US-Saudi relations — dark clouds ahead

Sunday 09/10/2016

“Criticism of Saudi Arabia has come out of the closet and I don’t think it’s going to go back in.”

That observation is from Bruce Riedel, one of the leading US experts on Saudi Arabia. Anti-Saudi sentiment in the United States has rarely been as widespread and bipartisan as in the past few months. “Public opinion (of Saudi Arabia) in Congress and in America is at a low,” agreed US Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Congressional scrutiny of ties with Saudi Arabia, Washington’s oldest ally in the Middle East, was spurred this summer by debate over a bill that would allow the families of victims of the September 11th, 2001, attacks on the United States to sue the Saudi government. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens and the families allege that some of them had ties with Saudi officials, a claim the government denies.

Unusual in a country as deeply divided as the United States, the bill was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House of Representatives despite an intense Saudi lobbying campaign to stop it. US President Barack Obama vetoed the bill, arguing it would open the door to lawsuits against the US government from citizens of foreign countries.

The Senate rejected Obama’s veto on a 97-1 vote. The House followed to complete the first veto override in Obama’s presidency.

Did the wrangling over the bill, pitting powerful lobbyists against each other, signify a temporary setback for Saudi sway in Washington or does it mean the end of an era when the publicity-shy kingdom exerted enormous behind-the-door influence not only on Congress but also on White House policymakers? Many analysts suggest the latter and think the relationship is likely to become more distant no matter who wins the presidential elections on November 8th.

Judging from comments on Saudi Arabia and its reaction to the victims’ bill, officially known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would rethink the complicated US relationship with Saudi Arabia. Both candidates said they would have signed the bill.

Trump has been harshly critical of Saudi Arabia, arguing that the Saudis were not doing enough to compensate the United States for military protection under the tacit oil-for-security agreement that has underpinned the relationship for seven decades. Clinton has accused Riyadh of supporting schools and mosques around the world that preach Wahhabism and for not doing enough to stop Saudi citizens from funding extremist organisations.

That is the kind of criticism that Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who now heads the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project, has in mind. It is not new but it is voiced more loudly and more publicly than before, a reflection of growing doubts over the nature of the relationship.

Inside the US foreign policy establishment, the debate revolves around the major pillars of the relationship and assumptions that were once conventional wisdom. Those assumptions were set out in an essay by two experts on the kingdom, Michael Stephens, head of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, and Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa.

On their list: Saudi Arabia is stable and it has a strong preference for maintaining the regional status quo and therefore tended to refrain from starting wars, preferring to back friendly regimes with cash and using its diplomatic weight quietly behind the scenes. Quiet diplomacy went out of the window 18 months ago when Saudi Arabia went to war in Yemen against anti-government rebels aligned with Iran, the kingdom’s rival for regional dominance.

Analysts say there are questions over internal stability after drastic cuts in financial benefits for public sector employees, the majority of the workforce, to pay for the war in Yemen and make up for shortfalls in oil revenues.

Oil is one of the main reasons the discussion of US-Saudi ties, once muted and largely restricted to the foreign policy elite, is conducted more widely and at higher volume: Increased oil production at home makes the United States less dependent on imports from Saudi Arabia and other Middle East oil producers. As Trump, who likes to express himself bluntly, put it: “The primary reason we are with Saudi Arabia is because we need the oil. Now, we don’t need the oil so much.”

Last April, when Obama visited Saudi Arabia to reassure the royal rulers that the United States remained a reliable ally, a prominent member of the royal family broke protocol to publicly air doubts over Washington’s role in the Middle East. Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former chief of Saudi intelligence, questioned in a CNN interview “how much can we rely on steadfastness from American leadership” and wondered about the wisdom of depending on America.

“We need a recalibration of our relationship,” he said. Next January, with the inauguration of a new US president, that process is almost certain to begin.