Many questions have been asked over the years about the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and the West. Despite the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, the continued war on Yemen, and the Saudi-led blockade on neighbouring Qatar, and their many ramifications, the Kingdom has continued to enjoy Western support, much like notorious countries like Paraguay did in Cold War times.
The excuse used to be that we HAD to support these people to save the world from Communism. But we did that. Now we are told it is all about “intelligence.” How’s that going, with all these terror campaigns going on, allegedly being run by the same people we are using Saudi intelligence against?
Gone are the days when the rest of the world automatically assumed that US policy, warts and all, must still be the morally superior option. Whether it is Realpolitik or the REALITY that the US needs to distance itself from an ally, the Trump Administration would be better off taking a step away from the unconditional support of a regime that stinks of corruption, human rights violations and support of terrorism. Happily, there are signs it now understands this.
This policy shift is embarrassing, and therefore is being demonstrated without too many words. Nevertheless, we can regard as positive is the announced removal of four batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles from the Kingdom.
The Wall Street Journal reports that these weapons, “meant to protect ground assets from missile and aircraft attacks, will be removed from Saudi oil facilities.” Is this because of the fear of attack from Iranian assets no longer exists, when it is still being presented as the enemy?
The likely answer lies more in the price of oil, and the US elections. In office, you can afford to concentrate more on foreign affairs. At election times, domestic political realities shape US policy. Americans themselves see that the actions of their government abroad do not match American values, so the best way to reinforce these is to roll back commitments, and refocus attention on domestic issues, to give Uncle Sam the opportunity to swagger again, on new terms, all having been forgiven by the newly understanding US taxpayer.
Not Speaking American
There is increasing political discourse in the US over what has turned into a proxy war between the US and Iran. The US has blindly supported Saudi Arabia in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, considering it the more “American” thing to do. But now US senators of both parties are realising that, as this is not helping America’s reputation in the region, the voters at home are feeling their own values are under threat.
You don’t go round intervening all over the globe unless you feel your way is better. If you have bad allies you don’t believe in yourself, that undermines this feeling. If you lose, or make no progress, you begin to think that not everyone feels as you do, and that not all those individuals can fit into the hate groups identified when you began your intervention.
So getting into bed with the wrong people, and then getting nowhere having done so, reflects badly on the Americans who believe in their own country and its professed values. They as individuals are diminished. You don’t do that to people you want to vote for you, particularly when you were elected on the slogan Make America Great Again.
Trump won’t lose any election over Saudi Arabia. But the conflict has a subliminal effect – it colours how his actual and potential supporters see other things which do sway their votes. To reintroduce a positive perspective, he needs to get out while he can, but without drawing attention to it, so his people won’t have to make amends for what they themselves will see as their collective stupidity.
All Ways Out
One issue which does affect votes is oil price. The price of oil has crashed because of a Saudi initiated price war with Russia, and plummeting demand in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Consequently many US oil firms, especially those involved in oil fracking operations, are now facing bankruptcy. A range of US politicians from President Donald Trump down are being pressured to help curtail imports from the Kingdom, and in a presidential election year, these voices are being heard.
US military assets have therefore been tied to oil production. Trump recently told Saudi Arabia to either cut oil supply or lose US military support, and US Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette told Reuters that the president reserved the right to use every tool to protect US producers, including “our support for their defense needs.” This is a US attempt to have its cake and eat it – if it needs to take action, it will win support by withdrawing the military, if not, it will have cut oil imports and won support that way.
The survival of Saudi Arabia and its Royal Family depend on the price of oil. The Kingdom holds about 16 percent of the world’s oil reserves, and is the largest exporter of petroleum amongst OPEC countries. Nearly half of the country’s GDP comes from oil, and Aramco itself employs 65,000 people.
Even before the recent news about the Patriot batteries, Trump had openly noted that the US could pursue its own energy policy and put the US-Saudi partnership on the back burner. Trump said in 2019, as a warning, “Saudi Arabia, if we broke with them … I think your oil prices would go through the roof.”
