It's Time to End the U.S.-Saudi Arabia Special Relationship
It is cemented in US policy that the Saudi regime must be protected from all its enemies
Sitting with Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic in 2016, US President Barack Obama offered his frustrations with Saudi Arabia. Here was a theocratic state that repressed all dissent internally and exported a virulent ideology across the world. All this is paid for by petro-dollars.
Obama’s annoyance was highlighted by Saudi Arabia’s reticence to ‘share’ the Middle East with Iran. Both major powers had tentacles in the region. When Iran began to stretch out its arms after the US knocked out its adversaries – Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan – Saudi Arabia became apoplectic. It was furious when Obama pushed a deal on Iran’s nuclear energy program, which – in many ways – is an indication of surrender to Iran. The Western sanctions policy was never really about nuclear weapons, for Iran did not have such an agenda. It was always a political attempt to push Iran back to its borders. Saudi Arabia refused to join in the West’s capitulation to Iranian ambitions.
Goldberg said that Obama was ‘clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally’.
No break in the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States seems possible. Obama’s irritation appears merely temperamental. Under Obama’s watch, the United States has sold Saudi Arabia billions of dollars worth of arms. In 2011 alone, the US sold Saudi Arabia $60 billion of arms. This money, Obama’s administration said then, would create at least fifty thousand jobs in all forty-four states. The economic benefits to the United States of the billions of petrodollars that funnel through the Western banks and into the military-industrial complex narrow the horizon of American liberalism.
Medea Benjamin’s new book – Kingdom of the Unjust – is an activist’s dossier of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and American complicity. She is like an accountant of suffering – lining up columns and columns of information about human rights abuses, denial of basic democratic freedoms and export of nastiness that borders on terrorism. The United States government is aware of everything in Medea Benjamin’s book – for, after all, she makes good use of US reports on these violations of basic questions of human dignity. Obama is also clear about the problems with the Kingdom. But, as he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in January 2015, ‘Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.’ In other words, the United States will do nothing to shake the Saudi regime. It will, for various reasons, uphold what Benjamin calls the Kingdom of the Unjust.
Indeed, it is cemented in US policy that the Saudi regime must be protected from all its enemies. The Carter Doctrine of 1980 promised to use US military force to defend the Persian Gulf states – not only Saudi Arabia, but also the Gulf Arab emirates that line up the eastern coastline of Arabia. These autocracies are to be under the US military umbrella. In October 1981, the Reagan Corollary extended Carter’s promise: now the US would not only defend the Saudi regime from external threats, but from internal ones as well. The United States government, in other words, will not only use its military to shield this autocracy from attack, but it will also safeguard it from internal pressures towards democracy. As Medea Benjamin points out, the US spent close to $8 trillion protecting the Gulf monarchies between 1976 and 2000. Obama’s dithering is the end-point of US liberalism, which coughs out platitudes but extends its arms firmly in friendship to its autocratic allies.
A long-standing labour organizer inside Saudi Arabia told me last year that the question of the collapse of the Saudi regime is not an academic one; signs of its morbidity are clear. The economic crisis engendered by low oil prices and by rotten internal economic planning has put the country into crisis. Attempts by the new leadership to shore up the economy – Saudi Vision 2030 – are almost entirely public relations gambits. The economic crisis has struck not only the Saudi middle class, but also the migrant workers who toil in difficult conditions. Harsh treatment towards these migrants under a semi-slavery labor regime known as the kafala system goes by without much comment. States that send these migrants to work in Saudi Arabia rely on the remittances. They are loath to get involved too deeply in criticism of the Saudi regime. It is this migrant labor system combined with the transfer payments to the middle class and the dangerously violent repression by the Saudi state that prevents the creation of any serious reform movement inside Saudi Arabia. The system is sclerotic.
Medea Benjamin is optimistic about the possibilities of change in the Kingdom. ‘There is reason to hope,’ she writes, ‘that Saudi society can evolve in a more liberal fashion.’ Benjamin points to women entering the workforce and into sections of elected office as well as frustrations among these women against the social suffocations that comes in the way of their lives. She spots the liberal reformers who formed the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (HASEM) in 2009. She sees the on-line activism, which flourishes in its criticism of the regime. There is more too – the workers’ struggles in eastern Saudi Arabia, the Shia and other minority discontent and the general sense amongst liberal and left Saudis of the failure of the Saudi regime to properly manage a transition to even a Constitutional Monarchy such as they have in the United Kingdom. This weariness is key. It is both an indicator that people want more and a sign of futility that change is simply not possible. Benjamin is too much of an optimist to allow the second into her book. She wants the first, and would like CodePink, the group she heads, to provide space for their allies in Saudi Arabia to produce a democratic space (in a recent interview, Benjamin told me that her book ‘is designed to help spark outrage against the cozy but toxic US-Saudi relationship.’).
‘If the regime falls suddenly,’ said the Saudi labor organizer, ‘ there will be chaos. We cannot predict what will happen.’ The pace of change, he said, has to be slow. The space for reform has now narrowed even more with the 2014 Saudi anti-terrorism law. It goes after anyone accused of atheism, anyone who has contacts with anti-Saudi regime groups and anyone who seeks to ‘disrupt national unity.’ The clauses are so vague that everyone is threatened with incarceration. HASEM’s founders are in prison for about fifteen years. Their goals were limited. Even they could not be tolerated.
The crime of ‘disobeying the ruler’ hangs over anyone who wants to imagine a new Saudi Arabia. The liberals – the reformers – and the small left – including the Saudi labor organizer – are not strong enough to sufficiently challenge the regime. ‘Our weakness worries us,’ said the Saudi labor organizer. ‘We hope for change from above, because we are not confident that we can produce change from below.’ So many of his comrades are in exile, he says. They agitate for change and are often frustrated by the pace of movement. But what is the alternative? There is none. They seek to widen the space to imagine an Arabia outside Saudi control. Their small gestures are heroic acts in such an asphyxiated political context.
Medea Benjamin is invested in the future of Saudi Arabia. But she has a different political horizon. She writes with passion about the need for the US left to agitate against the special relationship between Washington and the Saudi regime. If there is a possibility that this relationship could be shaken, then there might be space created within Saudi Arabia to challenge a regime now increasingly isolated. There is a great deal of merit in Benjamin’s assessment, which would bring the US left – for the first time – into direct confrontation with one of the most repellent alliances of the past century.