What should US policy be toward Saudi Arabia?

On the one hand, the US depends on Saudi oil and military cooperation. On the other hand, the Saudi leader has destabilized the Arabian peninsula with a pointless and devastating war (and has dismembered a US resident inside a Saudi consulate).

Many Americans would like to take a stronger stand against the Saudi regime. (Only 22 percent of the US population thinks the Saudis are an ally.)

One knowledgeable US friend of mine has even argued that we would do better to ally ourselves more closely with Iran than with Saudi Arabia.

Must we always walk on eggshells around the Saudis for fear of jeopardizing economic/military relations, or is there a better way?

(The latest:)

I am not American but I believe the US should take a very hard stance on Saudi Arabia, particularly with someone like MbS at the helm. He is profoundly sinister, and if left to his own devices to seek the impunity of the tripartite coalition (with UAE and Israel), he’s going to cause tremendous harm to his people and any other people where Saudi Arabia has influence. He is reckless, immoral and uncontrollable and I am glad Biden embarrassed him with this report, even if isn’t going much farther than that.

Cynics will tell you all day long that there’s no difference between Trump and Biden on foreign policy (or between Dems and Republicans), but I live in the Middle East and I have seen firsthand how the regimes here have started missing Trump, who didn’t worry too much about human rights. Maybe Biden doesn’t worry too much either, but the way his cabinet is handling this has thus far resulted in the release of high-profile activists in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and this is always welcome news.

We are allied with Saudi Arabia because, at least for most of the last 60 years, the petrodollar depended upon it. It’s only very recently that one can argue that this alliance is less meaningful in that regard, because most countries are debt-trapped into retaining and using dollar reserves in a way that all but ensures oil will be traded for dollars.

But make no mistake, we aren’t Saudi Arabia’s ally for any ideological or even military reason. It’s purely economical. That’s the reason Saudi Arabia can do… pretty much whatever it darn well pleases and enjoy full US support, and no criticism of Saudi Arabia, no matter how valid, carries no weight on the world stage whatsoever.

That said, the US-Saudi alliance makes me sick to my stomach, and on strictly moral grounds the US should have severed any and all support of Saudi Arabia decades ago. Unfortunately, that’s not a realistic possibility.

We’re stuck with Saudi Arabia, like it or not. I think that at least part of that art of diplomacy with people like MBS is figuring out what their fears are and then working backward. The Royal family faces a number of potential internal threats that aren’t necessarily immediate but, if not confronted, could destabilize their grip on power in KSA. One of those threats is Iran’s potential ability to rile up the Shia population that’s in an economically sensitive part of the country, and of course their ability to destabilize the governments in neighboring countries.

MBS has worried me from the start. He poses as a Michael Corleone type, but sometimes he behaves more like Sonny, a little too hot-tempered and rash for his own good (and the good of others). King Abdullah was no angel but he seemed to have more of a wise elder quality about him.

I’m not a huge fan of the US supporting repressive totalitarian regimes when it is considered to be to the US’s political and/or economic advantage. Doing so certainly runs counter to what is often claimed as support for human rights. In some situations, I could imagine continued contact/support as creating the possibility for influencing increased human rights - but that is not at all likely w/ the Saudis.

I would think that changing energy factors might lessen the value of the Saudis to the US.

I am not expert enough to opine as to the utility of maintaining relations to discourage advantages to a global adversary such as Russia or China. And I am not certain what regional interests/conflicts are sufficient to warrant our alliance with such monsters.

Have patience, grasshopper. Sooner or later they will run out of oil, and then nobody will bother to prop them up any longer.

Using Russia as an example, I believe Navalny is a hero for democracy, but I don’t know if it is particularly wise, as a matter of policy, to sanction Russia over his arrest. This is a situation where, ceteris paribus, we might do better with public diplomacy and private pressure. We should use our laws and our jurisdiction to fight international corruption, and we should lead coalitions to encourage other countries to join us (i.e. Magnitsky Act).

