Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East’s largest countries, has been an important U.S. ally for more than a half-century. We sell the Saudi’s weapons and computer systems and we buy their crude oil by the millions of barrels. The two countries work together to promote and project stability in one of the least stable regions in the world. There’s just one problem, Saudi Arabia is nothing like the U.S.
Beheadings? Check. Women’s rights? Negative: Women are not allowed to leave the house without male supervision and are not allowed to drive cars. Democracy? Nope: It’s a three-generation-old monarchy. Freedom of speech? See above: beheadings. LGBTQ rights? Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by execution. Why is the United States, the leader of the civilized world, allied with a kingdom that is fundamentally opposed to the values viewed as the fabric of America?
The answer is location.
Saudi Arabia sits on top of one of the largest oil reserves in the world. Enormous reserves, coupled with easy and cheap extraction expedited by U.S. investment and technology, quickly turned Saudi Arabia into an important world exporter of oil. Access to this strategic resource initially wed U.S. foreign policy to the interests of the ruling Saud family. At first, it was U.S. investments in Saudi’s oil fields that encouraged cooperation between the two countries. The cooperative spirit ended in 1973, when in response to increasing military aid to Israel, the Saudi government cut oil exports, crippling the United States’ economy through the fall and winter.
Now, nearly a half-century later, the growing divide between ideology and necessity have left the two counties staring suspiciously at one another.
Saudi Arabia’s massive oil reserves and role as a geopolitical gulf leader gave the country important influence on the world stage. This status has been reinforced in the last 20 years by the rise of Iran as a global nuclear threat. The U.S. could afford to overlook Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses as long it contained Iranian influence in the region, because for U.S. policymakers, a king is a better partner than a unpredictable religious cleric.
Iran has been a power in the Middle East for centuries while Saudi Arabia is a relative upstart on the geopolitical stage. In 1979, Iranian students toppled the western-backed monarchy and replaced it with a radical Islamic theocracy with the express goal of spreading its version of Shia Islam across the region. After the Iranian Revolution, U.S. policy in the Middle East moved to contain Iran before its violent, Anti-American message could further destabilize the region. Empowering Saudi Arabia appeared to be the easiest way to counter the rise of Iran; the Kingdom sponsors a sect of Sunni Islam that competes with Iran’s religious image for the region. Saudi Arabia, mobilized its oil wealth to fund an anti-Iranian narrative across the Middle East. When the U.S. saw an opportunity to disarm Iran’s most destructive weapon, policy makers jumped at the opportunity – even if it meant potentially damaging the Saudi alliance permanently.
The successful negotiation of the Iranian Nuclear deal in the summer 2015 signaled a turning point in Saudi–U.S. relations. The accord set in motion a two-pronged approach to dismantle Iran’s nuclear technology while simultaneously promoting good behavior by removing sanctions in order to foster closer economic ties to markets around the world.
Saudi Arabia loses big in this deal, straining its alliance with the United States. From their perspective, any dialogue with the Iranians undermines their perceived position as the Middle East strongman. Two particular parts of the accord made things even worse. One, it immediately unfroze billions of dollars of Iranian assets previously locked abroad and two, reopened Iranian oil to global markets.
Reinstating Iran as a major oil producer drives down world oil prices and correspondingly reduces Saudi Arabia’s oil profits. The deal threatened Saudi Arabia’s prominence in the Middle East by fortifying Iran in the short term with immediate cash, and insuring long term oil revenue.
A reeling Saudi Arabia turned to a radical solution. In 2015, an Iranian-backed rebel group took control of Yemen’s capital, a small and war-torn country directly to the south of the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia responded by waging a destructive bombing campaign — with U.S. made weapons — that has drawn criticism from around the world.
Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia wants to appear to the outside world like a modern nation. The United Nations releases a yearly ranking of the countries with the worst track record on human rights. At first, Saudi Arabia appeared on the list. However, after threatening to withdraw funding, the report was reissued. This time Saudi Arabia was mysteriously absent.
There are signs of change in the Saudi’s conservative society. For the first time in history, Saudi women cast their votes in (largely symbolic) municipal elections in 2015. The State has promised to revamp the Kingdom’s stagnant and undiversified economy to provide better opportunities to its citizens.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship will endure. As long as the two nations depend on each other economically and militarily, the ideological contradictions at the core of the relationship will lay dormant. However, freedom of speech is not a bargaining chip. Human rights are non-negotiable. Indiscriminate bombing is no way to solidify regional influence. A brighter future in the Middle East depends on U.S. policy demanding real accountability from its allies.
Editor’s note: This story is part of our September 2016 series ‘Hundreds of Words about Location: Where are you, and how does it affect how you see the world?’
Ben Butcher is a junior studying International Affairs and Economics at The George Washington University. He is spending the year abroad at the London School of Economics where he will study the intersection of international relations and global trade. Say hi @bennbutch.
You can read all of Ben’s Hundreds of Words articles here.