By Michael Hughes
So, the House of Saud wants to sever relations with the United State because the Obama administration had the audacity to refrain from bombing both Syria and Iran to supposedly prevent a Shia Crescent from engulfing the oil-rich Sunni sheikdom? This animus should not be seen as a crisis but an opportunity to end a codependent relationship that has run its course, and one that has cost the U.S. dearly in terms of blood and dignity.
The dysfunctional duo struck a Faustian bargain decades ago aimed at satiating short-term economic and security interests but, long-term, one partner became a hopeless oil junkie and the other an addict of high-tech weaponry. But, according to Cato’s Doug Bandow, the Saudis have become “frenemies” who have adeptly manipulated U.S. policy to meet their own ends.
This past weekend Saudi officials said they felt “betrayed” by the U.S. for pursuing a nuclear accord with Iran and declared that the kingdom would seek out an “independent” foreign policy. Yet the noticeable insouciance on the part of American policymakers could signal an awakening – an awakening to the reality that U.S. and Saudi interests diverge more than they converge.
Even if operating under the principle of Realpolitik, maintaining a “special relationship” with such a decrepit theocracy doesn’t calculate especially given the way the Saudis have fueled anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East. Weigh this in addition to evidence of Saudi complicity in 9/11 along with recent allegations by an AP reporter that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan provided chemical weapons to an Al Qaeda-linked rebel group in Syria.
The chickens certainly came home to roost after the unholy alliance flourished in the 1980s when Washington and Riyadh partnered to fund, train and equip radical Islamist sociopaths to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, which opened the door for the Saudis to spread their Wahhabist creed throughout Central and South Asia. According to U.S. diplomatic cables charities from Saudi Arabia financed a network in Pakistan that recruited children as young as eight to wage “holy war” against non-Muslims.
The U.S. has backed plenty of nefarious autocracies in its history and has rightfully been charged with hypocrisy time and again. Yet when Washington officials deliver sermons to other countries the first objection raised is U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, which has one of the worst human rights records on the planet. Hence, withdrawing from this counterproductive alliance is not only a matter of protecting material interests because it would also represent a prudent step towards cleansing America’s global reputation and strengthening its soft power.
The U.S. should seize this moment for it has more leverage than ever. Conventional wisdom has it that the U.S. must genuflect before the House of Saud because of the almighty oil trump card. What if the Riyadh royals decide to turn off the spigot? Yet in October, for the first month in nearly two decades, the U.S. extracted more oil from the ground than it imported as it tries to wean itself off foreign sources. In 2012 40% of petroleum consumed by the United States was imported from foreign countries, the lowest level since 1991. Even more interesting is the fact that 53% of these imports came from the Western Hemisphere versus 28% from the Persian Gulf.
But won’t disruption in supply cause the global oil market to collapse? As Bandow makes clear, the energy market consists of buyers and sellers and the Saudi royals need petro dollars “to subsidize their lavish lifestyles, maintain state institutions of repression, and purchase public support.”
Meanwhile, as the Saudis strike a defiant pose they continue to rely on the U.S. for sophisticated arms, evidenced by a recent deal worth $6.8 billion. Despite the opprobrium emanating from the sheiks they don’t seem eager to cancel these purchase orders.
And, ironically, if a nuclear agreement with Iran is forged the Saudis will become even more reliant upon America’s security umbrella. The Saudis fear abandonment more than anything and are attempting to show leverage by threatening divorce. However, as Shashank Joshi puts it quite starkly in an Aljazeera piece: “Saudi Arabia’s biggest constraint is that no one, other than the US, can guarantee the ultimate security of the Kingdom.” And, Joshi notes, the sheiks are delusional if they think their Gulf brethren or European partners will help bail them out: “Saudi Arabia can flirt with other allies, but it will remain wedded to the US for the foreseeable future.”
Saudi Arabia is a major supporter of jihadist terrorist groups that target American interests and association with the repressive sheikdom has harmed America’s global standing. Further, by exploiting the oil myth the Saudis have hoodwinked the U.S. into extending a costly security blanket across the Middle East. These reasons alone make the Saudi proposal for dissolution an offer the U.S. should not refuse.