Saturday, May 4, 2019

America's Relationship with Saudi Arabia

It wasn’t that long ago that the media was filled with stories about Saudi Arabia’s modernization. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was held  up as a model leader, a man who could reform Islam and usher his nation into the modern era.

In 2017 Donald Trump traveled to Riyadh and attended a convocation of Sunni Arab leaders. The Sunni leaders renounced terrorism and gestured their approval of the Trump administration. I had, in the past, looked with contempt on the Iranophilic policies of the Obama administration. In fact, Saudi King Abdullah despised Obama, first for tossing aside Egyptian president Mubarak and second for lying about a nuclear deal with Iran. As you know, the Obama administration deal funded Iranian terrorist activities and offered them a legitimate path to nuclear weapons.

So, the region was realigning against Iran. On the one side was Iran, Qatar, Syria and maybe Iraq. On the other side was Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

When the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran deal, Europe’s weak sisters, wanting above all to look like they could stand up to Trump, sided with Iran. Mutti Merkel wanted to do business with Iran, as did Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron.

This to note that, whatever you imagine, the Western alliance was divided over Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover, some American political leaders, keeping the Obama spirit alive, and refusing to admit that the past president had sold out American and Israeli and Saudi interests in a grand gesture of appeasement, continued to attack Saudi Arabia.

And then, came the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the floodgates opened. The Saudi regime and especially its reform-minded crown prince were murderers, assassins and war criminals. Stories about a modernizing kingdom were replaced by stories of murder and mayhem. We could no longer have any relationships with Saudi Arabia. Score one for the spirit of Obama.

Fair enough, there was no shortage of bad behavior from the Saudi regime, but the Iranian regime had done the same or worse. The moral paragons who wanted to punish Saudi Arabia had nothing to say about Iran. Even our Congressional leaders, were happy to side with the Iran-back Houthi rebels in the Yemen war. Just yesterday, Congress failed to override the president’s veto of a resolution that would have forced us to stop supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Now, senior diplomat and Middle East hand, Dennis Ross, has just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia. He reports on what is happening over there. No one is paying attention to it, so we will.

To say the least, Ross is vexed:

Few American foreign-policy challenges are more vexing or divisive than relations with Saudi Arabia today. U.S. interests would seem to dictate close ties, but American values argue otherwise. For President Trump, who is all about transactions, it is a no-brainer to focus on arms sales and oil, and little else matters. For Congress, there must be a price for the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as conduct of the war in Yemen. Congressional attempts to punish the Saudis, including ending all U.S. military support for the Yemen conflict, have been blocked by the White House.

Historically, presidents — Democrats and Republicans alike — have turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s repressive domestic policies, in return for guarantees of a stable oil market. Two things are different today. First, in Congress there is a broad consensus that the Saudis crossed the line and that the administration’s protecting them is simply wrong. Second, the U.S. is increasingly energy-independent and buys little Saudi oil — making many on Capitol Hill believe our stakes in the Saudis are far lower than before.

It is always good to have the perspective of a senior diplomat, one who has worked for both Republican and Democratic presidents. Of course, America no longer depends on Saudi oil-- thank you, fracking-- and thus has more flexibility in its relationship. But other nations still do need Saudi oil, and, as Ross points out,  it might be the height of foolishness to offend Saudi Arabia when our allies depend on it for their oil. It would even be more foolish to do so while we are squeezing the Iranian tyrant regime by cutting them out of the world oil market and by designating their Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist outfit.

The other factor to consider, Ross mentions, is the still-ongoing modernization of Saudi Arabia. As noted above, no one has paid much attention to this, such is the power of their grief over the death of Jamal Khashoggi, but it still counts:

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a fundamental transformation of its society and of the sources of the regime’s legitimacy. True, the monarchy retains all political power, but nationalism and modernization are replacing Wahhabism, a rigid, intolerant interpretation of Islam that fueled al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the recent Sri Lanka church bombings. It is the doctrine that the U.S. and its allies have been fighting around the globe.

Surely, Ross is correct to point out that Saudi Arabia has been a primary source of world wide terrorism. And he is correct to emphasize that it is a good thing that the Saudi monarchy has joined the fight, or at least, has ceased to support it.

The driver of change is Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. He is conducting a revolution from above that is discrediting radical Islamist ideology, including the removal of several thousand clerics and dozens of judges deemed to be sympathetic to Qaeda.

The social changes emerging in Saudi Arabia are visible to any visitor — go into any restaurant and see men and women mixing; visit businesses or governmental offices and women are prominent; cinemas are opening; music, forbidden in the strict Wahhabi code, is now played not just privately but in concerts drawing thousands. Even the royal palaces now have women’s restrooms. None of this was thinkable in the past.

And let’s not forget, Ross notes, the public beheadings and other various barbaric practices.

And yet, he continues, things are changing in Saudi Arabia:

Having just returned from Saudi Arabia, I am struck by what feels like two totally different universes. The enthusiasm for the crown prince continues to be real, especially among young people who now can talk openly about their ability to shape their destinies and the destiny of the country. Yet the Saudis I talked to — young and old — deeply resent the congressional criticism of the crown prince and feel that if Saudi Arabia is shunned by the U.S., the kingdom will shun the U.S. in return. With nationalism now a pillar of regime support, we should not be surprised by such a backlash.

Point well taken. We should not imagine that the moral posturing indulged by so many Congresspeople (from both sides of the aisle) should not have potential consequences. It is endlessly amusing to see a nation(ours) that has been wallowing in empathy fail to see the way we look to other people around the world. Especially, how we look to Saudi citizens who believe that they are facing an existential threat from Iran and that they must defend themselves against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

And Ross adds another salient point, one that no one else cares to mention:

By the same token, how easy would it be for the U.S. to truly shun Saudi Arabia? Even if Americans were to downplay the security implications, which they should not, are they ready to have the Saudis stop insisting that all transactions in oil be done in dollars? How long would 70 percent of all global trade be done in dollars if that were to change?

So we need to make an accommodation, even if this means, by the laws of Realpolitik, that we should dial down the criticism of Saudi Arabia and start treating that nation more like an ally:

The Las Vegas rules don’t apply to the Middle East: What happens there does not stay there. And, like it or not, policies of the Saudis will have a huge effect on what takes shape in the Middle East. America can’t write them off.

1 comment:

UbuMaccabee said...

Jamal Khashoggi was the October 2018 manufactured hysteria. We've had 237 manufactured hysteria events since then. He is about to recede into the distant memory of discarded and forgotten hysteria events, along with Alar apples and Cecil the Lion.