Getting real with Riyadh

DATE IMPORTED:March 14, 2017U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman meet at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Editor's note:

Relations with Saudi Arabia deteriorated during the Obama administration, writes Daniel Byman, and require a lot of work to repair. But the first question that the new administration will have to address is the extent to which it even wants to. Saudi Arabia is an integral counterterrorism partner, he argues, playing a major role in combating terrorism funding and the day-to-day disruption of al-Qaida, the Islamic State, and like-minded jihadis. This piece originally appeared in The National Interest.

How will Donald Trump deal with Saudi Arabia? Relations with Saudi Arabia deteriorated during the Obama administration, and require a lot of work to repair. But the first question that the new administration will have to address is the extent to which it even wants to. On one hand, the U.S.-Saudi connection is vital to preserving a low, or at least stable, price of oil, traditionally seen as Washington’s most important interest in the region. Riyadh is also the leader of a “moderate” or at least relatively pro-Western camp of Arab states, opposing rogue regimes, like Iran, that sponsor terrorism. In particular, Saudi Arabia is an integral counterterrorism partner, playing a major role in combating terrorism funding and the day-to-day disruption of al-Qaida, the Islamic State and like-minded jihadists.

It is commonplace to say that the two countries need each other and that necessity will keep them close, but shared interests, while still real, have diminished. Although President Obama sold the kingdom over $100 billion in arms, the Saudi media frequently portrayed his administration as unreliable and hostile. Oil prices are half of what they were in 2014. The shale and fracking revolution has transformed the United States into a major oil exporter—and thus a competitor of the kingdom. Saudi leaders were outraged that the United States abandoned Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and they subsequently backed the coup in Egypt, in opposition to U.S. policy. Although painstaking diplomacy may have removed the specter of a nuclear Iran for the time being, the Saudis opposed the deal, fearing a closer relationship between Washington and Tehran. Libya and Syria, once sources of external aggression, are now mired in strife. It is their weakness, not strength, that poses a threat to the region. Most Saudis do not share U.S. values regarding women’s and LGBTQ rights, religious liberty and other basic freedoms that are fundamental to American society, yet the Obama administration largely abandoned criticizing the Saudi regime on human-rights grounds.

Today, what keeps the relationship together is counterterrorism, where Saudi Arabia plays a major role sharing intelligence, countering terrorist financing and assisting U.S. military operations. A number of prominent counterterrorism and national-security officials penned an open letter in the fall, declaring, “Over time, the Kingdom has evolved into one of Washington’s most important and reliable partners in counterterrorism, both globally and within the region.”

Yet even the counterterrorism relationship is troubled. In 2016, Congress overrode President Obama’s veto and passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which narrows the scope of sovereign immunity with regard to counterterrorism, enabling 9/11 victims and others to sue Saudi Arabia for any support it gave to terrorists. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a supporter of JASTA, contended that the Saudis “provided financial support to terror-linked operations.” Sen. Chris Murphy, another northeastern Democrat, offered a broader criticism, noting,

“We have largely turned the other way and allowed for the Saudis to create a version of Islam which has become the building blocks for the very groups that we are fighting today. And we have plead with them, we have asked them to stop, and the evidence suggests they have not.”

In a leaked 2013 closed-door speech, Hillary Clinton declared, “The Saudis have exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last thirty years.”

The truth is that counterterrorism is complex and defies simplistic labels. Saudi Arabia has made considerable progress in the last fifteen years. But it still has a long way to go. Before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks—and really, until al-Qaida began to attack the kingdom directly in May 2003—Saudi Arabia was largely uncooperative, more often part of the problem than the solution. Since 2003, the Saudi regime has emerged as a crucial counterterrorism partner, and contributed to several important successes against al-Qaida. Complicating this picture, however, is an array of preachers and nongovernmental organizations, some of which contribute to regime legitimacy. Depending on the occasion, Riyadh will support, ignore or crack down on these actors. Government support for them contributes to an overall climate of radicalization, making it far more difficult to stem violent extremism. As a result, the kingdom still spews out anti-Semitic and sectarian rhetoric, often glorifying conflicts in which jihadists play an active role.

Donald Trump must recognize that Washington’s ability to influence the kingdom is limited, given domestic sensitivities. In the end, policymakers would do well to remember that Saudi Arabia is a key partner, but not a friend: Washington and Riyadh share many common interests, but they do not share common values or a common worldview.


Saudi Arabia has always been a conservative Muslim country, but when the kingdom assumed its modern form in 1932 its religious energy was initially focused inward. In the 1960s, however, King Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz sought to form alliances based on a shared Muslim identity. Religion was meant to thwart the radical pan-Arabism of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser that was then threatening the legitimacy of monarchies throughout the region. Such an identity was meant to unite states against international Communism, which Faisal and the Saudi leadership vehemently opposed, and support Palestinian independence. Domestic politics also played a role: Faisal had essentially usurped the throne from his inept brother Saud, and support from the religious establishment was central to ensuring his legitimacy. To this end, Faisal created the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Muslim World League, and embraced an array of religious causes abroad.

