Whatever happened to America’s desert kingdom? In the four months since Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud became king of Saudi Arabia, everything we thought we knew about this supposedly risk-averse US ally has been turned on its head.
In a ruling house long known for geriatric leadership, the new king has pushed aside elder statesmen and seasoned technocrats alike in favour of an impetuous and uncredentialled son, Mohammed bin Salman, who may be in his late twenties. Now the world’s youngest defence minister, the princeling is already second in line for the throne, prompting grumbles from Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, about ‘inexperienced youngsters’. As if to make the ayatollah’s point, Salman père et fils have — without bothering to check with the White House — plunged into a disastrous and unwinnable war against Houthi rebels who were until recently the only successful counterweight to al-Qaeda in Yemen.
After years of shunning the rabble-rousing Muslim Brotherhood in favour of Mubarak-style dictators, the Saudi regime is cosying up to Islamists. Though it is officially part of the coalition against Isis, it has made little secret of its support for the Syrian jihad. And it has developed a sudden predilection for sectarian conflict, even as Isis’s new Saudi branch has started a terrifying campaign to annihilate the country’s own Shia minority.
Add to this the colossal tantrum the Saudis are throwing about the US negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme. Riyadh has let it be known that it might acquire nukes from Pakistan. Meanwhile, King Salman has thumbed his nose at a Camp David summit intended to showcase US-Arabian military ties — this from the leader of a country that has spent more than $46 billion on US weapons since Barack Obama came to office.
Many in Washington are rubbing their eyes in disbelief. One analyst recently suggested that the kingdom’s antics were ‘bordering on drunk driving’ — a pointed metaphor to use about a place where half the population is banned from driving and alcohol is forbidden.
And yet King Salman’s behaviour may be less irrational than it looks. Though it has endured for decades, the US-Saudi alliance has become hopelessly out of date: it’s no secret that the alliance has become strained in recent years. On one side there’s a dominant western power at war with jihadists everywhere from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Pakistan; on the other, an absolute monarchy that practises beheading, treats women as property and has done more than any other country to promote the intolerant form of Islam that inspires those extremists. Meanwhile, as North Dakota turns America into an oil power, Saudi crude has lost its overwhelming importance in the West Wing. And with the Obama administration widely seen to be in retreat in the Middle East, depending on Washington has long since become a liability.
Indeed, the interesting question about the Riyadh Rupture is why it didn’t happen sooner. Almost since Standard Oil set foot in the desert in 1933, the America-Arabia partnership has been predicated on a simple reality: the kingdom had as much as a quarter of the world’s oil, and who better than the US to exploit it? The secret deal was sealed during the final months of the second world war, when Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz, founder of modern Saudi Arabia, aboard a heavily armed US cruiser in the Suez Canal. The two leaders shook hands on the principles that, against all expectations, held right up through 9/11, and even to the Arab Spring: the Saudis would provide unlimited cheap oil to the US and its allies; and America would bring them fully under its ‘security umbrella’, offering whatever it took to keep Aramco in business and the House of Saud in power.
At the time, it didn’t seem to matter that the Saudi state had already made another, irrevocable pact — with the exceptionally puritanical version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. In exchange for control over political and economic life, the princes ceded huge areas of social affairs and of the education system to this religious movement. For a while, the US State Department pressed for reforms. But in the late 1960s, King Faisal complained that the Americans were turning his realm into a ‘Berkeley campus’ and the Arabists in Washington backed off.
Soon, more important things were in play. The Saudi-led oil embargo in 1973 underscored the need to keep the kingdom happy; and it also made the Saudis very rich, creating a vast new market for fighter jets, big cars and other US goods. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s special clout as guardian of the Muslim faithful meant that obscene quantities of petrodollars could be unleashed at will against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Better to put the Wahhabi clerics to good use than try to make the Saudis into democrats.
Many thought all this would come crashing down with the Twin Towers. After all, the 9/11 attacks were inspired by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi development billionaire and Afghan jihad veteran, and dominated by Saudi hijackers.
