US President Obama meets Saudi King Salman in Riyadh last week.
Update from AIJAC
April 28, 2016
Update 04/16 #06
Last week, US President Obama visited Saudi Arabia – at a time when it is generally agreed that ties between Riyadh and Washington have been at a low ebb. A few days later, Saudi Arabia announced a new plan to try to wean its economy off its dependence on oil exports – a plan said to be the brainchild of Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the 31-year old son of King Salman who is looking increasingly like the power behind the throne. This Update looks at the future of the Saudi kingdom both in terms of the apparent decline of the long-standing relations with the US, and economic changes in the region.
We lead with American Middle East scholar Michael Rubin, who looks broadly at the American-Saudi relationship. He reviews how this relationship developed, at the very real values differences which have always been present in it, and at why President Obama seems to have chosen to downgrade the relationship. He then makes a strong case that realism, which Obama prides himself on, suggests the relationship has become more important, not less important, given the increasingly dangerous state of the Middle East region. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE
Next up is columnist Clifford May, who looks particularly at President Obama’s publicly expressed demand that Saudis and Iranians find ways to “share the neighborhood.” May reviews the history of the Saudi-US relationship in greater depth, before explaining the Saudi perspective on the US rapprochement effort with Iran, seemingly at their expense. May also explores the history of the Saudi role in nurturing Islamist extremism – and the reality that they have learned their lesson and tried to clamp down on some of the worst examples. For May’s take on the Saudi reaction to Obama’s approach, CLICK HERE
Finally, Washington Institute expert on the Gulf Simon Henderson looks at the new Saudi economic plan, entitled “Vision 2030.” He notes the role of the powerful Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, but also a series of challenges to implementing the plan – including the reality that his plan to encourage investment will be resisted by many foreign investors because of the Islamist legal system which exists in Saudi Arabia. Henderson says only the opening up of the kingdom, both economically and to world opinion, and improving human rights will allow the plan to succeed, but this will bring broad and unpredictable changes to Saudi Arabia. For his complete analysis, CLICK HERE
For decades, the Saudis have sought to buy friends and influence in foreign capitals and conversely used agents of influence to slime those with whom they disagree. They bomb Yemen without any effort to mitigate civilian casualties and, quite frankly, sparked the Houthi uprising which Iran later co-opted by sponsoring religious seminaries spewing anti-Shi‘ite propaganda. The next generation of Saudi leaders appears ready to double down on sectarian bigotry.
So should Americans celebrate the fact that, as President Barack Obama heads to the Kingdom, the US-Saudi relationship is in tatters? While leaders and diplomats might offer platitudes, it will take years if not decades to restore trust. Simply put, it’s hard for Saudi officials to understand how cavalierly President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry turned their back on a seven-decade partnership. Frankly, the Saudis are right to be angry.
Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 23, 2016. REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool.
The modern US-Saudi relationship began when Franklin Delano Roosevelt met Ibn Saud on board the USS Quincy as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Having fought a war to end all wars, only to become embroiled in another world war less than a quarter century later, Roosevelt understood oil was a strategic resource. Convincing Ibn Saud to supply the allies with oil allowed the United States to keep its own in reserve. Indeed, Roosevelt included Saudi Arabia in the lend lease program.
Saudi Arabia remained a staunch US Cold War ally. Many Arab states flirted with the Soviet Union. Not only did Saudi Arabia turn its back to the Eastern Bloc, but Riyadh never tried to engage Washington in a bidding war as so many other Arab states did. Sure, there was the oil embargo. The Saudis and Americans have always had their differences, and the Saudis still remember the often racist and biting cartoons that populated American papers at that time. But both in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and then 11 years later when Iraqi forces rolled into Kuwait, Saudi Arabia was there not only to answer that 3 a.m. phone call but to go above and beyond the call.
It’s easy to bash the Saudis, and there is much to criticize. But, after Saudi Arabia experienced its own Al Qaeda backlash, it became a far more earnest ally in the battle against radical Islamism than it was before. Today, the primary problem with the support of radical Islamist groups lies not in Riyadh, but rather in Ankara, Doha, and Islamabad. To cite Saudi Arabia’s deplorable human rights record as reason to move closer to Iran is nonsensical, as Iran’s execution rate is at least eight times as high. To suggest, as some Iran lobbyists do, that Tehran’s military spending is much lower than Saudi Arabia’s is disingenuous on two front: First, such numbers do not take into account the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s self-funding through its massive business empire and, second, it ignores Iran’s proxy warfare–if not aggressive deployments–in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
Marriages can be rocky, but they are always healthier than an endless series of one-night stands.