The oil price surge, due to the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the resulting oil embargo and production cutback, enabled Saudi Arabia to contribute massive amounts to Islamic causes around the world. In the decades that followed, Faisal’s successors supported the building of mosques, Islamic centers and schools “by the thousands around the world.” Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz formally took power in 1982. His website claims that Saudi scholars helped create and administer two hundred Islamic colleges, 210 Islamic centers, 1,500 mosques and two thousand schools for Muslim children in non-Muslim countries. Former Treasury Department official David Aufhauser put the total figure for spending on these causes “north of $75 billion.”

Much of this religious teaching and proselytizing was done outside the Saudi state by various charities that educated, provided health care and otherwise offered services as part of their mission. A European Parliament report claimed the Saudis spent $10 billion to promote Salafism, the austere and puritanical version of Islam often referred to as Wahhabism, through charities like the Muslim World League, Islamic International Relief Organization, the Al Haramain Foundation, the Medical Emergency Relief Charity and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. Some of these charities were linked to terrorist groups like al-Qaida and became an important part of the organization, particularly before 9/11. The Muslim World League reportedly funded training camps and religious schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, exposing Afghans, Pakistanis and foreigners to extremist ideologies. Al Haramain had a presence in roughly fifty countries and spent tens of millions of dollars. Most went to proselytizing and humanitarian work, but some went to jihadist networks.

The kingdom was sluggish to recognize the threat of terrorism and reluctant to cooperate with the United States. After the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, which killed nineteen American servicemen stationed on Saudi soil, Riyadh did not share vital information with U.S. intelligence. Many of the causes linked to the global jihadist movement, like the fighting in Kashmir and Chechnya, enjoyed wide legitimacy within the kingdom. Citizen support for these conflicts seemed to pose no direct threat to Saudi security. The Interior Minister in the 1990s, Nayef bin Abdel Aziz (the father of the current crown prince), held that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist reputation was a product of U.S. propaganda, and after 9/11 initially blamed the attacks on a “Zionist plot.”

The situation changed not long after. On February 14, 2003, bin Laden issued a message essentially declaring war against the House of Saud. al-Qaida began to attack the kingdom directly, targeting expatriates and security forces alike. Between 2003 and 2006, casualties reached into the hundreds. The current crown prince and longtime counterterrorism czar, Mohammed bin Nayef, led the campaign against al-Qaida, ultimately devastating its organization in the kingdom. As a result of these attacks, Saudi Arabia embraced intelligence cooperation with the United States and began to see al-Qaida as a deadly threat. Writing in 2004, the 9/11 Commission declared, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is now locked in mortal combat with al-Qaida.”

In 2008 the United States and Saudi Arabia signed a bilateral agreement on technical counterterrorism cooperation. Under the agreement, Washington provides advisers, funded by Riyadh, to assist on security measures. The U.S. military also trains Saudi forces.

The shift in the Saudi approach and the importance of Saudi Arabia’s role in counterterrorism can be seen in several successes against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). One of the more notable examples of Saudi Arabia’s increasingly important role in combatting terrorism was the foiled 2010 AQAP cargo-plane bomb plot. According to the New York Times, Saudi intelligence officials provided the critical tipoff to their American and European counterparts, which allowed British and Emirati security personnel to intercept the expertly concealed bombs that were already en route to the United States. The last-minute intelligence was the product of long-running Saudi intelligence operations to infiltrate AQAP. The Saudi connection was probably decisive, as the concealed explosives had already cleared multiple security screenings before the timely warning initiated the successful multilateral worldwide search. In addition to these human-intelligence capabilities within jihadist circles (not easily matched by Western intelligence), Saudi Arabia also plays a central role in the U.S. campaign against AQAP, according to the BBC.

The Islamic State, like al-Qaida, is considered a top security threat by the Saudi regime. The Islamic State has declared Saudi Arabia its enemy; its propaganda superimposes its black flag over images of Mecca. Islamic State terrorists have attacked Shia mosques and security officials in the kingdom, and have implored citizens to assassinate senior Saudi leaders. More broadly, the Islamic State threatens the regime’s legitimacy, claiming that it alone embodies statehood under God’s law. It has called the royal family “slaves of the Crusaders and allies of the Jews” and derided them for abandoning Muslims around the world.

