The United States, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East in the Post-Khashoggi Era
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has sparked a sudden soul-searching in Washington about the U.S.-Saudi partnership. Riding a wave of congressional anger, a bill that would end American support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen overwhelmingly surmounted the hurdle required to advance to debate, attracting strong bipartisan support. Another bill wending its way through Congress would place strict conditions on the sale of offensive weaponry to Saudi Arabia, the largest purchaser of American arms.
The Trump administration, for its part, has imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis reportedly involved in Khashoggi’s murder and barred 21 from entering the United States. Yet the administration has otherwise been stalwart in its defense of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, lauding the kingdom as a “pillar of stability” and vowing to oppose congressional efforts to curtail the relationship or punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
For some, the U.S.-Saudi partnership is simply past its sell-by date. A relationship based in large part on ensuring the steady supply of oil to the West and keeping strategic territory out of the hands of the now-defunct Soviet empire needs, according to this thinking, not just tweaking but wholesale reevaluation. After all, American oil production now outstrips that of Saudi Arabia, leading if not to energy independence, certainly to self-sufficiency. And rather than looking to keep others out of the region, the United States is increasingly looking to extricate itself, with many seeing Middle Eastern allies as encumbrances preventing America’s escape from the regional quagmire.
But jettisoning the U.S.-Saudi partnership would be a mistake. For all the talk in recent years of a “rebalance” to the Indo-Pacific, or of a shift from counter-terrorism to great power competition as the organizing strategic framework of American foreign policy, the Middle East still matters. The United States retains important interests there, such as countering terrorism and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And indeed some of those interests — ensuring freedom of navigation through the region’s sea lanes and ensuring the free flow of energy to allies who depend on it, like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — are vital to any strategy of competition with near-peer rivals like China.
To maintain a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, there are several steps the United States can take to make its diplomacy with Riyadh more effective and make clear that U.S. support is not unconditional. At the same time, the Khashoggi episode should serve as a wake-up call for American policymakers looking to work increasingly through allies in the Middle East as the United States shifts its attention elsewhere. U.S. policy toward other partners in the region must also be reset if these partnerships are to remain effective.
A Rocky History
In reality, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has long been an uncomfortable one. It has been prone to crises — most notably the 1973 oil boycott and the 9/11 terrorist attacks — as well as sharp disagreements, like those over the Iraq war and the Iran nuclear agreement. Washington has long been ill at ease with Riyadh’s role in sponsoring extremism. And until the 2000s, Saudi Arabia was reluctant to be too closely identified with the United States. But the relationship weathered these challenges because despite them, each country saw the other as indispensable to its security strategy.
Ironically, prior to Khashoggi’s killing, policymakers had hoped the ascent of Mohammad bin Salman would ease the contradictions in the relationship. The prince was seen as committed not only to a partnership with Washington, but to a program of economic and social reform that could modernize Saudi Arabia and end its role in promoting religious extremism. Analysts were also mindful of the looming generational succession in Saudi Arabia, where the throne had for decades passed from one half-brother to another. The United States, and the West more broadly, felt it had a stake in the crown prince’s success.
Yet these hopes were increasingly in tension with Riyadh’s actual policies. The arrest of a large swath of the Saudi elite, the brief detention and forced resignation of the Lebanese prime minister, the mounting persecution of domestic critics, and overreach in regional and international disputes were all greeted with unease in Western capitals. Khashoggi’s killing may have sparked the current conflagration, but there was already plenty of fuel. The result is the most serious crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations since 9/11, and one the United States cannot hope will simply subside with time. As in the past, concerted action will be needed to right the relationship lest its instability persist or deepen.
