or three kings are likely to be. And the new king, Salman bin ‘Abdulaziz Al-Sa’ud, acted promptly and decisively to seize the reins of government and reorganize it.

This rightly attracted global attention. The world has a big stake in Saudi stability. Forget the cartoons about it! The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a gas station full of oppressed, black-garbed women in the middle of a camel ranch. It is the heartland and focal point of Islam, the faith of at least one in four human beings alive today.  It lies athwart transport routes between Asia, Europe, and Africa. The Kingdom is the custodian of a fourth or more of the world’s oil reserves. Rumors that it is no longer relevant to oil markets have just been unambiguously refuted. (Ask any fracker in North Dakota about that!) Saudi Arabia is at the center of a growing concentration of global capital. Its puritanical religious doctrines inspire its — and our — most dangerous enemies.

In short, what happens in Saudi Arabia and between it and its neighbors matters greatly to Americans, American allies and friends, and American adversaries. But Saudi Arabia is little known, even less understood, and frequently caricatured. This is not surprising. The Kingdom is the only society on the planet not to have been penetrated by Western colonialism. No European armies breached its borders; no missionaries; no merchants. Its capital, Riyadh, was long off limits to infidels, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina remain so today. It is said that hubris is the only reliably renewable resource of Western civilization, but when we Westerners finally came to Saudi Arabia, we came not as the vindicators of our presumed cultural superiority, but as hired help.

As a result, some say that Saudis secretly see the world’s peoples as divided into two basic categories: (1) fellow Saudis, and (2) potential employees. Be that as it may, foreigners — Western, Asian, or Arab — who have lived in Saudi Arabia all see it as a very strange society, one that is not easy to understand and that professes values at odds with those of non-Saudis. Some come to love it. Many don’t.

The Kingdom has long stood apart from global norms. Its system of government draws on tribal and Islamic traditions rather than Western models. Its king presides rather than rules over the royal family and Saudi society. His responsibility is less to make decisions than to shape and proclaim consensus, while assuring a share of the national wealth to all, especially the least privileged.

Saudi Arabia levies no taxes on its citizens, other than the religious tithe on wealth known as “zakat” — a two-and-a-half percent annual donation of capital to charity and other public purposes. All Saudis enjoy free education and medical care from birth to death and can pursue these benefits at home or abroad, as they wish. The Kingdom has no elected parliament, though it does have elaborate informal mechanisms for consultation with its citizens on policy and personal matters. Saudi Arabia reverses and thereby affirms a basic principle of American political philosophy, “No representation without taxation.” Most Saudis seem to like being on the payroll rather than the tax roll.

With rare exceptions, Saudis don’t emigrate, though they go abroad in great numbers to study or vacation. The Saudi system may strike Americans as weird, but it clearly has the confidence of most Saudis. This is a reminder that legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed, not from foreign opinion. Inveterate foreign muttering notwithstanding, the Kingdom is here to stay.

Saudi Arabia does not conform to European notions of monarchy, but it is not a democracy. The Saudi state is Islamist. Its constitution is the Holy Quran  Its basic legal framework is the Shari’a, the Muslim code of religious law that parallels the Jewish Halakha. Saudis have never embraced the ideals of the 18th century Atlantic Enlightenment and do not aspire to reorder their society along liberal lines. It would be difficult to imagine a society with values more different than those in the United States. Yet, Saudi-American relations have been remarkably stable. The partnership between the two countries has been grounded in six areas of cooperation, reflecting vital interests that overlap. But all of these, with the exception of the most recent — counterterrorism — have been seriously compromised by trends and events in this century.

King Salman has now inherited a very conservative country that his predecessor, King ‘Abdullah, spent twenty years nudging toward greater religious tolerance, an expanded role for women in public life, increased integration with the global economy, and a more prominent role in both global and regional affairs. The Kingdom’s tradition of successful top-down management of evolutionary change contrasts with the failure of revolutionary uprisings and coups d’état in its neighbors to engineer comparable progress. But Saudi Arabia’s transformation remains both incomplete and animated by no clearly articulated vision. King Salman has promised continuity in policy. No one can yet say what that means. But Saudi Arabia now faces so many challenges abroad that it is likely to be extra-cautious at home. The pace of reform may now slow. Saudi foreign policy may now be widening its focus.

The Kingdom has come to see itself as encircled by an ascendant Iran, the Gulf Arabs’ traditional geopolitical rival, which it is not powerful enough on its own to confront. An entirely counterproductive U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003 ended Iraq’s role in balancing Iran. By carelessly installing a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, Washington greatly boosted Tehran’s power at Riyadh’s expense. Israel’s 2006 maiming of Lebanon — which enjoyed enthusiastic U.S. support — then propelled Hezbollah, an Iranian ally and bitter enemy of Saudi Arabia, to the commanding heights of Lebanese politics.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 caused Saudi Arabia to doubt the value of reliance on the United States.  Saudi Arabia’s most trusted regional partner, the Mubarak government in Egypt, was overthrown — to apparent American delight. Subsequent political instability and economic mismanagement then made Egypt a financial dependency of the Kingdom. But the recent oil-price collapse, while serving Riyadh’s interests in other ways, has greatly reduced its revenue, raising serious questions about how long it can continue to subsidize Egypt.

Soon after the fall of Mubarak, mobs also toppled the government in neighboring Yemen and sought to oust the ruling family in Saudi Arabia’s allied Kingdom of Bahrain. Yemen’s capital has just been taken over by pro-Iranian Houthi tribesmen. The country is sliding toward civil war. Iran continues to exploit the ongoing unrest by the Shi’a majority in Bahrain, which threatens to spread to their kinsmen in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. Saudi and other Gulf Arab troops now garrison in Bahrain, where no end to sectarian tensions is in sight.