Riyadh has taken steps to stifle the flow of Islamic State–bound Saudis. It has arrested more than 1,600 suspected Islamic State supporters and reportedly foiled several attacks. U.S. Treasury officials have declared the Saudis see “eye to eye” with the United States in stopping Islamic State fundraising, and the kingdom has stepped up its monitoring of social media. Senior religious officials with close ties to the royal family have also denounced the Islamic State (and al-Qaida). The kingdom announced it was forming an “Islamic” military alliance, headquartered in Saudi Arabia, to fight terrorism.

The kingdom has grown far more effective in stopping terrorist financing. Al-Qaida long drew on Saudi financiers, and Riyadh’s initial response was lackluster. Part of the problem was that Saudi Arabia does not have an elaborate taxation system, so the government often lacks knowledge of how much money its citizens have or how they spend it. The kingdom invested heavily in fighting terrorist financing, with considerable U.S. help. As a result, it is far more difficult to send money to terrorist groups from Saudi Arabia. In 2014, money going to fighters in Syria was often channeled via Kuwait to avoid Saudi countermeasures. Despite these aggressive measures, financial support for Sunni extremist groups from Saudis remains a significant problem. As former senior CIA official Bruce Riedel contends, “Saudi sources remain major funders of groups like the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan. Some accounts suggest significant Saudi money has gone to al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front.” Clearly, there is room for improvement.

Saudi Arabia has also initiated a well-funded terrorist rehabilitation program, which gives former radicals a chance to reintegrate into society. Religious leaders are involved to dissuade participants from extremist views. Participants receive a job and family support. Some of those who have gone through the program, however, have relapsed, including several important members of AQAP. But it’s a step in the right direction.

Graduating soldiers from the Saudi special forces' anti-terror unit demonstrate their skills in protecting VIPs under attack in Riyadh May 17, 2009. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed (SAUDI ARABIA POLITICS) - RTXI8T2
Graduating soldiers from the Saudi special forces' anti-terror unit demonstrate their skills in protecting VIPs under attack in Riyadh May 17, 2009. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed (SAUDI ARABIA POLITICS) - RTXI8T2


Avenues for progress have more to do with broader issues of Saudi politics than with day-to-day operations. Although Riyadh opposes the Islamic State, it finds the Syrian regime, with its close ties to Iran, far more menacing. Despite the kingdom’s efforts to reduce the flow of fighters abroad, Saudis find it too easy to join the ranks of the Islamic State—they comprise an unsettling proportion of foreign fighters.

More importantly, Saudi Arabia is home to numerous preachers and religious organizations that embrace sectarianism and oppose a U.S. role in the Middle East. Certain prominent Saudi preachers regularly condemn Shia Muslims, thus validating the Islamic State’s sectarian campaign. The situation is not all bleak. Many senior religious leaders do urge Saudis to refrain from enlisting in conflicts abroad, arguing instead that local Muslims or state authorities should be the ones to respond.

The Saudi rivalry with Iran further polarizes the region. By portraying Iran as the source of all the region’s problems, the kingdom’s preachers legitimate those who fight it, including the jihadists whose strident anti-Shia words and deeds are leading to the deaths of thousands. To shore up its position, Iran has reached out to Shia militias in Afghanistan and Iraq and Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran and Saudi Arabia appear trapped, with each employing local proxies to undermine the other, escalating mutual suspicious and paranoia along the way.

Saudi Arabia considers al-Qaida to be a mortal enemy, yet its military campaign in Yemen, conducted with significant support from the UAE, has indirectly empowered the group. By targeting the Houthis, which Riyadh considers to be a pawn of Tehran, Saudi Arabia has given breathing space to AQAP. Recently, however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have reprioritized AQAP, forcing the al-Qaida affiliate into retreat.

When Saudi Arabia launched its war in Yemen, it did so without coordinating security services or otherwise bringing the full power of the kingdom to bear. Despite repelling the Houthis, Riyadh has not ended their dominance, killing thousands of civilians and expending billions of dollars in the process. The kingdom pursued the war despite Obama administration criticism over civilian deaths, but its forces remain dependent on Washington for intelligence and logistics.


Saudi Arabia’s relationship with terrorists is far more opaque than Iran’s. While Tehran’s support for terrorism is open, extensive and state-sponsored, nonstate actors play the dominant role in Saudi Arabia. Yet being “nonstate” does not absolve the Saudi government of responsibility. These actors enjoy a range of connections to the Saudi regime. Some receive official patronage. Others, particularly those tied to leading clerics in the kingdom, are embraced indirectly by the regime’s self-proclaimed role as “defender of the faithful.” And still others are truly private, acting independently of the government and, at times, in opposition to it.
Many of these voices are responsible for indoctrination rather than direct violence—propagating views on the Satanic nature of Jews, the apostasy of Shia, the heretical nature of the Ahmadiyyas and the legitimacy of using violence to repel foreign occupiers from Muslim lands, be they Indian forces in Kashmir, U.S. forces in Iraq or Israeli forces in historic Palestine. Such support, in the United States, would often be considered distasteful, but part of protected free speech. For terrorists, however, it can prove invaluable as it provides theological legitimacy for their actions, enabling them to attract recruits and funds. Although the kingdom suppresses free speech related to calls for political reform or better relations between Shia and Sunnis on a regular basis, hateful and dangerous teachings are allowed to flourish.In addition, the Saudi royal family itself occupies an unusual role. In one sense, the royal family, with its tens of thousands of princes, is not the government. However, the family’s and the government’s finances are interwoven, and if a prince supports a group it has an unofficial imprimatur of approval. King Salman himself, for example, helped raise money for the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Balkans.

