Author David Stanley

03.06.2020 18:30

Opinion: The [Un]holy Alliance of Saudi Arabia and the United States

USA and Saudi Arabia

Reuters photo

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If social distancing is the new paradigm, perhaps the United States should start by distancing itself from Saudi Arabia?

Their alliance is one of the most significant and far-reaching global alliances, more than most think.

The history between these two nations has been checkered, to say the least. 

The differences between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are so numerous and dramatic that it is impressive they have been able to overcome them sufficiently to cooperate in so many different ways. The connection that binds them is oil but this glue now appears to be coming apart at the seams. 

The foundation for this relation was laid in the 1970s, just after Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard. A few years later, the two countries set up the United States - Saudi Arabian Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation. One of the key components of this agreement was that U.S. dollars would be used for all oil contracts. This meant a sustained demand for dollars worldwide and the petrodollar was born. The birth of the petrodollar caused the United States’ money to become the world’s de facto reserve currency. This provided them with unprecedented influence over other nations and the ability to run budget deficits with impunity. If anyone balked at this arrangement they faced economic sanctions. It also made the U.S. unwilling to rock the boat with the Saudis when they behaved in ways that were not compatible with American values.

To understand the incongruities between the two countries it’s helpful to realize that on one hand, we have a country that many consider to be the birthplace of democracy and freedom, or at least its most vocal proponent, the United States of America. On the other hand, there is a country that is basically owned by one family: the House of Saud, and where personal freedom is severely limited.  

Whereas the U.S. has a constitution whose stated purpose is to protect the people’s rights, in Saudi Arabia the constitution is based solely on the Koran to be the determiner of all things. This means that crimes are often judged using Sharia law. The punishments prescribed by these laws can seem harsh and not in alignment with most modern societies but they are still very much in use today. 

Refresh your memory: What Is Happening In The Middle East - In Brief

A poignant example of such antithetical treatment is when in 2015 Ali al-Nimr, the nephew of firebrand Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, faced execution by beheading, plus the additional and rare punishment of ‘crucifixion’ which entails publicly displaying the body after the execution as a warning to others. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a prominent Shia cleric who was very critical of the Saudi Arabian Government and was beheaded for his activities. Beheading in Saudi Arabia is usually carried out in public with a sword. 

Such flagrant disregard for justice makes it ironic, and tragic, that Saudi Arabia sits on the UN Human Rights Council and is actually a member of the committee that helps choose the council’s human-rights experts. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic wrote in 2015:  “[He was] sure that Saudi Arabia will itself benefit from membership on the Human Rights Council. It will no doubt learn new and exciting torture techniques from its fellow members”.

Despite such indefensible behavior, the United States continues to stand by Saudi Arabia and remains a staunch ally. But for how much longer?  

Baptized in oil - consecrated with weapons sales

Before, the Americans very much needed the Saudis’ oil, but at this moment the United States has become the largest oil producer in the world and their imports of oil from Saudi Arabia are at historically low levels. Add to this the recent dramatic drop in oil prices and the Saudis find themselves in a tenuous position. The one card they can still play though is the fact that they are the largest customer of military goods from the U.S. In May of 2017, President Trump secured from King Saud letters of intent to purchase over $350 billion worth of arms over 10 years. The relationship between the two countries was baptized in oil and now has been consecrated with weapons sales.

These arms sales appear to be of great importance to the U.S. After Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, there was widespread outrage and many calls to stop doing business with the Saudis. But President Trump said he would not stop any of the deals from going forward and was quoted as saying: “Saudi Arabia is a big buyer of (American) products. That means something to me. It’s a big producer of jobs”. He also proclaimed that if the U.S. didn’t sell weapons to Saudi Arabia then the Chinese and Russians would. Not exactly the moral high ground. 

See also: The US Vs China - Who Will Come Out On Top?

The Mutual Enemy 

One of the main justifications the U.S. uses for selling so many arms to Saudi Arabia is Iran. Once referred to as the Axis of Evil by President George Bush, there has been an ongoing effort to destabilize the regime in Iran ever since the Shah was deposed. And Saudi Arabia has been a bitter enemy of Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when Iran became an Islamic Republic and, incidentally, also threw out the United States’ involvement in their country. Saudi Arabia sees itself as the birthplace of Islam and is Sunni. Iran is Shia and wants to spread its version of Islam to the rest of the region which has created a dramatic power struggle.  

The two sides have been engaged in ‘proxy wars’ where they back other countries or factions that oppose the other country, or its allies, which allows them to avoid open hostilities outright. This style of conflict has caused it to sometimes be referred to as the Middle Eastern Cold War. 

Opinion: Iran, The Country That Never Stops Bringing Fear To The World?

A tragic example of just such a proxy war is the civil war In Yemen. What began as an internal conflict for power, born of the Arab Spring, has since deteriorated into a full blown war, with Saudi Arabia backing forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, while Iran backs the Shia Houthis rebels. The Saudis, understandably, do not want Iran to have any strong presence in Yemen, which is literally in their backyard. This conflict has killed an estimated 100,000 people, created the worst cholera outbreak in the nation’s history and brought half the population of 24 million to the brink of starvation. Most of the arms used by Saudi Arabia, including bombs and missiles, which they are accused of having used on civilians, were supplied by the United States. 

After five years of bloody conflict it has resulted in a stalemate with Saudi Arabia showing signs of wishing to disengage itself from further hostilities. Their own economic problems back home, along with the corona crisis, are believed to be the primary reasons for this change of heart. 

These conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran are part of an ongoing power struggle for dominance in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia superpowers. In this case, the US sees the economic benefit of selling arms, while ignoring the humanitarian crisis in the country. 

The Terror connection re-ignited

Most people are all too familiar with the tragedy of 9/11. Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the attack, was from a wealthy Saudi family that had close ties to the Saudi royal family. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudi citizens. There has never been any proof of direct ties between the 9/11 terrorist attack and the Saudi Royal family or government, but there is an ongoing lawsuit on behalf of the families of the victims. 

Recently, the FBI accidentally named a former Saudi diplomat in a court declaration that had previously been sealed. His name in this document raised questions about potential Saudi government connections to 9/11, a subject that the US Government has gone to great lengths to avoid. The document has since been removed from the court declaration. 

Governments sometimes need to take actions that we find difficult to understand. The complexities of the world economy and politics between nations are constantly changing and hindsight tends to be an unfair judge of their actions. 

But can we truly justify turning a blind eye to what appears to be obvious connections between Saudi Arabia and terrorist attacks? Can we simply disregard the human rights abuse? There are more than contracts for oil and arms at stake here. There could also be the very soul of a nation at risk.

Keep reading: How Covid-19 is Affecting Conflict Zones

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