Our Saudi partnership – distasteful, indespensible
Every semester when I teach my geography class I ask my undergraduates the same question when we reach the topic of Saudi Arabia. First, I explain how there is no semblance of democracy, no movie theaters, a government that practices beheadings and other nasty punishments for criminal offenses (including adultery, of course), and how women are forbidden to drive and must ask permission to do just about anything in their daily lives. However, I also explain that the “Saudi System,” which melds Sharia law with monarchy, has existed longer than our own – ever since 1740 when the House of Saud, fighting a centuries long battle for control of the Arabian peninsula, aligned itself with the fundamentalists cleric Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahab.
The question I ask is this: Do we have a right to criticize Saudi Arabia for their lack of democracy and disregard for what we consider human rights?
Usually the large majority of students say no, it is not our place to criticize (their cultural relativism actually kind of surprises me each time). When I ask whether our country should maintain close ties with the government of Saudi Arabia, however, the reaction is far more mixed.
Our partnership with the Saudi royal family is one of the most distasteful aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Sadly, it’s also one of the most important relationships we have. Politics can make for strange bedfellows, and there are few examples of countries with such diametrically opposed visions of the world with so many common interests.
The most obvious common interest involves oil. As the United States’ second largest source of imported oil and with almost 20% of the world’s proven oil reserves, the centrality of Saudi Arabia to our still fossil-fuel driven economy is indisputable. As the leading country in OPEC, Saudi Arabia has generally been more accommodating to Western countries than other members, and has pushed for higher oil quotas and lower prices on numerous occasions, including this year. Still, in today’s world of fungible oil markets, a close relationship is not necessary for the Saudis to pump oil or for us to buy it.
Forces beyond oil have forced Washington and Riyadh into one another’s arms again and again. Historically, the United States and Saudi Arabia found common cause in anti-communist efforts during the Cold War. Efforts to counter Soviet influence were replaced by containment of Saddam Hussein in the nineties. Last, after the rise of Al-Qaeda, both countries have cooperated extensively in “the war on terror.”
The major foreign policy goal of the Saudi government is to promote the interests of Sunni Moslems (about 80% of Muslims) throughout the Middle East. Just as our foreign policy is inexorably tied to our self-image as champions of democracy, the Saudi’s view their country, the home of Mecca and Medina, as the rightful center of the Sunni Islamic world.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have continue to have a strong relationship because in pursuance of its identity-driven agenda, Saudi policy strongly opposes two groups that have tended to develop strong anti-American sentiments: namely, Shiites, who make up about fifteen percentage of Muslims, and violent Salafists, or “Al Qaeda types.”
Many were surprised this week when the Saudi government openly criticized the Syrian government for its bloody crackdown against its own people. While the two governments have been cordial at times in the past, the Syrian government represents a dictatorship of minority Alawites (an offshoot of Shiism) who rule over a mostly Sunni population. There is little doubt who the Saudis would ultimately like to see prevail in the present Syrian conflict.
Saudi assertion of Sunni interests in the region translates into opposition against the Shiite-based, politicized terrorists of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Saudi fears of Shiite empowerment in Bahrain also led to military intervention to protect the Sunni monarchy. While the Shiites of Bahrain were justified in rising up against a Sunni establishment bent on maintaining a soft apartheid type system, it can be argued that Saudi intervention on behalf of the government served American’s interest by preserving stability in the country that is host to the US Fifth Fleet.
Most of all, the Saudi self-image as the defender of Sunni Islam contributes to a continuing rivalry with Iran, which, in turn, lends itself to cooperation with the U.S. in opposing Iranian influence. According to last year’s wikileak-ed documents, Saudi officials even privately suggested the U.S. consider bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.
The Saudis not only see themselves as Sunnis, but also Salafi. Not just Salafi, but the sole legitimate voice of the Islamic tradition of Salafism.
Also known as Wahabism (which is considered an insulting and idolatrous term by practitioners), Salafism is the conservative school of Islam that is most associated with Shariah law and the restoration of the ancient Muslim empire known as a caliphate. It is the official religious tradition of Saudi Arabia and the belief system most associated with Moslem terrorism.
The Saudi government insists, however, that they represent the voice of peaceful fundamentalism. The Al Qaeda types of the world, of course, view the Saudi royal family as a group of corrupt sell-outs eager to deal with infidels. Saudi efforts against these militant Islamist they call “Qutbist” are fundamental to their sense of legitimacy as a Salafist state. It also means that their biggest enemy is our biggest enemy.
This is particularly important these days as their southern neighbor, Yemen, continues to fall into civil war. Amidst the chaos, Islamic groups associated with Al Qaeda have literally raised the Al Qaeda flag over several towns. Americans, having witnessed multiple attempted terrorist attacks over the last several years originating from Yemen, need be concerned. The Saudis, however, have just as much at stake with Al Qaeda at its doorstep, and will need to be increasingly active in its efforts to restore order in the country. Diplomatically, intelligence-wise, and perhaps even militarily, we will again find their support useful.
In discussing cooperation with the Saudi’s, I haven’t even mentioned other issues like Libya, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all of which find Saudi Arabia playing a generally constructive and moderate role.
It might be a tough pill to swallow. It might make us feel like hypocrites to continually cozy up to a country with such different values. But as long as we stay involved in the greater Middle East, we need them as much or more than they need us.