Saudi counterterrorism policy represents a mix of ideology, domestic politics and cold pragmatism.

Saudi counterterrorism policy represents a mix of ideology, domestic politics and cold pragmatism. Most Saudis, including many in the government, are strong supporters of an austere version of Salafism, regard non-Muslims (and most non-Salafis) as hostile, and consider fighting Israel, India and, at times, even the United States as fair game. Spreading “true” Islam with missionary zeal is particularly popular.

For the royal family, this general domestic support is mixed with a need for legitimacy. The royal family is not elected, and its social-services and economic-growth records are mixed. The collapse of the price of oil has exposed alarming vulnerabilities: the kingdom’s budget deficit today is the largest in its history. As such, the royal family relies heavily on its pact with the clerical establishment to implement Islamic law and to defend the faith in general. Rejecting missionary work and religious education is, therefore, untenable; even rejecting violence in the name of the faith is challenging if the cause is popular, as is the anti-Assad struggle in Syria today. King Salman, if anything, has moved closer to the clerical establishment since he took power in 2015. He fired the only female cabinet minister and is in regular contact with leading conservative clerics.

But the Saudi royal family is also pragmatic. It values its relationship with the United States, and the 2003 attacks taught it that faraway problems can find their way home quickly and unexpectedly. So the time-honored practice of diversion—convincing radicals to go after other targets—is risky. The regime is particularly sensitive to anything that might call into question its legitimacy, and has not hesitated to silence or imprison popular clerics when necessary.

Complicating these generalizations, the kingdom is now in the midst of a profound change. King Salman is the last of his generation: all future Saudi leaders (and the vast majority of Saudis) will have grown up in a country that has known considerable wealth. In the past two years the kingdom, which historically preferred to act behind the scenes, has already charted an increasingly independent and assertive path. Salman has shaken up succession, gone to war in Yemen against initial U.S. opposition, openly criticized the Obama administration on the Iran deal, stepped up action in Syria and is playing a far more active role in the region than is typical. On counterterrorism, the appointment of Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince is at least promising, as he is pro-American and an aggressive and effective foe of al-Qaida and other groups. Yet it is Mohammed bin Salman—technically the deputy crown prince, but the son of the king and his preferred heir apparent—who is clearly calling many of the shots. They appear to be trying to sideline Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

The kingdom is also beginning—in rhetoric at least—a massive economic restructuring. Its economy remains dependent on oil, its public sector is bloated, its education system needs to teach more practical knowledge, and Saudis have grown used to massive government subsidies: all daunting challenges. The new king and his son have proposed an ambitious set of reforms to wean the kingdom off oil. Potential changes include a decrease in subsidies, the sale of public lands and a value-added tax. The pace of Saudi reforms, however, is often glacial. To the extent that the kingdom’s own radicalization problems are driven by economic and social ills, little progress is likely in the near term, and things may get much worse.


American pressure under the Bush and Obama administrations led the Saudi regime to decrease its backing of extremism at times and has helped transform its capacity to fight terrorism. Even if the key motivation was the change in the perceived threat to the kingdom itself, rather than U.S. influence, these are genuine successes that deserve recognition.

Further altering Saudi policy is a daunting goal. Riyadh must go beyond a narrow definition of counterterrorism and examine its own role in fostering a climate of extremism. Many counterterrorism issues—particularly the promotion of extremism abroad via sectarianism and criticism of non-Muslims—touch on core domestic political issues conducive to the regime’s legitimacy and very survival. Reforms in these areas will come slowly, at best, and the United States should expect regression should the regime face a serious challenge to its reign.

Quiet pressure is almost always most prudent. The small circle of decisionmakers in Saudi Arabia does not take well to public embarrassment, and they believe strongly in the value of close personal relationships. To be effective, U.S. pressure must involve top officials, including the president. Otherwise, it will simply be ignored or may even prove counterproductive.

The Trump administration should recognize that Saudi Arabia is vital to the struggle to defeat the Islamic State, al-Qaida and other jihadist groups. But it is not a friend. Demonizing Saudi Arabia does not help advance U.S. interests, and the ties that bind should not be dismissed. But neither should the new administration see Washington and Riyadh as fully aligned, given the profound difference in values.