Between Cutting Ties and Doubling Down: Four Ways to Fix the U.S.-Saudi Alliance
The Trump administration has characterized the U.S.-Saudi partnership as an instrumental one, vital to furthering American aims such as countering Iran. There is a basis for the assertion: While Saudi Arabia is not as capable a partner as Israel or Jordan, the kingdom has proven helpful on matters like intelligence-sharing and Arab outreach to Iraq. Yet the U.S.-Saudi partnership is really more of a protective or defensive one, designed less to advance American aims than to prevent adverse scenarios. It is not that Washington cannot do without Riyadh’s help, but that it fears the consequences of losing influence on Riyadh’s regional and foreign policies or, worse, of the Kingdom’s destabilization. Right now, the United States doesn’t have to worry much about another power supplanting it in Saudi Arabia — neither Moscow or Beijing have the capability or will to replace the United States in the Middle East. But this possibility will grow likelier over time given China’s thirst for oil and desire to project power beyond its region.
Forsaking the U.S.-Saudi partnership would more likely trigger the adverse scenarios Washington seeks to avoid or postpone. The targeting of Khashoggi and Riyadh’s rash regional policies are symptoms of the same underlying problem: Saudi Arabia has entered a phase of profound internal change as a younger generation rises to power, precisely when the Middle East is undergoing its longest sustained period of turbulence in decades and the United States seeks to pull back from its once-confident regional leadership role. Neither walking away from nor uncritically embracing Riyadh is likely to ease this instability — rather, the past several years suggest that these more extreme approaches will only exacerbate it.
But these are not the only available options. Rather than sundering the partnership or sweeping its problems under the rug, Washington should opt for intensive but tough engagement with Riyadh aimed at averting further instability. Such an approach should have four elements.
First, the United States needs to clean up its diplomatic act with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have often, over multiple administrations, enjoyed privileged access to the Oval Office and cabinet principals. But going forward, these actors should clear the way for the U.S. ambassador and U.S. regional officials by limiting their direct contacts with Riyadh to prevent diplomatic “jurisdiction-shopping” and to ensure a coordinated American approach. In the spirit of making the relationship less top-heavy, Gen. (ret.) John Abizaid, Washington’s ambassador-designate to the kingdom, should be confirmed quickly and be empowered to provide veteran guidance to Saudi leadership.
Second, and relatedly, Washington should insist that Riyadh designate and empower officials below the king and crown prince with whom American officials can deal. The United States cannot choose who leads Saudi Arabia and should not try. But having so few points of contact is bound to weaken the bilateral relationship, as no single figure can be expected to pay adequate attention to the full range of issues the United States and Saudi Arabia need to confront together. Vitally, the United States should emphasize that this is in the best interests of both countries.
Third, the United States should make clear that arms sales and other forms of American support are contingent not merely on a shared conception of threats, but on a common strategy to address those threats. Differences between the two sides will persist. But U.S. support should be an outgrowth of shared goals and strategies, rather than something that is treated as a test of Washington’s loyalty to the partnership or toughness toward Iran and other adversaries. Likewise, Washington should take greater pains to consult Riyadh and other regional allies in advance of major initiatives that affect the region’s security landscape, like the nuclear agreement with Iran or changes to U.S. policy in Syria.
Finally, the United States should supplement its bilateral diplomacy with Riyadh with reinvigorated regional diplomacy. Other regional allies have an even greater stake in Saudi Arabia’s stability and regional policies than America does. Multilateral forums can amplify the voices of seasoned regional leaders whose influence and experience can be useful to Washington even if their military and economic assets are comparatively minor. One model for this is the George W. Bush-era Gulf Security Dialogue, which sought to coordinate the policies of the United States and its allies across areas ranging from Iraq to theater missile defense.
Beyond Saudi Arabia: Resetting Regional Partnerships
As the fourth recommendation suggests, the U.S. response to the Khashoggi affair should not be limited to repairing its relationship with Saudi Arabia and navigating the current crisis. Nearly every U.S. relationship in the Middle East is vulnerable to this sort of crisis, and American policy toward Saudi Arabia cannot be divorced from its overall approach toward the region.
