It’s time to stop holding Saudi Arabia’s hand

The picture of President George W. Bush leading an aged Saudi King Abdullah by the hand through the gardens of his Texas ranch in 2005 has become both iconic and symbolic of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. For over 40 years, the United States has walked hand-in-hand with Saudi Arabia through the thicket of Middle Eastern crises.

On May 14, at Camp David, another bucolic presidential setting, President Barack Obama is convening a special summit with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners to begin a new phase in their relationship. But, for the first time, it appears there will be less hand-holding and more tough talk. The United States will use the summit to hear the GCC’s concerns about Iran, but will likely explain frankly to the Arab monarchies that there will be no new U.S.-GCC defense pact or blanket security assurances from the United States. If the president delivers the right messages to whomever shows up at the summit, the U.S.-GCC relationship has the potential to become more productive than ever before.

The Saudis are clearly angry about this approach. On Sunday, they announced that King Salman, the new Saudi king who took power in January, will remain in Riyadh, sending the crown prince to Camp David in his stead. (In the end, only two GCC heads of state — from Kuwait and Qatar — will attend.) Such petulance is a common negotiating tactic in these circumstances. It often produces the desired ripples in the American media to the effect that U.S. influence in the region is waning and the Saudi-American relationship is in trouble.

In part, the media’s focus is warranted. President Obama has implied that the purpose of this summit is to assuage the concerns of those countries most worried about the Iranian nuclear deal. Reassuring partners under such circumstances is a natural and normal reaction. It is certainly the traditional U.S. response to placating irritated and frightened allies. There is pressure within the government to cook up “deliverables” for the summit that might make the Saudis and their GCC partners feel loved by the United States.

But as the decision of most GCC leaders not to attend indicates, there is not much on the table that will reassure them. And that’s fine. It would be wrong to make reassurance the centerpiece of this summit — for three fundamental reasons.

First, Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners are not formal treaty allies of the United States and, moreover, they often do not act as friends. The United States is a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democracy committed to universal human rights. Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian monarchy committed to maintaining a society based on harsh political repression, religious intolerance, and a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam at odds with universally recognized human rights. Some GCC countries are in fact often the source of both the ideology and the money that supports Islamist terrorism around the world. And GCC interests and U.S. interests increasingly diverge over issues such as Iran, Syria, the need for internal reforms in the Gulf states, and how to deal with the regional threat of political Islam. The United States, Saudi Arabia, and its GCC partners can and do cooperate on a selective basis, but their relationship with the United States will necessarily remain transactional — more a long series of one-night stands than a committed relationship.

Second, America’s commitment to Saudi and GCC security is not and should not be absolute. Since the mid-1970s, the United States and the Gulf Arab countries have been allies on a variety of security issues. But this has been based on a hard-nosed bargain: “The United States will protect you against external threats to your security and you will support America’s goals and interests in the region and help stabilize global energy markets.” Over time, this bargain has allowed the Arab states to foist their regional security responsibilities onto the United States — and then blame America when things go wrong. Regardless of the rhetoric from both sides, the Arab states get the better end of the bargain. And they need it more than the United States does. This is particularly true now that the global energy market has diversified and is less subject to volatile price spikes. Yet paradoxically, even though Gulf states’ dependence on the U.S. security guarantee and changes in energy markets should increase Washington’s leverage, American officials often convince themselves that they need to change U.S. policy more than Persian Gulf partners need to change theirs. To paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, every now and then we have to remind ourselves who the superpower is in the relationship.

Third, Washington’s never-ending reassurances over the years have created an unhealthy dependence on the United States, instead of encouraging the Gulf countries to become more independent, capable, and to stand up on their own feet when it comes to providing for their own security from external aggression. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the United States government. The collective weakness of the GCC states has created a security deficit in the region. It is long past time for the GCC states to produce more security than they consume. As Obama has noted, “the biggest threats that [Sunni Arab States] face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.” U.S. reassurances to protect these countries against external attack distract from their problems at home that include a growing population of disaffected youth, chronically high levels of unemployment, and poor human rights records. Instead, the United States should be leaning on them more heavily to enact domestic reforms.

As the GCC states become more independent, the United States will not always like the solutions they come up with to deal with regional security issues, such as the ongoing civil war in Yemen or whatever crisis might arise next. At times, U.S. officials will need to seek difficult compromises. But in most circumstances Gulf state ownership of their problems — and the solutions — will lead to better outcomes than American-led efforts, particularly military intervention.

Iran will continue to harbor ambitions for regional domination and pursue policies that pose a serious threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East. The Iran nuclear deal, if successful, will nonetheless allow the United States to begin to recast its bargain with the GCC countries, because it will remove the principal direct threat to U.S. interests from Iran. The United States will be able to insist that the GCC states assume greater responsibility for their own security — and that means the United States will be able to avoid direct military interventions in messy Middle Eastern civil wars. The willingness of Saudi Arabia to seek its own solution to instability in Yemen and the Arab League’s decision to form a joint Arab military force are positive signs of increased burden-sharing from the Gulf.

The long-term goal is not to get into bed with Iran. Rather, it is to use the relationship with Iran to get out of bed with Saudi Arabia. The United States will increase its diplomatic leverage with the GCC states if they know that Washington is playing the field. The GCC needs to understand that the U.S. goal in the Persian Gulf is to maintain a regional balance, not to allow them to emerge victorious in their struggle with Iran.

This week’s GCC summit is the perfect venue to deliver these messages. It is an opportunity for the president to demand more responsible behavior and greater cooperation from Gulf leaders instead of again reassuring them of an undying American commitment to their security. In the end, this will make for a scratchier summit, but a much more realistic, and therefore more productive, relationship between the United States and the GCC states. Hand-holding is nice, but in international relations at least, promiscuity also has its advantages.

This piece was originally published by
Foreign Policy