US-SAUDI ARABIA RELATIONS: BUSINESS AS USUAL?

Global Center Stage By Raphael Cohen-Almagor*

The Arctic Dynamics

According to the Pentagon's recent quarterly report on US military personnel, the number of US soldiers and civilians working for the Department of Defense in the Middle East is 54,180; up from 40,517 during the first two quarters of 2017. The report indicates that American troops are deployed to 14 Middle Eastern and North African countries: Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain.

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October 2018 caught the world media headlines. This was partly due to the particular gruesome nature of the murder and partly due to the fact that Khashoggi was a well-known persona who published articles in some of the most distinguished forums in the world, including the Washington Post. Whether the murder will impact world politics or change the nature of relations between countries is too early to say. While I am hesitant to envisage the future, I am quite comfortable reflecting on the past. Here is what we learn from history:

Leaders rarely act upon sentiments. By and large politics is driven by interests. Long-term interests tend to trump gut-reaction of revulsion.

Middle Eastern politics cannot and should not be judged in accordance with Western values. Western yardsticks are the wrong criteria to invoke for understanding the Middle East.

America’s Middle East Policy

Let us examine what has guided American Middle East policy. The US is always striving to translate its national interest into specific objectives. It has developed a strategy to link capabilities with goals. Its leaders undertook the requisite actions while periodically reviewing and evaluating progress toward achievement of the desired results. America’s main foreign policy goals are security, economic prosperity, the creation of a “better world” in accordance with American interests while maintaining the world leadership. Specifically, in the Middle East, the US strives to limit Russian influence; restrain Iran; support Israel’s security; secure access to Middle Eastern oil at a reasonable price; and sustain friendly relations with moderate Middle Eastern states. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia plays a very important role in all aspects of the American strategy.

Since the 1990s, American foreign policy is pushing for democratic peace, security and stability of the Middle East. The US has broadened the scope of economic interaction in the region, has promoted democratic political development, and has been striving to combat what the American State Department terms the rise of “violent movements cloaked in religious garb”.

According to the Pentagon's recent quarterly report on US military personnel, the number of US soldiers and civilians working for the Department of Defense in the Middle East is 54,180; up from 40,517 during the first two quarters of 2017. The report indicates that American troops are deployed to 14 Middle Eastern and North African countries: Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain.

US businesses have been involved in Saudi Arabia's oil industry since 1933, when Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) won a concession to explore oil in eastern Saudi Arabia. Ever since the then US President Franklin D Roosevelt met the founder of the desert kingdom, King Abdulaziz Ibn-Saud (in February 1945), oil, security, and Saudi Arabia’s strategic location have influenced Washington to support the Saudi autocratic kingdom.

Saudi Oil

Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves of oil in the world. Chevron, Dow Chemical, and ExxonMobil continue to be involved in refining and petrochemical ventures. In 2017, the United States imported approximately 10.14 million barrels per day (MMb/d) of petroleum from about 84 countries. The top five source countries of US petroleum imports were Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Iraq. That year, Saudi Arabia supplied nine percent of US petroleum imports. As the Kingdom's economy expanded over the past decade and its stock market opened to investors in 2015, many American (and also European) banks started expanding operations in the Saudi Kingdom.

Kingdom’s Security

Saudi Arabia is the United States’ largest foreign military sales customer, purchasing 9.7 percent of US exports from 2011 to 2015. The Saudi Kingdom is at the heart of Washington’s policy vis-à-vis Iran, and is the anchor of American alliance with moderate Arab countries in the region. Saudi Arabia may have a positive role to play also in calming or at least stabilizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel see eye-to-eye on issues pertaining to Iran. The Saudis rejoiced when President Donald Trump decided to revoke the Iran nuclear agreement. Like US and Israel, Saudi perceives Iran as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, and its leaders welcome American expansion of sanctions against Iran.

The Trump administration has strived to shift the Saudis from the position of terrorism-sponsor to a country that is heavily invested in the American counter-terrorism alliance. Saudi Arabia provides the United States with invaluable counter-terrorism intelligence and, in that respect, is helping to secure American soil. American foreign policy after September 11, 2001 is very cognizant of Saudi abilities to both inflict, and to avert, harm (fifteen of the 19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks were Saudis).

Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Location

Saudi Arabia is twice the size of France and Germany combined. The country is bordering eight countries (Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen) and has two important water gateways: The Persian Gulf in the east, and the Red Sea in the west. With a total area of 2.15 million km2, it covers 80 per cent of the Arabian Peninsula. Riyadh plays a very active role in the politics of the region, and has high economic stakes in the Gulf. It is presently invested in the wars in Yemen and Syria, and is closely monitoring the situation in Iraq and Jordan. Saudi collaborated with the US in the first Iraq war in 1991- after Saddam Hussein decided to “swallow” Kuwait, and in 2011- Saudi sent troops to Bahrain to stabilise its friendly regime and to quell protests by the Shia Muslim majority (70-75 percent of the Bahrain population is Shia) against the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy.

The Strain in Ties

Despite all these, US-Saudi relations are not all roses. They have been strained due to Saudi’s terrorism financing; the Kingdom’s rigid interpretation of Islam (Wahabism) which is exported to wider parts of the world and has endangered American interests and security; Saudi’s severe human (including women) rights violations; and the lack of democratic representation in the Desert Kingdom. Since the Arab Spring of 2011, the Saudi authoritarian regime has jailed hundreds of political activists, religious scholars, human rights advocates, judges, lawyers, journalists and bloggers.

Still, for more than seven decades, the basic framework of the relationship has remained intact. Despite challenges and significant hurdles, Riyadh remains at the heart of US foreign policy in the Middle East and will continue to be so.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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