In fact, al-Qaeda turned out to be almost as hostile to Riyadh as it was to Washington, conducting a series of lethal attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004. Moreover, George W. Bush not only had an uncommon grasp of the value of Arabian oil, he was part of a Texas political dynasty whose ties to the House of Saud went back to the 1970s and 1980s. By 2005, when Bush invited Crown Prince Abdullah to his Crawford Ranch for a second time, the countries had forged a new entente in the ‘war on terror’.
More surprising, perhaps, was the way the joint offensive grew under Obama. The new President’s preference for drones over torture suited the Saudis just fine, especially when the strikes were aimed at neighbouring countries. Notwithstanding a lurid tradition of capital punishment in Riyadh’s Chop Chop Square, the kingdom showed little interest in roughing up terror suspects, having pioneered a jihadi rehabilitation program complete with art classes, marriage counselling and home subsidies. On the other hand, with al-Qaeda in Yemen (staffed by several unrehabilitated Saudis) launching assassination plots against the Saudi interior minister, the monarchy had no problem hosting a CIA drone base.
Still, the emphasis on al-Qaeda obscured other symptoms of an alliance dangerously adrift. Despite a brief opening after 9/11, Wahhabi ideology remained dominant and Saudi-funded madrassas continued to churn out jihadists. Above all there was the question of US oil independence. By 2013, thanks to the shale oil boom, the US actually surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer. The US once imported about half its petroleum, much of it from the Persian Gulf. Now only about a quarter comes from abroad, with Canada far outpacing Saudi Arabia as the leading supplier. If the US could do without Saudi oil, how sure could the monarchy be of unconditional support?
The Arab uprisings of 2011 introduced deep fissures of their own. Where the US saw democratic movements that it mostly needed to get behind, the Saudis saw unruly Islamists — and worse, Iran-backed Shias — trying to overthrow stable regimes that could be propped up with handouts and riot police. In Egypt, the Obama administration enraged the Saudis by siding with the revolution against Mubarak. In Bahrain, meanwhile, the deployment of Saudi troops against pro-democracy protesters made things uncomfortable for the White House, which maintains a major naval fleet there — mostly to protect Saudi tankers.
For the Saudis, though, the decisive breach was the US opening to Iran. With America unwilling to intervene against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime and shared American and Iranian support for Iraq’s Shia leadership, the Obama administration seemed to be turning its back on the Sunni monarchies. As a longtime Saudi government adviser, Nawaf Obaid, put it in the Washington Post, ‘With the Obama administration abandoning the United States’ historical responsibilities in the Middle East, the Saudis have no choice but to lead more forcefully.’
King Salman has had no difficultly dropping the war on terror for a new, Saudi-driven coalition against Iran and its alleged proxies. But how to get around the fact that the Islamic State is now the most potent Sunni power in the region, conquering city after city in Iraq, Syria and Libya, even as the Saudis — equipped with billions of dollars worth of US planes and bombs — get pinned down in Yemen? The Saudis cannot openly support Isis, and yet opposing the group may put the kingdom itself at risk of more terrorism like last week’s bombings on Shia sites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
Indeed, as the inexorable rise of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son, makes clear, the regime may well view Saudi Arabia’s own restless and underemployed youth — thousands of whom have joined the caliphate — as the most dangerous threat it faces. With close to two-thirds of the population younger than 30, glued to social media, and bridling under restrictions on everything from films to women’s sport, it is no wonder the king is in such a hurry to put Prince Mohammed in charge.
By taking on the ‘Shia’ Houthis in Yemen (they actually belong to the Zaidi sect), the Saudi regime is making an all-out bid to retain popular support, while fending off growing tensions within its religious establishment. And by sowing chaos along its borders, it hopes to deflect pressure for change at home. In short, what the kingdom seeks is a young face and a popular war. Whether the ‘little general’ — as Saudi bloggers now call the son, who has no prior military experience — can deliver on both of those counts (and whether his own promotion will survive if he doesn’t) is increasingly uncertain. But one thing seems beyond doubt: the simple days of American muscle and Saudi crude are over.
Hugh Eakin is a senior editor at the New York Review of Books.
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