When it’s said that the US has no choice but to stay the course with Saudi Arabia, I have so many questions.

  • The US manages not only to boycott oil from Iran but to pressure other countries to do so too. Justified or not, our policy is to refuse even a drop of their oil as a punitive measure. I know Iran and Saudi Arabia are different cases, but doesn’t that show that the US could theoretically embargo Saudi oil if it had the political will?

  • “Saudi Arabia, the largest OPEC exporter, was the source of 6% of U.S. total petroleum imports and 7% of U.S. crude oil imports.”
    Six to seven percent of the total, and we’re completely helpless to change our relationship with them?

  • Not only that, but it looks like we’re importing far less oil from OPEC than we used to… (a trend that started well before the pandemic)

  • If we imposed severe political sanctions on the Saudis, who’s to say they wouldn’t still be trying to sell us their oil – or that we couldn’t get it anyway via a third country?

It’s not about us buying the oil. It’s about Saudi Arabia assisting the US to force all countries worldwide to use the USD for all oil sales. We need Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves sold in US dollars, not the oil reserves sold to the US.

Long story short(ish):

Wars bankrupt empires and Korea+Vietnam were no exception therefore we printed money but money printing makes currency worthless therefore France called in their gold for USD per Breton Woods but the US had printed too much therefore Nixon ended the gold standard but this caused a massive devaluation of the dollar therefore the US sold its soul to Saudi Arabia to create the petrodollar system requiring all trade of oil to be in dollars. That’s the Petrodollar.

Deep inhale

Now that everyone uses the USD as a legacy of Breton Woods and the petrodollar, all debt is denominated in USD but the only way for foreign powers to get USD out of the fed is to take a loan or sell products to the US therefore countries must acquire US dollars to pay off their debt PLUS interest but there’s never enough dollars in circulation outside the US to do this therefore they must borrow more dollars and increase their eventual need for dollars. This is the Dollar Milkshake Theory.

The Petrodollar is a big part of what ended stagflation in the 70’s and 80’s and formed the basis of the value of the eurodollar (dollars held outside of the US, not to be confused with the Euro) until the DMT took over. Now… it certainly helps keep the value of the USD high - and since the US must always deficit spend new eurodollars into existence, this is good for US interests - but I believe the DMT is now more impactful.

Unfortunately, the decision-makers are very, very old fashioned and gained all their experience in a very different geopolitical and economic world. It’s no surprise that the dogma of the petrodollar being an absolute mandate to preserve US interests runs rampant. For decades, that was absolutely the case so it’s not like they’re just crazy and getting this from nowhere.

Way I see it, the Dollar needs every peg it has left to remain a reserve currency. The DMT might have taken over the petrodollar in influencing the dollar’s relative strength as a currency, but it’s not sufficient for the dollar to stand alone.

And, trust me, you do not want to be in Dollars when it’s no longer the reserve currency. If you’re living in the US, you likely don’t own anything that’s not deriving at least a large portion of it’s value from the global value of the dollar. Aaaand that’s just assets. If the Dollar loses its reserve status, everyone dumps their bonds at firesale prices and/or buys up every possible thing sold for USD - that’s an easy case for unparalleled hyperinflation.

So, much as I am disgusted with… virtually everything I know about the House of Saud and our alliance with them, I do recognize that what comes after a deal with the devil is generally… well, you get the picture.

The United States should invest in and expand development of alternatives to Saudi crude.
The United States should operate as a fair broker in general. Murdering Journalists is not acceptable, and that line needs to be held.
The terrorist legacies of Saudi Arabia have never been fully expunged, with all the funding into Wahhabi fundamentalism, and accountability for such funding must be established and maintained.

Saudi Arabia is a wretched fundamentalist police state with dysfunctional royals, all paid for by biological processes that occurred tens of millions of years before they came to be. This is not a friend or ally, it’s someone that we’ve realpolitked our way into having to get along with, potentially to our own detriment. Once they’ve run out of oil, they’re going to wish they were Uganda.