When unrest came to Syria in the spring of 2011, King Abdullah’s advisers thought that, with a little outside help, Syrians might be able to rid themselves of the Assad government and shift their country out of the Iranian orbit. Washington shared both Riyadh’s loathing of Assad and this optimistic assessment, which turned out to be a tragic misreading of Syrian realities. 225,000 dead and nine million displaced Syrians later, Bashar Al-Assad still rules in Damascus. Worse, Syria has become the incubator for a self-proclaimed “caliphate” (“Daesh,” to use the Arabic acronym for it), a renegade Muslim movement of truly satanic brutality that is at once an idea, a structure of governance, and an army.

Daesh is the by-blow of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, raised to vicious maturity in Syria. It has already erased the Syrian-Iraqi border. It is determined to undo the legacy of colonialism in the Middle East, including the formation of the modern states of Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, and to avenge past injuries to the world’s Muslims at the hands of Western powers elsewhere. Daesh wants to rule in Mecca and Medina. It now governs an area the size of Ireland with a population larger than Israel or Jordan. There may be more men in its armed forces than in Cuba’s. It is attracting migrants, recruits, and statements of allegiance from all over the world.

At the outset, Riyadh saw Daesh as a distastefully extremist but potentially useful instrument of armed opposition to Assad and Iran. But the Kingdom is now coming to view it as a rising threat to its interests, including its domestic tranquility. Under King Salman, Saudi policy seems to be evolving toward actively countering Daesh as well as Iran. Part of this recalibration appears to involve a distancing of Saudi policy from Egypt’s effort, under its latest military dictator, to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia may, like Qatar, now be coming to see the democratic Islamism of the Brotherhood as a potentially useful antidote to the violent Islamism of Daesh.

It looks as though Riyadh may now be in the process of organizing a coalition with Ankara, Amman, Cairo, and Islamabad so as to be able to counter both Daesh and Iran. This could change the regional balance and alter its political economy in important ways. With respect to Iran, Pakistan can provide a nuclear deterrent, Egypt can furnish military manpower, and Turkey has industrial strength. All three are producers of armaments as well as importers of them. Amman is on the frontline with Daesh. Saudi money can help them cooperate or at least coordinate their policies to mutual advantage.

From an American perspective, such a coalition would be a mixed blessing. Certainly, Israel would not welcome it. But, if something like it came into being, there could at last be hope for an effective strategy that dealt with all three dimensions of the Daesh phenomenon. Currently, there is a military campaign plan but no strategy. U.S. policy is especially unidimensional. We treat Daesh as a bombing target, even though our military commanders all acknowledge that it is also an ideological and political problem that military means alone cannot address.

This is because we are no more credible or competent as commentators on Daesh’s connection to mainstream Islam than the Grand Mufti in Cairo would be to analyze the theological relationship between the Ku Klux Klan and Christianity. Only Muslims can deal authoritatively with theological issues and political strife within their religious community. There is no one more qualified to do this than Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis, like Daesh, are Salafis — adherents of the view that the revival or their faith requires reaffirmation of the way of the Salaf, the earliest Muslims, and the repudiation of subsequent innovations, superstitions, and corrupt practices. But the Saudis had their Salafi reformation in the 18th century. Salafism in the Kingdom is a conservative, stabilizing, if repressive force. Beyond its borders, it is very often violent, reactionary, and disruptive in its effects.

Still, as the late King ‘Abdullah showed, Saudi Arabia is uniquely positioned to counter negative aspects of Salafism and lead it in constructive directions. Salafi extremists argue that, to purify itself, Islam must return to its roots. But they portray early Islam as puritanical, xenophobic, intolerant, and oppressive of women. Under ‘Abdullah, the Kingdom began to argue that this was incorrect. Early Islam was open-minded and receptive to Greek philosophy (which it preserved and later bequeathed to Europe, where it catalyzed the Renaissance). Its governments included Jews and Christian ministers. Its women were active in commerce and public life. It was a brilliant civilization at the center of scientific and technological advance.

This vision of the revival of Islam as a religion of peace, tolerance, and scientific innovation is one that only Muslims can put forward. It is needed to oppose the dark fantasies and constipated religiosity of Daesh. Under ‘Abdullah, Saudi Arabians had begun subtly to make these arguments. We must hope not only that they will continue this effort under King Salman but that we will have the wit to back them in this endeavor, in which we must lead from behind.

We also need Saudi help to deal with Daesh as a political structure. It is as much a product as an enforcer of political exclusivity. Unless and until politics in Iraq and Syria can become inclusive, Daesh will continue to be able to exploit sectarian divisions to its advantage. But these divisions and the extremist militias they generate are fed and inflamed by geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Some sort of truce between Riyadh and Tehran will be necessary to tamp them down. Difficult as it is to imagine such a modus vivendi, I would not rule it out.

If handled skillfully, agreement in the international negotiations to cap and control Iranian nuclear programs could provide an opening for Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. Conversely, if there is no agreement or if an agreement is reached and then sabotaged, it is entirely possible that Saudi Arabia will seek its own nuclear deterrent to counter Iran. This might work for the Kingdom but it would make the region less stable, downgrade U.S. influence, and pose an additional nuclear threat to Israel.

Both the rise of Daesh and the challenge of Iran’s advance toward regional hegemony underscore the importance of Saudi-American strategic cooperation. Disquiet in Washington over the lack of a coherent strategy for dealing with either Daesh or Iran is provoking a serious rethinking of policy. There is new leadership in Riyadh in a time of trial for the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia has emerged as a regional leader. This coincidence offers an opportunity for the reinvention and reaffirmation of the seven-decade-long partnership between the United States and the Kingdom. For the sake of both Americans and Saudis, we must seize this opportunity or suffer the consequences.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Sarasota, Florida

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