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A relationship under stress

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Post-Khashoggi, how long can Saudi Arabia retain leverage over the U.S.?

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has reportedly concluded that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, personally ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The murder of the Saudi dissident journalist at the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on October 2 has already triggered a global outrage against MBS, as the Crown Prince is known. But U.S. President Donald Trump seems unfazed by both the findings of his spy agency as well as the mounting global outcry. He called the CIA assessment “very premature”, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S.’s “historic commitment” to Saudi Arabia is “absolutely vital to America’s security” and its “interests in the Middle East”.

Thinking like realists

This is a popular argument in Washington. Realists would say the relationship with Saudi Arabia is so vital for American national interests that the U.S. should overlook certain aspects of Saudi behaviour. The Trump administration repeats this argument to justify its lack of action against Riyadh in the wake of the murder of Khashoggi. But does Saudi Arabia actually have such leverage over America?

The Saudi-U.S. partnership can be dated back to the 1945 meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia and father of current monarch Salman bin Abdulaziz. In the meeting, held on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, both leaders came to a two-way agreement: the U.S. would support and provide military training for Saudi Arabia, while the Kingdom would provide oil and political backing in return. This alliance made sense for both countries during the Cold War. The Saudis were anxious about communist expansion into the Arab/Muslim world. Half of Yemen fell into the hands of Marxists in 1967, and in 1978 communists took power in Afghanistan. And the U.S. wanted uninterrupted flow of oil for its own economic expansion and the post-war reconstruction of Europe. It also wanted a political ally in West Asia.

But the conditions that laid the foundation of this partnership have changed. The Soviet Union fell apart almost three decades ago. America’s dependency on Saudi Arabia for oil has also decreased over the years. True, Saudi Arabia remains a major supplier of oil to the U.S. But it doesn’t have the leverage over the American economy as it had in 1973 when Arab countries imposed an embargo on mostly Western nations in protest against their support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War with Egypt. The U.S. is now one of the top three crude producers, along with Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Other arguments in favour of stronger partnership cite the massive Saudi investments in the U.S., both treasury securities and private businesses. But Saudi Arabia acts in its interest, not with the goal of helping the U.S. economy. If it sells its U.S. assets, that would also hurt the Saudi economy badly. After all, from economic diversification at home to security guarantees, Saudi Arabia needs the U.S. more than the other way around, which offers Washington room for strategic manoeuvre.

While the strategic potential of the partnership has been shrinking, the U.S. has come under greater scrutiny, especially in the post-9/11 world, for its support for Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi kingdom that stands opposed to everything the U.S. preaches on global stages — from democracy and respecting human rights to religious freedom and independent media. It was this broad context that allowed former U.S. President Barack Obama to take a different approach towards Saudi Arabia. He retained the fundamental elements of the partnership, including trade and economic ties, arms sales and security guarantees, while refusing to act in Syria on the Saudis’ behalf and moving further ahead to strike a nuclear deal with Iran. He even asked the Saudis and the Iranians to share West Asia and institute a “Cold Peace” in the region.

Back to square one

But President Trump has reversed this approach and rebuilt the administration’s West Asia policy, making Saudi Arabia its centrepiece. The twin objectives of the Trump policy are to ensure Israel’s security and roll back Iranian influence. It’s this tilt that is now stopping him from moving against the Saudis. The administration has already declared what its Iran policy is. It has already pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal. And the Americans need Saudi support in their effort to isolate and weaken Iran, something Israel too has been demanding for years. But this is not a larger national security argument, nor is it a realistic one. When the fundamentals of a partnership get weakened and the region undergoes major changes, how long can the U.S. allow its Iran obsession to dictate its policies towards West Asia?

From the realpolitik point, even if the U.S. wants to limit Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia under MBS is not helping the cause. It lost the Syria war. Its intervention in Yemen drove the Houthis further into Iran’s embrace. The Qatar blockade has divided the Arab world (Qatar has now quit OPEC as well). The detention of the Lebanese Prime Minister last year has played Lebanese politics into the hands of Hezbollah, the Iran ally.

Mr. Trump, wary of not disrupting his West Asia policy, may stay the course on Saudi Arabia for now. But the growing criticisms of the partnership on Capitol Hill can’t be ignored. The Senate has already voted with a huge majority to move forward legislation to end the U.S. involvement in the Yemen war. Republican Senator Bob Corker accused the White House of “moonlighting as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince”. Rand Paul, another Republican Senator, says it’s time for America to stand up and tell Saudi Arabia, “enough”. These are not isolated moral outbursts; they suggest changing undercurrents. There is a growing realisation in Washington that the Saudi pillar of its West Asia policy is getting weak. Mr. Trump, driven by his own notional obsessions, might overlook it. But future American Presidents can’t. They may have to start from where Mr. Obama stopped.

stanly.johny@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 13, 2018 3:51:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-relationship-under-stress/article25682713.ece

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