U.S. and Saudi Arabia Can’t Get a Divorce
By Dennis Ross
May 1, 2019
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
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.
Leaving aside the reality that there is one pool of energy
worldwide, and that a major disruption of oil because of threats or instability
in Saudi Arabia would result in the price skyrocketing for Americans and
everyone else, there is another countervailing factor in the interests-values
continuum with the kingdom that needs to be considered. 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.
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.
Unfortunately, the authoritarianism, the public beheadings,
the crackdown on dissent — including the arrests and possibly torture of women
activists — also offend our values. Many thoughtful American critics of
Saudi policy argue that we must shun the crown prince and reject as a fanciful
notion the idea that he is a modernizing dictator.
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.
They may mean it, but is it realistic? Saudi weapons,
military infrastructure and training are all dependent on U.S. military support.
The kingdom’s investment holdings in the U.S. exceed $800 billion. The vast
majority of the 190,000 students and family members sent abroad are in the U.S.,
and return with instinctive attachments to America. And, case in point, most the
kingdom’s 30-plus cabinet ministers graduated from American universities. They
may be angry about the criticism, but their natural affinity is to the U.S.
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?
With neither side having a national interest in shunning
the other, the issue is how each will now manage the relationship. The Trump
administration needs to be honest with Congress and the Saudis: We will remain
committed to Saudi security and to investing in the kingdom’s effort to
transform the country, even as we make clear we will criticize what we believe
is wrong. Killing dissidents and defying global norms has consequences.
Disallowing domestic criticism will undermine the aims of building a
knowledge-based economy and a risk-taking, entrepreneurial society. Countering
Iranian and Sunni Islamist radicals is essential, but needs to be coordinated to
avoid ill-considered, reckless policies.
Washington will need help from the Saudis, with the crown
prince repeating his words that the Khashoggi murder was a “heinous crime,”
and explaining the lessons learned and structural changes made because of it.
The Saudis should also seek a quiet discussion with congressional leaders to
hear their criticisms, respond to them and voice their own.
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