The United States should not be picking fights around the world, and Saudi Arabia is not unimportant. But the Saudis should not get a free pass for their many misdeeds.

The petrodollar is kind of fictional and has been for like 50 years, it is kind of a fake internet conspiracy theory that oil underwrites the global financial system and the dollar’s status as global reserve currency. Protecting this fictional thing is not our reason for engagement with Saudi Arabia.

The United States is a superpower with global interests. That is a fact, it is likely to remain a fact for hundreds of years, even as other superpowers arise and we shift to more of a multipolar global world. In looking at our relationship with foreign countries we have to consider a range of factors:

  • Regional political concerns

  • Value/ethical concerns

  • Economic concerns

For Saudi Arabia the defining motivation for our relationship with them since at least the late 1980s has been that first bullet point–regional political concerns. The United States has vested interests in the Middle East, not just because it is an important oil producing region (that’s often stated as the only reason we care about the Middle East), but because it’s just a plain important region politically, economically etc–it has been for millennia. There’s a reason so much of the history of the Middle East revolves around trade, particularly between East and West. We also have ideological political affiliation with Israel, and Israel’s position in the Middle East has historically been precarious.

Simply put, if the entire Middle East was our enemy, we would have lots of problems vis-a-vis our larger political goals in the region. So we have to have some level of “positive” relationship with some of these countries. I won’t even delve into the “Great Power” realpolitik aspects of it, but that’s all wrapped up in the broad statement that the Middle East is politically and strategically important to the United States because the Middle East is politically and strategically important. The economic importance of Saudi Arabia’s oil production is but a portion of this. Also keep in mind it’s not the aspect of our relationship with Saudi Arabia which defines why we want to be on good terms with them–for the purposes of trading oil you don’t have to be on particularly good terms. Until very recently the United States still did a lot of oil trading with Venezuela, a country we’ve been on terrible terms with for like 25 years. Aside from our crazy stance on Cuba, the United States actually has a fairly long history of trade with its outright enemies, reserving true blocking of all trade to only a small list of countries we have basically marked out for very specific and vehement enmity (North Korea, Iran, Cuba and a couple others.)

So with it resolved we have vested interests in the region, the question then becomes, “Why Saudi Arabia?” Well, Saudi Arabia is rich, relatively large, and relatively open to aligning with our strategic interests. It’s really a very similar calculation that has us in bed with Egypt to a degree, and formally allied with Turkey. Turkey has been a formal ally for many years, and that was facilitated in part because Turkey had a greater historical respect for human rights, was usually more willing to host major U.S. troop deployments (we have several permanent bases there), Turkey was also a quasi-democracy and etc. Things are going in a different direction with Turkey moving more towards pure autocracy, and shifting strategic interests away from us and toward Russia. That alone probably means our relationship with the other significant Middle Eastern powers–Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are even more important. There’s obvious arguments that Iran is important too, and that’s why we had close relationships with Iran for many years. The reality is the events of the past have happened, and you cannot erase them. The reality from those events is we are on very poor terms with Iran and nothing is going to easily fix that. That’s really the core reason trying to make it an issue of “is Iran more or less evil than Saudi Arabia and which one should we ally with” isn’t realistic. You don’t patch a relationship as terrible as the U.S.-Iranian one over night, and trying to argue about which country is more “evil” by Western standards is like splitting hairs.

