Donald Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh, May 2017 (White House photo via Flickr)
The U.S. must re-evaluate its relationship with Saudi Arabia and role in the Middle East, experts say

The United States must re-evaluate its relationship with Saudi Arabia as part of a broader effort to reduce its destabilizing military footprint in the Middle East, according to three experts on the kingdom and U.S. policy toward the Arab states in the Persian Gulf

“The biggest disrupter of stability in the Middle East in recent years has been the United States, and we should recognize that,” asserted Gregory Gause, professor at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University, citing the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 bombing of Libya. “So I do think it’s time for us to look at the Middle East with a little more modesty.”

Gause delivered these comments in a Zoom panel on the future of U.S.-Saudi relations hosted by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft on May 27. Gause, often considered the dean of Saudi studies in the United States, was joined by Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and leading expert on U.S. policy in the region, and Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and one of the foremost scholars on internal dynamics in the kingdom. 

Given the anticipated decline in the strategic importance of oil and the emergence of a more multipolar geopolitical order, the three panelists speculated as to how the U.S.-Saudi relationship would endure beyond the highly personalized manifestation it had assumed under the leadership of Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

“What are vital American interests?” Miller asked. “I spent two decades trying to figure this out and was never quite satisfied with the answer.” 

Miller posited that vital U.S. interests are limited to protecting the homeland, maintaining access to oil as a strategically vital resource, and preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon with nuclear weapons. 

“Do U.S. and Saudi interests align along these three vital interests? I think a case can be made that increasingly they don’t,” Miller asserted.

Al-Rasheed argued that the U.S.-Saudi relationship has experienced a fatigue in the last two decades — that it has suffered from multiple crises and has perhaps outlived its usefulness. She explained that the Saudi leadership sees their nation’s relationship with the U.S. in instrumental terms.

“From the Saudi point of view, they see the U.S. as the guarantor of the regime’s survival and a source of weapons,” Al-Rasheed said.

Miller characterized this as a “remarkable degree of dependency,” explaining that the Saudi government appeared to be more dependent on the U.S. government than at any time in the past. 

“The regime has no domestic legitimacy, especially in the last three to four years, it is extremely dependent on U.S. support,” Al-Rasheed affirmed, attributing this to the failure of the current leadership , under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to achieve consensus among the Saudi elite, something that previously characterized Saudi decision-making.

Gause, however, disputed the notion that the Saudi monarchy has become notably more dependent on the U.S. in recent years, or that it is more vulnerable domestically than in the past. If the regime did face such vulnerabilities, though, he argued that the U.S. would not be able to guarantee its survival. Gause explained that the U.S. is not very successful at sustaining allied regimes in the face of domestic turmoil, citing the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring. 

Gause also pointed out that the U.S. claim to guarantee the free flow of oil was challenged by the attacks on Saudi petroleum facilities in September 2019, which were blamed on Iran. Yet the U.S. did very little to respond, thereby undermining the premise that the U.S. presence in the Middle East reliably protects Saudi Arabia and its oil exports.

Some audience questions focused on the transactional nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, suggesting that ample profits for its weapons manufacturers guarantee that the U.S. will stand by the Saudi monarchy. Al-Rasheed agreed with this framing, and suggested that the transactionalism of the relationship had become more naked and unjustifiable under the Trump administration.

“Americans have to ask themselves, are they just a manufacturing machine to sell arms to dictators around the globe? Or is there anything else that the U.S. could do?” Al-Rasheed said. She contrasted the Trump administration’s approach to arms sales with the conduct of past administrations, under which, she said, “there was a principle of conditionality, or at least a pretense, that they were only going to sell arms to Saudi Arabia if it respected the rule of law, or did social reform… now it’s just a relationship between arms dealers.”

The other panelists pushed back on this somewhat, however, noting that while past presidents had made a show of calling for human rights improvements, they too provided weapons to the kingdom all the same in times when the regime was no less repressive than it is today.

Other audience questions centered on the need to maintain U.S. leverage over Saudi Arabia and asked whether removing U.S. troops or ending arms sales might reduce this leverage. 

“If we have leverage, and we do, we should use it on Yemen,” Gause responded. He acknowledged that ending the conflict in Yemen would also require the U.S. to engage with Iran, which is extremely unlikely at present, but that, given Trump’s close relationship to the Saudis, the U.S. should try to end the bombardment of Yemen. Gause also noted that the massive U.S. arms sales to the Saudis has seemed to have little bearing on the effectiveness of the latter’s military power in the Middle East.

“The thing about arms sales is that they are increasingly irrelevant to the way politics works in the region,” Gause acknowledged, citing the counterexample of Iran, which has successfully increased its regional influence without building up its own conventional forces or weaponry. 

Miller affirmed this point, noting that the size and expense of Saudi Arabia’s armed forces had not translated to military success in Yemen or to the ability for the kingdom to defend itself against Iranian attacks.

“You do have to wonder, with the fourth largest military budget in the world, what has been the purpose of billions of dollars of arms sales to a country that… simply cannot defend itself?” Miller asked.

Miller tied this confounding disconnect to the greater problems with the U.S. approach to the Middle East as a whole, which he characterized as flailing and unstrategic.

“The U.S. is stuck in a broken, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East. It can’t transform the region — see Iraq and Afghanistan — and it can’t extricate itself from it,” Miller declared. He argued that a smarter policy would exhibit greater flexibility and a willingness to engage in diplomacy with all states in the region, as the Chinese and Russians do with notable success. Miller stressed that the U.S. must detach and devise a more deliberate and strategic approach to the region, or its policy will continue along its current shambolic course.

“The United States is like a modern-day Gulliver,” he quipped, “wandering around in a region we don’t understand, tied up by smaller powers whose interests only episodically correspond with ours, and tied up by our own illusions.”

 

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