It’s also quite ironic that an administration which suggests it wants peace in the Middle East would turn its back on Saudi Arabia at the exact moment in which Riyadh and Jerusalem are breaking down barriers that have undercut regional peace and prosperity for almost seven decades.
The world is increasingly dangerous. China and Russia are both on the offensive. The Islamic State holds territory not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Libya, and Afghanistan. Iranian officials have made clear that enmity to the United States is a central pillar of the Islamic Republic’s ideology. Even if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action holds, it will leave Iran with an industrial scale nuclear program as it expires in little more than a decade. Terrorists threaten life and liberty on every continent but Antarctica.
Obama prides himself on his realism. Realists see the world in terms of dispassionate calculation of interests. They undervalue if not ignore the importance of friends, allies, and relationships. Marriages can be rocky, but they are always healthier than an endless series of one-night stands. Saudi Arabia may be far from perfect, but if the United States turns its back on its allies, the main loser will not be Saudi Arabia but rather America’s national security and the trust other allies are willing to place in Washington.
U.S. President Barack Obama last week visited Saudi Arabia, an unusual nation with which the United States has had a relationship that can be accurately characterized as both strategic and strange — and one that is now severely strained. To understand how we got to this juncture requires at least a smattering of modern history.
It’s polite to say that Ibn Saud, in the first third of the 20th century, united most of the tribes living on the Arabian Peninsula. It’s more accurate to say he defeated those tribes, conquering their lands, along with a source of enormous future wealth that lay under some of them.
Ibn Saud allied with the British against the Ottoman Empire whose sultan, based in Istanbul, also had been proclaimed caliph — ruler of all the world’s Muslims. That would have undercut the legitimacy of the House of Saud had a deal not been struck with the Wahhabis, until then a tiny, fundamentalist sect. The Wahhabis blessed the Saudis and granted them governing authority. In exchange, they would be well-funded and their reading of Islam would become the state religion.
In 1932, Ibn Saud gave his dominions a name: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. After World War II, a time when the sun was setting on the British Empire, the Saudis turned to the United States. The oil the Saudis had appropriated would now be extracted and sold to those in the West who had developed productive uses for it. In exchange, the United States would serve as Saudi Arabia’s defender and protector.
For a few decades, this arrangement worked reasonably well. Then, in 1979, two pivotal events occurred. The first was the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, an uprising that, under the leadership of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, became an Islamic Revolution. That meant that the first modern state committed to waging global jihad was majority Shia and Persian — a shock and a humiliation to many in the Sunni and Arab worlds.
Then, in November of that year, around the same time as students loyal to the Aytollah were taking over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by what might be called ultra-Wahhabis. Putting down this rebellion was a bloody affair. But because of a Saudi information blockade, most of the world heard only vague and often incorrect details.
The full story would be told in 2007 by Yaroslav Trofimov in his indispensable book, “The Siege of Mecca.” In the aftermath of the 9/11/01 attacks, he recognized the episode as “the first large-scale operation by an international jihadi movement in modern times.”
In response to the 1979 upheavals, the Saudis might have been expected to oppose if not suppress fundamentalists eager to fight holy wars. Instead, they attempted to demonstrate their jihadi bona fides by installing Wahhabi clerics in mosques around the world, establishing madrasas that prepared young people to kill and die to defend and/or spread the “true” Islam, and funding mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
From these seeds would grow al-Qaida, and the fruits of al-Qaida — the Islamic State group among them. Such jihadis despise the Saudis and other Muslims who, they believe, are shirking their duty to smite infidels, apostates and heretics.
At least some Saudis were later to recognize their error. Trofimov quotes Prince Khaled al Faisal saying in 2004 that while those who seized the Grand Mosque were eliminated, “we have overlooked the ideology that was behind the crime. We’ve let it spread in the country, ignoring it as if it did not exist.” Nevertheless, Saudi-appointed clerics continue to this day to preach hate and incite violence.
As for Iran’s rulers, they have two large axes to grind with the Saudis. One traces back to the 7th century when a dispute arose within the newly created Muslim community over who was to succeed the Prophet Muhammad. Since then, the theological schism has only widened. The Shia mullahs of Iran believe no Sunnis should be custodians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina — least of all the descendants of a warrior tribe who drink and gamble in Europe while insisting that royal blood flows through their veins.