Trump has previously praised Saudi Arabia for keeping prices low, or rather helping HIM do it. But now the record low price does not only impact the US strategic interest in Saudi Arabia but also calls into question its so-called mission “to protect oil facilities in Syria” and to destabilise and bring about regime change in Iran.
This in turn affects the ability of other states such as Azerbaijan to confidently depend on the US as a strategic partner during a difficult period, “through thick or thin.” It is conceivable that a democratic dividend may result from the low price of oil, more so than could ever be accomplished by diplomacy and rankings based on a democracy index, but the US will not allow this to happen at the expense of its own population and industries.
Making America Great Again may come at the expense of Saudi oil revenues and the international price of hydrocarbons. Saudi Arabia must be aware of what happened with Iraq, Iran, and Libya.
America is no longer dependent on Saudi Arabia, as an oil exporting country itself, and it no longer needs Saudi help to pay for proxy fighters in Syria, its chosen “terrorists”, and Chechen fighters from Georgia there to destabilise the Russian Federation. So like Pakistan, it may end up fighting for its life now its fairweather friend no longer needs it.
Dictatorial regimes like Saudi may have to reinvent themselves in order to not be overthrown, by their own citizens or neighbouring states. The war with Yemen and its many human rights violations has opened the eyes of many about the dark side of US energy policy in the region. Already there are bitter memories of many of the “do no evil” policy towards the Saudi régime in light of allegations of its implications in 9/11.
Let us not forget that the world is in a constant state of flux, and old geopolitical models are no longer valid. The US has more than once paid back Saudi assistance, and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, where Saudi Arabia represented “normal” Islam, has increased its redundancy.
The Saudi royal regime is now under pressure, even in terms of transparency, and is facing long overdue questions about how it has spent or wasted money in an extravagant manner. The tribes and bribes method of running the economy will only work if enough people want it to, and in that respect it is greatly inferior to liberal market forces. But liberalisation inevitable brings demands for greater democracy, which the Kingdom may not be able to configure on terms which suit itself.
Trump has repeated in his speeches that without US support that the government would not last for two weeks, and that can now be considered more a threat than campaign rhetoric. Saudi Arabia is already overextended in military terms, with a garrison in Bahrain, its proxy role in Syria (terms of financial support).
This perfect storm has established the conditions to bring Russia back into the region as a major foreign player and peacemaker—honest broker. The US is unlikely to tolerate this however, so will have to see its new policy through – meaning the Saudi regime is more likely than not to fall.
Worm in the Roof
Trump has picked his moment to make a policy statement, “Saudi Arabia, you are on your own, if you can afford it – don’t be looking for Onward Christian Solider to come and get you out of your mess.”
Trump does not want to talk about specifics, but claims that the “US is making a lot of moves in the Middle East and elsewhere; we’re doing a lot of things all over the world militarily, and how we have been taken advantage of in the sense it has not only to do with Saudi but other countries as well….”
In simple terms, this means the US is looking for a replacement for Saudi Arabia which will not make US voters feel so bad about themselves and their country. The reference to “Middle East” means it could be any one of Saudi Arabia’s neighbours, who might then be in a position to make claims against the Kingdom themselves.
All that is now changing in the rules of the New Great Game is coming at the expense of the Saudis. Even the Kingdom’s leading role in the Gulf Cooperative Council is leading it into rough waters, especially over its blockade of Qatar and the war in Yemen with no clear objective or exit strategy. Nor are Saudi and Arabia and Turkey on very good terms, and nor were they even before the Khashoggi murder.
Trump is not going to say in as many words, “bye bye inconvenient bastards,” but withdrawing the Patriot batteries is as good as. Like the event now considered to begin the Great Schism in 1054, which was not remarked on by historians of the time, this action may be seen as having very deep significance in the years to come.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.