No better alternative: The U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism relationship

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has come under hard times this year: from the public debate over the Joint 9/11 Congressional Inquiry’s 28 classified pages to President Obama’s famously reported irritation with the longstanding strategic partner. There have been serious discussions in the public square and even the halls of Congress about the utility of the relationship and the sincerity of Saudi interests.

In recent testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, Dan Byman—a senior fellow and director of research in the Center for Middle East Policy—reviewed U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism cooperation, examined several of the persistent challenges, and offered some commentary on the relationship going forward.

A checkered past

Byman reviewed the gradual evolution of the Kingdom’s role in the Islamic world. Although the House of Saud forged the country in an alliance with conservative religious leaders, Byman points to the rise of pan-Arabism and communism in the 1960s to explain the increasingly prominent role of Islam in the Kingdom’s foreign policy. The windfall of oil revenue after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war provided Saudi Arabia unprecedented resources to devote to Islamic causes, which began spreading conservative Saudi beliefs throughout the world. Most of these efforts provided much-needed aid, education, healthcare, and other services to impoverished Muslim communities, but with the schools, clinics, and mosques also came the fundamentalist Salafi teachings that have helped fuel the rise of violent extremist groups.

The Kingdom exacerbated the rise and spread of the global jihadist movement, and its associated threat of terrorism, because jihad abroad, from Afghanistan to Kashmir to Chechnya, “enjoyed wide legitimacy within the Kingdom, and citizen support for these conflicts seemed to pose no direct threat to Saudi security.” Through the extensive global network of Islamic charities, money and volunteers flowed to terrorist organizations like al-Qaida, funding training camps and religious schools justifying violent jihad. However, Byman does still note that the majority of the estimated billions of dollars spent by the Saudis over the last half-century funded proselytizing and humanitarian work, not military training or terrorist acts.

Terrorism in Saudi Arabia

The most significant turning point in the U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism relationship, according to Byman, occurred in early 2003, when al-Qaida began directly attacking Saudi Arabia. In the decade-plus since, the Saudis have waged a costly campaign that has essentially eradicated al-Qaida from the Kingdom. American assistance was critical to this successful Saudi counterterrorism effort, but Byman also highlights the reciprocal Saudi assistance to the United States. From providing decisive eleventh hour intelligence to foil a terrorist attack to basing American drones, Byman stresses that Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable partner in combatting al-Qaida and now the Islamic State. 

The Saudis have also made tremendous progress, in his view, in stopping terrorist financing, especially since accepting American technical expertise post-2003. Yet the Saudis still have more work to do. Byman highlighted the political difficulty, beyond the mere technical challenges, faced by the Saudi authorities attempting to halt financing, because they could suffer potentially serious domestic backlash for interfering with support for popular extremist groups in Pakistan and Kashmir. Thus, the royal family continues to tolerate some extremist rhetoric from within the clerical establishment to maintain legitimacy despite simultaneously cooperating with the United States.

Brave new Kingdom?

In Byman’s view, the past 13 years have demonstrated Saudi Arabia to be an integral partner to the American campaign against the global jihadist movement, and the Kingdom has certainly suffered extensively for it. Yet Saudi Arabia continues to be a significant source of extremist ideology, foreign fighters, and material aid, albeit not necessarily government-sponsored in many cases. This creates fertile soil for al-Qaida in the past and the Islamic State today in many countries. Nonetheless, Byman argued, the royal family still values the relationship with the United States as vital to the regime’s survival, and thus it is even willing to occasionally risk popular outrage to maintain American support.

One of the greatest challenges facing the U.S.-Saudi relationship, he said, is the unprecedented uncertainty surrounding the Kingdom’s political and economic future. King Salman will be the last of his generation, the sons of the first king, Ibn Saud. The Saudis under King Salman have already dramatically changed their historical role in the region, Byman noted, such as by leading a war in Yemen. Salman’s young son, the Deputy Crown Prince, has also “proposed an ambitious set of reforms to wean the Kingdom off its dependence on oil.” However, for the United States, Byman cautioned that the prospects of the proposed reforms dramatically changing the Kingdom’s radicalization problems remain unlikely in the short term.

No illusions

The United States must avoid any illusions regarding the nature of the counterterrorism relationship and remain realistic in its expectations of influencing Saudi policy, Byman stressed. He again acknowledged the vital importance of Saudi Arabia to the United States in the fight against the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and other jihadist groups. American officials should also continue to diplomatically encourage the Kingdom to suppress extremist financing and support, including the rhetorical support from some in the religious establishment, but Byman conceded that “change in these areas will at best be slow, and the United States should expect progress to end or even reverse should the regime’s domestic situation face challenges.” Ultimately, as Byman concluded, U.S. interests are best advanced through pragmatic cooperation with Saudi Arabia despite the “profound differences in values.”