America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia began with F.D.R. in 1945, and for almost 70 years the kingdom has been our most reliable ally in the Muslim world. It has fought the Soviets, Saddam, Khomeini and Bin Laden with us while providing critical backing to the Arab-Israeli peace process.
With its vast oil resources and command of Mecca, the House of Saud is a formidable ally. But the alliance has always been based on shared threat assessments, not shared values. The King is the world’s last absolute monarchy. There is no pretense of democracy or pluralism in the Kingdom.
The Saudis have led the counter revolution to the Arab Awakening, occupying Bahrain, controlling change in Yemen and backing the army coup d’etat in Egypt with money and royal approval. The king personally has embraced General Sisi and the crackdown on the Brotherhood. Even in Syria, where Riyadh backs the rebels, they want a Sunni strong man to replace Assad not a democracy.
Washington and Riyadh still need each other. Many of our interests still over lap. Saudi assistance helps our allies like Jordan and Morocco.Saudi intelligence was key to foiling the last two al Qaeda plots to attack the American homeland and is critical to the battle in Yemen against the terrorists. Saudi Arabia is also central to keeping pressure on Iran through sanctions by replacing Iranian oil on the market.
America has much to lose and little to gain if the Arab revolutions spread to the kingdom itself. So we face the challenge of being the Saudis’ ally while we disagree on core values.
In his public remarks on the Arab world since early 2011 President Obama has never once mentioned the kingdom. He understands the paradox that lies at the heart of our key partnership in the Islamic world.
Behind the scenes the alliance has become much more challenging to manage, requiring frank talk and constant high level management.
Obama needs to preserve the alliance F.D.R. began while not forsaking our long term interest in helping nudge the Arab world to a sustainable pluralistic political order based on democratic change. We need to work together where we can and agree to disagree where we can not.