By Barbara Slavin
As President Barack Obama prepares to fly to Saudi Arabia next week for a summit of Arab Persian Gulf states, the future of the long American alliance with the conservative Muslim kingdom is increasingly hazy.
The two countries have faced serious crises in the past, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the worst act of terrorism ever to occur on U.S. soil. They were masterminded by a Saudi, Osama bin Laden, and largely carried out by Saudi citizens who entered this country legally. For their part, Saudi leaders vehemently objected to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and have been chronically disappointed by what they regard as the U.S. failure to put pressure on Israel and broker creation of a Palestinian state.
But there is a sense this time that something fundamental has shifted. Certainly, there is no intimacy between Obama and King Salman that resembles what was forged 70 years ago when President Franklin Roosevelt met the founder of the Saudi state, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, on the cruiser USS Quincy in the Suez Canal.
Oil, the glue that held the two countries together for so long, is losing its viscosity.
The United States is an exporter of oil again and, as such, less dependent on Middle Eastern crude. The double impact of cheaper oil production from unconventional sources such as shale, and the rise of green energy to deal with climate change make it unlikely that petroleum prices will rise significantly in the near or medium term.
Saudi Arabia still has about $600 billion in hard currency reserves amassed when oil prices were high. But it is burning through that cash at the rate of $100 billion a year as it seeks to pacify a young and restive population and to fend off perceived threats from Iran.
Hani Sabra, an expert on Saudi Arabia for the Eurasia Group, told this analyst that “Saudi Arabia faces a raft of serious challenges and these challenges will intensify.” While Sabra does not believe the kingdom risks collapse, he said, “the likelihood of some sort of instability has increased.”
It’s not as though thoughtful Saudis have not been aware that they need economic, political and social reforms. Visiting the country a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks, this analyst found plenty of Saudi officials and professionals who said they hoped those terrible events would spur domestic change.
The late King Abdullah made efforts to improve the educational curriculum, sent thousands of Saudi students abroad and introduced elections for municipal councils.
Mohammad bin Salman, the influential son of the current monarch, has ambitious plans for a “national transformation program” that would transfer assets to a public investment fund and encourage privatization and foreign investment.
But doubts remain over how transparent the Saudis will be about the operations of its giant oil company, Aramco, and the lavish payments that go to the thousands of members of the Saudi royal family. Revelations last week that King Salman is among the world leaders with accounts with a Panamanian law firm known for creating vehicles to hide personal wealth are not likely to increase confidence in Saudi accountability.
The country also remains far behind even its neighbors on matters such as the rights of women. Recently, the country’s top cleric, Sheikh Abulaziz al Sheikh, reiterated the clergy’s opposition to women driving. Men with “weak spirits” and “obsessed with women” would target female drivers, the sheikh said, presenting no evidence to support this claim.
Saudi policies toward freedom of expression are also abysmal, as evidenced by the sentence of 10 years in jail and 1000 lashes to a young blogger, Raif Badawi.
The Saudi reaction to the uncertainties of the Arab spring and a rise in Iranian regional influence has also been ham-handed. There are welcome reports about a cessation of hostilities in Yemen. But they come after a year of Saudi bombing that has brought one of the world’s poorest countries to the brink of famine and strengthened radical groups including al-Qaida and the Islamic State (ISIS).
Saudi Arabia, with its austere Salafist doctrine and bankrolling of conservative madrassas around the Muslim world, is both a source of ideology for these extremists and a crucial player in defeating them. Counterterrorism is a potent reason for Americans and Saudis to maintain their intelligence ties.
U.S. weapons makers have also benefited enormously from the billions in sales they have made to the kingdom and lucrative contracts for maintaining those arms and teaching Saudis how to use them.
It is possible that President Obama’s successor—assuming he or she is not the Islamophobic Donald Trump—will have an easier time dealing with the kingdom. Obama has rattled the Saudis not only by concluding a nuclear deal with Iran, but with comments to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that the Saudis “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace” with Iran.
Obama was impolitic in his first suggestion, but right about the second. The proxy war tearing Syria apart, for example, is condemning the region to a generation of instability. Without Iranian and Saudi buy-in, that conflict cannot end.
Obama has also told Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that the United States will defend them against external aggression. But he warned that the U.S. cannot save them from the consequences of their own domestic policies.
Without a willingness to open up their own societies, these monarchies will not prosper—no matter how much American attention or intervention they attract.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.