by Emile Nakhleh
The American-Saudi strategic relationship, which began in the 1940s after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, has reached a critical juncture and should be reset. The two central premises that underpinned the relationship in its infancy included Saudi Arabia selling its oil to the United States through American oil companies in large quantities at reasonable prices, with the U.S. dollar as the currency of record. In return for oil, the United States would protect the security and survival of the kingdom under the rule of the Al Saud family.
In addition, the United States looked to Saudi Arabia over the years to help maintain regional stability in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf and to neutralize the rise of anti-Western Arab nationalism under Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the spread of socialist Ba’athism in Syria , Iraq, and the wider Arab world (especially among university students), and the expansion of Marxist and Communist thought among some segments of Arab youth and the rising generation of young leaders. Washington also expected Saudi Arabia, a major oil producer, to push for favorable production and pricing policies through the OPEC cartel, which was formed in the late 1960s.
This relationship has evolved over time as regional threats and challenges became more ominous, more complex, and more vexing. Saudi leadership succession and an intermittent power struggle among different factions of the Al Saud ruling family, which is currently happening regarding Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), has thrust the United States into the uncomfortable position of taking sides among the competing factions.
As MbS’s hold on power has become more precarious and his regional status shakier because of the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, it is time to take another look at this special relationship. Such a review would raise several questions. If the United States no longer relies significantly on Saudi oil, should Washington continue to cling to the old oil-for-security formula? Where does Saudi Arabia really fit in Washington’s grand strategy for the Middle East? Are Washington’s regional interests served by the rash and deadly actions of the Saudi crown prince? As the international community demands that Khashoggi’s Saudi murderers be brought to justice, can the United States afford to be linked to MbS and the “premeditated crime” committed by his closest associates?
Regionally, should Washington maintain this relationship in the midst of MbS’s illegal, disruptive, and counterproductive siege on Qatar, a key U.S. ally in the Gulf or remain associated with the disastrous, Saudi-run war in Yemen? Despite the Trump administration’s narrow definition of America’s regional interests, how long can the United States afford to tell the world that values of justice, human rights, and freedom of dissent no longer matter and that bloody autocrats, like MbS, should be allowed to rule the roost without accountability? Should the personal relationship that ties MbS and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner be the default substitute for America’s economic, political, and security strategic relations with the region? How will the other important regional states—for example, Iran, Turkey, and Israel— and other allies like Jordan and Morocco view such narrowly defined calculations?
The American-Saudi partnership has always been based on the fact that, although they assume power through fair and free elections, American presidents have accepted that Saudi kings ascend to the throne through the system of ijma’ or consensus and bay’a or allegiance within the Saudi ruling family. Although undemocratic by Western standards, this tribal system has maintained relative stability in the kingdom. The relationship between a democratic republic and an absolute monarchy has existed for over 80 years because of mutual interests—economic on the American side and survival on the Saudi side.
American leaders and policymakers have accepted the Saudi governing principle, despite its absolute rule, as long as it maintained family harmony within Al Saud and domestic stability, which ensured that successive Saudi kings could and would deliver on their major policy commitments to the United States. The American presidency and the Saudi monarchy have interacted as two institutions, not as personal fiefdoms.
MbS has upended this decades-old practice by usurping power from his senior and more experienced relatives within the family, especially uncles and cousins, with no regard for the tribal-religious governing tradition of ijma’ and bay’a. Since assuming power three years ago, MbS has jettisoned family rule in favor of a strongman autocracy and has ushered in a new era of mistrust, power struggle, and potentially destabilizing uncertainty.
His ruthless power grab, repression of potential challengers within his family, and crackdown on all opposition to his policies and projects inside and outside of Saudi Arabia have put American-Saudi relations at risk. He feels empowered to crush his potential rivals within the ruling family by his close relationship to P resident Trump and Jared Kushner. Despite having survived for 80 years, will the relationship survive MbS’s actions to cement his absolutist rule? Is Washington complicit in the rise of an MbS-driven absolutism in Riyadh?
Will America bring about the collapse of Saudi Arabia, and by extension U.S. interests in the Arabian Peninsula, in order to save MbS? Saudi Arabia might be too big to fail but certainly not MbS. The sooner the Trump administration realizes this uncomfortable reality, the better the Middle East will be. If the Trump administration fails to act decisively and strategically, what role should Congress and the national security establishment play in curbing MbS’s insatiable thirst for power at home, bellicosity toward his neighbors, and his bloody war in Yemen?
The Trump administration’s announcement that sanctions will be imposed on 17 Saudis involved in Khashoggi’s murder is no more than a slap on the wrist of the crown prince. If, as most observers believe, it is inconceivable that MbS wasn’t aware of the operation to lure Khashoggi into the Saudi Istanbul consulate to kill him, he should be held accountable. Sanctions don’t cut it.
MbS has become a liability for U.S.-Saudi relations. Any cost-benefits analysis would conclude that the country is significantly more critical than any one person who has ascended to the apex of the Saudi power structure by intimidation and imprisonment of potential family challengers. If the Saudi royal family wants to maintain the special relationship with the United States, King Salman should work with the Al Saud family council to devise a new succession plan for the kingdom, which would replace MbS with another royal acceptable to the family. The American-Saudi special relationship has survived many serious trials and tribulations over the decades and should not be derailed by a power-hungry young prince who seems to be taking advantage of an ailing king and an amenable president.