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It's time to change the US-Saudi relationship

Two years after Jamal Khashoggi's murder, the Quincy Institute takes a broad look at how US policy toward Saudi Arabia needs to change.

Analysis | Middle East

Two years ago today in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and butchered by the government of Saudi Arabia. Despite this heinous act, as well as countless other decisions that contradict U.S. interests and values, the Trump administration maintains strong support for Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Trump sees MBS as a wealthy ally, eager to spend billions on American weapons, (despite congressional objections), and a useful friend for whenever Trump’s time in the White House has ended. The U.S. relationship to Saudi Arabia is unlikely to change under Trump. However, a Biden administration should use its leverage to push Saudi Arabia away from violence, and towards playing a more productive role in the region.

Mohammed bin Salman’s impact on recent Saudi policies is noteworthy, as his country’s foreign policy was historically characterized by caution. Decision-making in the kingdom used to involve reaching consensus among powerful branches of the Al Saud ruling family, a process that usually prevented the kingdom from undertaking rash actions. However, following the ascendance of King Salman to the throne in 2015, and his subsequent decision to install his son Mohammed first as the Minister of Defense and later as Crown Prince in 2017, Saudi foreign policy has often reflected MBS’s youth, pride, and propensity for aggression. His worst impulses have been aided and abetted by the Trump administration, including Trump’s ongoing support for the war on Yemen and his initial condoning of the blockade of Qatar. 

In an new brief for the Quincy Institute, my colleague Steve Simon and I recommend the following course of action for the U.S. government: the United States should pressure Saudi Arabia to end the war on Yemen; end the blockade of Qatar; participate in the development of an inclusive regional security architecture; and respect the sovereignty of other countries as well as the human rights of Saudi citizens.

To encourage Saudi Arabia to adopt these policies, the United States should be prepared to support and invest in Saudi economic diversification and support the development of Saudi nuclear energy, especially for the purpose of water desalination. If Saudi Arabia does not respond to these incentives, the United States should end all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and seek other regional partners.

While the brief provides greater detail about all the points outlined above, below I describe two specific Saudi policies that undermine U.S. interests:

The war on Yemen: Saudi Arabia’s ongoing bombardment of Yemen is only possible with U.S. support. The war in Yemen has killed an estimated 127,000 people, of whom 13,500 have died as a result of targeted attacks, the vast majority of which are carried out by Saudi Arabia with U.S. assistance. Aside from the fundamental requirement to not enable mass death, even a cold calculation of pure American self-interest requires that the “Saudi American war,” as it is known in Yemen, end before it creates blowback against the United States (Just a reminder that Saudi and U.S. military collaboration in Afghanistan in the 1980s produced Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.) The United States must withdraw all support for Saudi Arabia’s bombardment of Yemen, and insist that Saudi Arabia cease hostilities.

Ending Saudi airstrikes on Yemen will require uncharacteristic humility from MBS, as it would tacitly acknowledge that Saudi military ambitions were hubristic, and mistakenly assumed greater Saudi strength and Houthi weakness than have been borne out by reality. Yet because the UAE withdrew the majority of its military forces from Yemen in December 2019, at least MBS does not have to fear that an eventual Saudi withdrawal would antagonize his ally, Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE.

In contrast, an action that would require MBS to go against the wishes of UAE's Prince Mohammed bin Zayed would be ending the blockade of Qatar. For that reason, although MBS may feel more inclined to heal the Gulf rift than admit defeat in Yemen, the latter may be more feasible due to his close relationship with MBZ. This is positive, as ending the war on Yemen is arguably of far greater human consequence than ending the blockade of Qatar, but both are important for U.S. interests.

Blockade of Qatar: On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut all ties to Qatar, and in the days that followed, issued 13 demands for the blockade to end. Qatar did not comply, and in the intervening three years, has managed to survive and even thrive. Qatar has reached out to Saudi Arabia in an effort to reestablish relations. Following the attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019, the Qataris expressed their solidarity with Saudi Arabia.

Such gestures were appreciated by Saudi Arabia, still reeling from the attack as well as from the muted reaction from their usual security guarantor, the United States. Observers thought that Saudi Arabia might announce an end to the blockade, possibly at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh in December 2019, but it continues. Ending the blockade of Qatar is crucial to U.S. interests in supporting the development of a regional security architecture, which is necessary for greater regional stability, especially as the United States draws down forces there.

Ending the war on Yemen and the blockade of Qatar will also allow Saudi Arabia to focus greater resources and attention on the future of the Saudi people. Saudi Arabia is itself at a crucial moment of transition. Despite his reckless foreign policy, MBS and his father have overseen a social transformation in Saudi Arabia. Previously, male citizens tended to be employed by the government, while female citizens were prevented from working or undertaking any activity that would violate the strict gender separation dictated by Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious establishment, while much of the actual labor was conducted by foreign workers.

In the context of low oil prices that began in 2014 and are likely to persist due to reduced global energy demand under COVID-19, Saudi Arabia can no longer afford its previous social arrangement. Although King Abdullah (r. 2005-2015) initiated some reforms, King Salman and his son MBS changed laws and encouraged a shift in norms that have profoundly impacted social life in the kingdom. Government policies encourage both male and female Saudis to work while heavily taxing foreigners, driving millions of expat workers to leave the country.

This social transformation has preceded what would be an equally momentous shift of the Saudi economy off of its dependence on fossil fuels. MBS’s ambitious Vision 2030 calls for non-oil exports to grow from 16 percent of GDP to 50 percent and to increase the contribution of the private sector from 45 percent to 65 percent, while expanding employment, investment, and non-oil sources of revenue. Simultaneously, Vision 2030 calls for the Saudi education system to emphasize economic, rather than religious imperatives. Young urban Saudis, many of whom studied abroad under the transformational King Abdullah Scholarship program, are eager for the social and economic changes that MBS has promised. 

Although MBS has demonstrated that he is a ruthless killer, he is likely to be king of Saudi Arabia for the coming decades. (Whether or not MBS becomes king is a question for the House of Saud, and if they can withstand his efforts to suppress them, the Saudi people.) Regardless, the United States should use incentives and disincentives to encourage Saudi Arabia to move towards cooperation and stability, and away from violence and repression.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on September 18, 2019. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha]
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