The Democrats are spitting mad at the government of Saudi Arabia. Again. The United States’ long-standing alliance with the House of Saud, which dates back to the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt eight decades ago, is in crisis, again. There is talk about the USA scaling back its alliance with the Saudi regime, again.
It’s hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu over the current imbroglio over Middle East policy. For several generations, the American political class has had lingering doubts about the US-Saudi alliance. But that relationship has also persisted for the better part of a century: Saudi Arabia has long been one of the three pillars, along with Israel and Egypt, of American hegemony in the Middle East. Removing that pillar is not a move that will be taken easily or without resistance by the national security establishment.
The proximate cause of the current fraying of the relationship is the decision in early October by OPEC Plus—under Saudi leadership—to turn down the oil spigot by a staggering 2 million barrels a day. This has already created a new instability, elevating the risk of global recession. Aside from its impact on American politics, the move is also seen as aiding the Russian war in Ukraine. Europeans are already suffering from fuel shortages and price hikes. As the weather gets colder, the Saudi-led cutback in oil production feels like a hostile act.
On October 11, The Washington Post reported, “President Biden is kicking off a process of reevaluating, and potentially altering, the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia following the announcement by a Saudi-led coalition that it would slash oil production.” In an interview with CNN, Biden expressed displeasure with the Saudis—although the president remained vague about how he would respond.
“There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done, with Russia,” the president said. Biden added, “I’m not going to get into what I’d consider and what I have in mind. But there will be—there will be consequences.”
If Biden was characteristically vague, his congressional allies were more blunt. Appearing on MSNBC on Sunday, Senator Bernie Sanders supported pulling American troops out of Saudi Arabia and ending arms deals with the oil-rich autocracy. Sanders listed a litany of complaints: “You have a monarchy, treats women as third class citizens, tortures people, they killed [Jamal] Khashoggi, dismembered his body, and now they are siding with Putin in the war in Ukraine and are forcing Americans and people all over the world to pay higher gas prices. This is a regime, to tell you the truth, I’ve never been fond of—and I think the president is moving in the right direction.”
Sanders was echoing sentiments expressed by another senior senator, Dick Durbin of Illinois. On October 6, Durbin tweeted, “From unanswered questions about 9/11 & the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, to conspiring w/ Putin to punish the US w/ higher oil prices, the royal Saudi family has never been a trustworthy ally of our nation. It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without their alliance.”
These statements, though, prompt a question: If there are so many good reasons to see the Saudi monarchy as a bad ally, why has the alliance persisted until now? After all, if a horrendous human rights record, “unanswered questions” about the 9/11 terrorist attack, the murder of a journalist (Jamal Khashoggi) employed by an American newspaper, and a long history of fomenting religious extremism around the world haven’t been enough to shake the relationship, will a spike in oil prices do it? There were far bigger oil shocks in the 1970s that didn’t do any long-term harm to the relationship. In fact, they made Washington more mindful of how dependent it is on the Saudi alliance.
Last June, journalist Adam H. Johnson noted in his newsletter “The Column” that Washington officials and mainstream journalists often talk about the Saudi relationship as something that has been “forced” on the United States. A good example of this tendency is an article in early October by Washington Post reporter Adam Taylor describing the relationship as a “marriage of convenience” based on “oil.” According to Taylor, “Arms sales have lost their luster, given the kingdom’s use of American weapons in its disastrous war in Yemen and the gruesome murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who was well-known and well-liked in Washington.”
But as Johnson points out, the war in Yemen isn’t something the Saudi government dragged the United States into. Rather, it’s a policy carried out with the active participation of the national security state. Johnson noted that “a months-long Washington Post investigation just this week detailed the extent to which Biden, despite lofty words to the contrary, has carried on supporting Saudi’s virtually one-sided slaughter of Yemeni civilians without pause.” The kingdom’s American-made jets—flown by American-trained pilots—continue to bomb Yemen. This cannot done without high-level American approval.
Similarly, Biden’s promise, made before his election, to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi has come to naught. Biden did offer some rhetorical criticism—but he also quickly reaffirmed the alliance by giving a fist bump to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man who, according to USA intelligence agencies, ordered Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment.
As Johnson notes, “The narrative that the U.S. is ‘forced’ into backing Saudi Arabia over gas prices is an ahistorical, power-serving, racist myth. The U.S. supports the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia because that’s exactly what the Saudi regime was set up by Western powers to do, and it’s why the alliance is maintained and defended—despite the occasional wrist slapping.” The United States needs Saudi Arabia as a linchpin of its alliance system with the other Arab monarchies as well as with Egypt and Israel. This alliance system allows the United States to counter regional foes like Iran—and also limit any Russian or Chinese inroads to the Middle East. The US-Saudi alliance is a prime example of what the magisterial sociologist C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realism.” It does enormous real-world harm—but allows the existing power structure to function, often at the expense of the self-interest of ordinary Americans, who might not like high gas prices and a regime that exports its own dysfunctional autocracy. Elected Democrats are beginning to realize the price of crackpot realism, but it’s an open question whether that is enough to overturn the status quo of many decades.
As long as the American foreign policy elite is committed to maintaining hegemony in the Middle East, it will be loath to break the Saudi alliance. The current squabble, like earlier disputes, is likely to end with public expressions of discontent—followed by a renewal of support.