I think all of this is to say Saudi Arabia’s relationship with us is such that we need to accept there are some things Saudi Arabia is going to do within and without its borders that we don’t like, and that may be contrary to our interests. But as long as the overall relationship is a net benefit, it is highly questionable to sever it. So if we aren’t going to sever it, we should try to arrange it as much as possible to our benefit. On ethical issues like the Kashoggi killing and Saudi Arabia’s horrific mistreatment of women, religious minorities etc we basically need to use soft power to try to prod KSA in the right direction without doing things that push the relationship to a breaking point. Even friends can brush other friends back for outright violations–for example Germany condemned us pretty vehemently when we got caught spying on them recently, but our strategic relationship with Germany was never at serious risk. Likewise we needed to come down hard on the Kashoggi killing, but with recognition we aren’t severing this relationship. We needed to send a message that “okay you did this, and this makes us very unhappy”, because we want KSA to understand that this relationship goes both ways–we’re going to do some things they don’t like, they’re going to do some things we don’t like, but if they push that too far with too egregiously out of bounds actions the relationship could be imperiled. I think that right now, that’s all that is really needed. Trump made some really bad moves by doing absolutely nothing to keep some of our more “troublesome” partners reigned in, and they responded accordingly.

It’s important to consider that if the Saudi government falls, it’s likely to be replaced by some fundamentalist Islamic regime which would be even more antithetical to US values (& even more so, US interests).

It’s very shortsighted to make decisions in a vacuum, without considering the likely fallout.

This is an excellent point. The reality many chose to ignore is that there is a sort of “political grand bargain” that the House of Saud has made with fundamentalist Wahhabist forces in their country.

The Saudi Royal family are certainly genuine and real Muslims, but they are frankly much more cosmopolitan and open to religious and cultural reforms than is the HUGE population in KSA of extremely conservative Muslims who are taught by very conservative clerics. The settlement is basically that the Royals largely follow the cultural line of the conservative clerics, the Royals largely allow the religious police to enforce morality without too much restriction, on the flipside the monarchy funds these clerics and their mosques, but they choose who gets to be sanctioned. This gives the royals a degree of control over the religious authorities in the country.

In return the monarchy gets the support of the people and a monopoly on legal and military power to run the country. Every indication we have seen is both MBS and his father have long wanted degrees of reform. Some reforms have happened. MBS has not actually been regressive on cultural reforms and in some areas since he assumed power we have seen greater rights and freedoms for women etc.

Juxtapose that however with MBS cracking down more on KSA’s already meager “civil society”, and it begs the question “why is a reformer on issues like women’s rights and the economy regressive on other civil rights?” I suspect it is because MBS knows the long term risk to his regime is akin to what ended the Shah in Iran—religious fundamentalists. So on one hand he is seeking to reduce the power of the fundamentalists by trying to religiously liberalize society, but he knows this will come with opposition. I suspect on some level his more vicious assertion of power over dissent, is to quash the sort of “open dialogues” and open opposition that could VERY easily end up like the Iranian Revolution which may have been started with elements of pro-democracy but quickly became a vehicle for religious extremists to setup a theocracy.

I do not at all excuse the murder of journalists or political repression. But it should be recognized KSA is not a liberal, Western society. Its people are tremendously illiberal, and if given democratic choices might very well follow the well known path for Muslim countries not ready for democracy—outlawing opposition and imposing a formal theocracy.

Good analysis.

I would add this point: it took King Salman about 2 years of very quiet maneuvering, after he took the throne, to ease out enough of the hard-line clerics to get to the point where he could even begin to cautiously start making reforms.

Reforms??? Saudi Arabia is much worse than Russia.

Her Twitter profile showed she had 2,597 followers. Among tweets about Covid burnout and pictures of her young children, Shehab sometimes retweeted tweets by Saudi dissidents living in exile, which called for the release of political prisoners in the kingdom. She seemed to support the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi feminist activist who was previously imprisoned, is alleged to have been tortured for supporting driving rights for women, [and is now living under a travel ban.]

Since this thread was started, the Atlantic ran a fascinating article about MBS.

Letters to the editor showed that everybody filtered the article through their own perspectives on Saudi Arabia, not all that dissimilar to this thread. I thought the article did a good job of saying that the situation was far more complicated than can be expressed in a paragraph, and there’s no way out that wouldn’t make it actually worse.