A less ancient Iranian grievance: Most of Arabia’s oil lies in the Eastern Province where the majority of the population is Shia. These Arabians are hardly “Saudis,” having been conquered by them in 1913 and suffering discrimination and persecution at their hands ever since. In January, Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric from the Eastern Province who had been critical of the Saudi government, was executed.
President Obama’s policy response to this complicated and fraught reality: He recently told a reporter that Saudis and Iranians need to “share the neighborhood.” It’s tempting to call that the “Mr. Rogers Doctrine” and imagine what was said about it within the palaces of Riyadh — and those of Tehran. Also worth pondering: the message that phrase sends to the neighborhood’s minorities — the Christians now under genocidal assault, the Kurds, the Druze and, of course, the Israelis.
The Saudis have never been America’s friends in the sense of having common values or mutual affection. But they have been America’s allies in the sense of having common enemies and some common — and vital — interests. Now the Saudis face what they see as an existential threat from Iranian theocrats who proudly proclaim their abhorrence of America.
Yet, the American president is enriching those Iranian theocrats, strengthening them and making concession after concession without demanding reciprocity. It’s reasonable to guess that the Saudis are feeling puzzled and perhaps betrayed. If so, they are not alone.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for the Washington Times.
The success of Riyadh’s new economic policy will partly depend on changes in social and political attitudes, as well as greater transparency on legal and other issues.
In 1984, a British ambassador departing Saudi Arabia at the end of his tour wrote a “valedictory telegram” defining the kingdom in terms of three “I’s” — Islam, insularity, and incompetence. Unsurprisingly, the telegram was promptly leaked. Islam is certainly still the country’s dominant feature, but the Internet and social media mean that at least the younger generation is well aware of what is going on in the wider world, even if the population remains generally conservative and insular. As for incompetence, it is now less well hidden — most recently, the minister of water and electricity was fired on April 23 for poor performance.
Against this backdrop, Riyadh announced a new economic plan on April 25 called “Vision 2030.” Promptly approved by the Council of Ministers, the plan is the brainchild of Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (aka MbS), the thirty-year-old royal who is increasingly seen as representing the aspirations of the emerging generation. His campaign to implement Vision 2030 will be helped by the fact that he is regarded as the most powerful person in the kingdom — a consequence of being the favorite son of the ailing King Salman, even though his older cousin, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, is theoretically above him.
“Vision 2030” sponsor – and alleged power behind the throne – Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman
The main challenges, arguably, will be legal. Tantalizingly, MbS wants to attract foreign investment in the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, and build up the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, valued at up to $3 trillion. But the business success of neighboring states such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Qatar is grounded in providing foreign investors with a system for resolving commercial disputes based on common law and foreign arbitration, rather than the Islamic law that dominates life in the kingdom.
Two political challenges loom as well. First, a key beneficiary of Vision 2030 will be the Saudi business and technocratic class, which thirsts for commercial opportunities. But the royal family has to balance the business elite’s influence against the power of the Ulama, the clerical body that grants vital religious legitimacy to the House of Saud. Second, within the royal family, which traditionally works on consensus, MbS is believed to have less than total support. Some princes regard him as impetuous and inexperienced, and many are likely concerned that they will lose their privilege of securing favorable terms on business deals — a traditional way for royals to accrue wealth, but also a source of resentment among non-royals.
Economically, the plan seems contradictory in relying on partial privatization of Saudi Aramco to fund a shift away from oil dependency. The kingdom has more than 15 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, second only to Venezuela, which has much higher production costs. As much as 70 percent of the Saudi economy is currently linked to oil.
To attract foreign investors, the kingdom will also need to be much more transparent about the information it releases. Official statistics are often limited and sometimes unbelievable. For example, government data indicates that two-thirds of the country’s 30 million residents are Saudi and one-third expatriate, but some experts believe the proportion is exactly the reverse, undermining the validity of Riyadh’s stated plans for housing and educational needs.
Fundamentally, Vision 2030 represents an opening up of Saudi Arabia — not only to foreign investment, but also to world opinion, much of which regards the kingdom’s ban on women driving, its public beheadings, its state-mandated floggings, and other practices as reprehensible. Some of the potential investors Riyadh seems to covet most, particularly in the West, might be deterred by this problematic human rights record. These concerns also formed part of the conversation that President Obama had with King Salman, MbS, and other senior princes during his visit to the kingdom last week, yet the royals countered by noting that such punishments are Islamic. The disagreement is a reminder that Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, still sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world.
Vision 2030 represents a Saudi plan for economic leadership in a world where oil is no longer dominant. If it succeeds, it will also bring about much broader changes within the kingdom.
Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.