The amazing Saudis
How is it possible that after the end of American dependence on foreign oil and the rise of Donald "America First" Trump, Saudi Arabia is getting more American support than ever?
How do the Saudis do it?
The "it" is managing to get successive American administrations to offer ever-greater support even as the political context that once justified that support changes beyond recognition.
The Saudi-American relationship began in the 1930s over oil (and competition with the British, who had first recognized the Saudi monarchy), and strengthened in the latter half of the Cold War as part of the American effort to contain Soviet influence. But between 1989 and 1991, the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Yet the ties between America and Saudi Arabia only grew deeper and more complicated in the decades since.
The first major American war of the post-Cold War period was to defend Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein's Iraq and to liberate Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion. The aftermath of that war left American troops on Saudi soil, which was a major spur to the rise of al Qaeda during the 1990s. Meanwhile the post-Soviet period in Afghanistan, where Saudis and Americans cooperated to arm the anti-Soviet mujahideen, left the country in the hands of the Taliban, a Sunni extremist group who welcomed al Qaeda as guests.
On September 11, 2001, America experienced blowback in the most horrific manner imaginable. The overwhelming majority of the hijackers were Saudi nationals and, prior to the attacks, anti-American sentiment in the kingdom had reached such extraordinary levels that the Saudis themselves articulated the case for distance from America. But far from breaking with the kingdom, America embraced Saudi Arabia even more closely after the attacks, investing heavily in its domestic counter-terrorism capabilities. Al Qaeda's primary goal, after all, had been to drive a wedge between America and Saudi Arabia and destabilize the monarchy. Our priority, therefore, had to be to prevent that from happening.
Next came President Obama, who lacked President Bush's personal and business ties to the kingdom and who came into office with ambitious plans to reduce reliance on fossil fuels — by the end of Obama's second term, American dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf had essentially ended — and to improve relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia's chief regional rival. Obama and his foreign policy team expressed repeated frustration with Saudi support for terrorism, including ISIS, while the Saudis were angered by the Obama administration's support for the "Arab Spring" in Egypt and Tunisia. But, bizarrely, these conflicts only led to greater American solicitude for the kingdom in other areas. The Obama administration sold Saudi Arabia over $100 billion worth of military hardware, and America backed to the hilt Saudi Arabia's brutal war in Yemen, aimed at restoring a Saudi-friendly strongman to power.
And now comes the Trump administration. Donald Trump campaigned on restricting Muslim travel to America (at the time of the election, over 60,000 Saudi nationals were studying in the United States) and a tougher war on terrorism that specifically focused on fighting "radical Islam." At the same time, he expressed unconcern at the prospect of an Assad victory in the Syrian civil war, which would be a massive blow to the Saudis, who have been among the rebels' staunchest supporters. And with Trump's overall foreign policy orientation boiling down to "what have you done for me lately?" — not to mention the well-documented connections between his campaign opponent and the Gulf monarchies — one might have expected the Saudis to be high on the list of regimes getting sidelined.
So which country did President Trump visit first on his maiden voyage abroad? Which country did he praise so fulsomely that they took his unqualified support as a green light to blockade another Gulf monarchy that the Saudis deemed insufficiently anti-Iranian? And which country has he continued to back even as that support risks a breach with that aforementioned blockaded country, which just happens to be the home to the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command?
It's almost like they have a magic orb.
But no recourse to occult influences is necessary. The robust endurance of the Saudi-American relationship is the perfect case for illustrating the perversities of geopolitics, but it is far from the only case. Why does the United States continue to maintain close ties with Pakistan, which has been more overtly hostile to American interests than Saudi Arabia has, and who has a regional rival in India of far more potential value to America than Saudi Arabia's rival, Iran, could ever plausibly be? In part, because imposing sanctions on Pakistan failed to prevent it from going nuclear, but damaged America's influence within the country, while we were willing to pay for even fitful cooperation against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
So, too, with Saudi Arabia. We no longer need their oil; we are no longer trying to keep their oil out of Soviet hands; our cultures and values have almost nothing in common. But inasmuch as we have interests in their region — and we do — we have a profound interest in them being less-hostile, less-threatening, than we imagine they might be if given their full druthers.
True, distant neutrality is a very difficult posture for a hegemonic power to achieve and maintain. If we forgo influence, it's hard to see how that helps us. But the only way to maintain influence is to allow ourselves to be influenced in turn. And the next thing you know, you're in the country that is arguably the leading source of funding for Sunni extremism, praising them for fighting the very forces they fuel, dancing amid the flashing swords.