The Saudi crisis should prompt two broad course corrections in U.S. Mideast policy. First, the United States should reevaluate its approach to security partnerships and burden-sharing in the region. If Washington is to successfully reduce its footprint in the Middle East without sacrificing its interests, it must ensure that its regional partnerships are effective — instrumental, not merely protective — as well as sustainable domestically. This is true of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, but just as much the case in other major American military assistance relationships in the region like those with Egypt and Lebanon.
When crises such as the Yemen conflict emerge, Washington must be forthright with partners, making clear that U.S. support depends on realistic military goals and a reasonable timetable, married to a political strategy — and seeking to practice that discipline in its own regional interventions. This will inevitably mean counseling greater restraint.
When it comes to longer-term, ongoing security assistance programs, the United States should focus less on the mere delivery of training and equipment and more on the partner state’s overall management of its military affairs, as former Pentagon official Mara Karlin has counseled. This means addressing sensitive matters such as the structure and doctrine of foreign military partners, as well as civil-military relations. But it also means resisting the temptation to treat security assistance as a short-term bargaining chip by tying it to the issues of the day. Because security sector reform is necessarily a long-term project, the United States should attach it to those strings that are most likely to transform the partner military into an effective force over time.
Second, the United States should elevate human and civil rights in its regional bilateral relationships. American advocacy for human and civil rights in the Middle East has sharply diminished in recent years. This backlash was evident during the Obama administration, which associated President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” with the Iraq war and interventionism. The so-called Arab Spring of 2011 only reinforced this trend, despite a brief, initial revival of Western enthusiasm for political reform. Under the Trump administration, which has sought to practice a form of realpolitik in its foreign relations, this downplaying of human rights has only grown stronger.
The present crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations illustrates the downsides of these shifts. The Khashoggi affair is a reminder that neglecting human rights concerns can not only imperil domestic U.S. support for regional relationships, but also blind policymakers to the brittleness of partner states. Downgrading human rights is convenient when dealing with autocratic partners, but comes with a cost. It is at odds with American values and thus difficult to sustain domestically and broadly damaging to American credibility. Policymakers should regard the matter not merely as a moral one, but as a strategic imperative — repressive regimes are often prone to instability, and those that pursue cruel policies at home rarely exercise wisdom abroad.
U.S. officials should elevate the human rights issue in bilateral and regional agendas and ensure that American assistance programs focused on rights and civil society enjoy clear, high-level diplomatic support. Making clear to partners that these issues will always be a topic of conversation when high-ranking U.S. officials visit, and that visiting officials’ itineraries will include meetings with civil society representatives, can help rein in abuses and create space for civil society in the region, which is vital to its prosperity and stability. This, in turn, can contribute to sustaining domestic U.S. support for these relationships. Here again, the United States must be in it for the long haul and be prepared to take a patient, case-by-case approach, focusing less on headline gains such as elections and more on the incremental work of building the institutions that are vital to resilient states.
As successive American administrations have sought to extricate themselves from the Middle East and shift resources to the Indo-Pacific and Russia, the idea of working through partners has gained momentum. But there are no easy roads to success in this region. The United States has experienced the downsides of excessive direct involvement in the Middle East and of attempting to wash its hands of the region’s problems. Now, the Trump administration is learning the pitfalls of the supposed middle ground: Working through partners makes Washington vulnerable to their flaws and captive to their parochial interests.
The solution lies not in a return to overcommitment or retrenchment, but in patient engagement that seeks to turn protective partnerships into more truly instrumental ones. Recalibrating the U.S. approach in this manner will bring objections, both from partners and from within the U.S. bureaucracy, where short-term security interests weigh more heavily than long-term concerns. And it is not without legitimate geopolitical risks — while problems in America’s regional relationships make the headlines, the United States quietly gains a great deal by cooperating with these partners, and would be worse off without them. Mitigating these risks will require the United States to make clear that its strategy of reducing commitments is not tantamount to cutting and running; that it is prepared to invest in a long-term effort to improve partners’ capabilities; and — perhaps most importantly — that it is prepared to be even harder on its adversaries than it is on its friends.
Michael Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from 2007–2008.
Image: Department of Defense photo by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm