Why Saudi Arabia is kicking back against the USA

It’s not just a new king. It’s a new world – one where desert oil is suddenly less important

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

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 Though it has endured for decades, the US-Saudi alliance has become hopelessly out of date: it’s no secret that the alliance has become strained in recent years.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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugh Eakin is a senior editor at the New York Review of Books.

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Show comments
  • Bonkim

    Interesting years ahead.

    • Faulkner Orkney

      Where else would they be?

  • @partyofengland

    Meanwhile Europe’s relations with the Arab World go from bad to worst.

    Where once we held sway in Arabia – thanks largely to the personal connections of monarchy – our approach is now dominated by the mishmash of platitudinous interests from the EU.

    • Malus Pudor

      or even, worse….

  • zanzamander

    Saudi Arabia never was nor is an ally of US or the West. It is an ally only to the doctrines of Islam. The so called friendship that exists between us is at best an unholy truce built on shaky and shifting sands of mutual self-interests, threats, bribery and corruption.

    In all respects, SA represents everything that is loathsome. It promotes an ideology that is at heart a violent political, cultural and military system masquerading as faith. It is an apartheid state (like many of SA’s satellite Islamic states around the world also are), it is barbaric where slavery is still going strong, is devoid of even the most basic human rights (not to mention anything of non-existent animal rights) and where justice is cruelly dispensed like a lottery on the whim of clerics punch drunk of misogynistic medieval diktats.

    All the glitzy hotels and airports (built of slave labour), modern mod cons, wide roads, fast cars and modern jets hide the hideousness that lurks just beneath the surface.

    And yet this country for all intents and purposes is a superpower, it controls the entire Islamic world (it’s satellite states), can, at the mere click of its figures, unleash a wave of terror on our capitals, our prime ministers and presidents can do nothing but bow their heads to them, we allow them to sponsor their kind of medievalist poison in our countries, we do trillions of dollars of business with them, lay out red carpet treatment to their royals and other visiting minnows, indeed our own monarchs never tire of visiting this dreadful place accepting expensive gifts and little trinkets as they go along.

    We are powerless against the might of what SA represents. Where are our feisty libertarians, our otherwise belligerent feminists, our vocal clerics and our so called free press? Cowering, I’d say. SA is invincible; it has some very powerful and violent friends against who we have no defence.

    So, an ally it is.

    • Shazza

      Terrifying but so true.
      Well said.

    • Hermine Funkington-Rumpelstilz

      Sold a lot of military equipment to that lot. I would think it kept a huge number of NATO member state workers in a job for decades.

      • Kennie

        That makes it all OK then.

    • Marion McLean

      Well said indeed!

    • kittydeer

      What you say is so depressingly true.

    • Much of what you say is true. However I’m sceptical about the business benefits – apart from the oil I think the problems caused by Saudi Arabia cost far more than the money we make. After all, the ‘War on Terror’, invading Afghanistan and all the rest, are directly related to the poison spewed out everywhere across Saudi Arabia.

    • victor67

      Mostly true but billion dollar defence contracts have a neutralising quality.

      Welcome to the world where companies like BAE systems exercise power and ethics and morality dose not register.

      • S Jay

        I agree but ethics and morality are out the window in regards to our
        relationship with the Saudis. Since corporations like BAE systems
        brings in huge sums for our economy, which is still struggling to recover; it’s all about profit. The
        biggest terror centers are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, yet we supply them
        with the latest American military equipment. Our government is corrupt
        as fuck and they don’t care about the average citizens.

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    • Stubbington

      depraved, degenerate, inbred loons.

    • Kennie

      Excellent post. Nothing to add.

  • This is the standard trajectory of all Muslim states, and has been for 1400 years. Not only is the religious doctrine of Islam false but the political doctrine is false as well. The two cannot be separated, because to question Islam is to engage in political revolt. I’m sure fanatical Muslims all across the globe think their political objectives are important, but they are just the same as they’ve always been – only they’re now boring. The Middle East is on the verge of a cataclysmic explosion because the political, economic and social structures enforced by Islam cannot be maintained. When the oil seriously starts to run out in 15 years the problems will be of end-of-the-world proportions. We must close the borders to these fanatics, as they will try to escape the consequences of their actions and will then attempt to repeat the whole process again in Britain.

    • rodger the dodger

      Islam cannot survive in the modern world. It peaked with the last caliphate, and has been heading down since then. However, it has been in a bear market rally, ultimately since around 1950, that really picked up around ’70. It’s now in classic bubble territory.

      This has around 5-6 years to run, then it will start heading down again. We have just entered the final phase when the chart line goes vertical. This is the point everyone will think “a new paradigm” is upon us, Islam is winning etc., but it’s a signal the end is close. Bubbles always burst – always.

      It doesn’t mean it dies altogether, but it means the future for the rest of us is not as bleak as many fear.

      But in the final phase, we’ll see many more deaths and even more depravity (in Europe as well as the ME) from the RoP than we have experienced thus far in the modern era.

      • It’s certainly heading for crisis point. Islam is the only religion that brings no benefits whatsoever. It can only benefit the believer if he or she DELIBERATELY ignores the Islamic doctrine set out in the Koran, the hadiths and the sayings of Mohammed. It really would be best if it ceased to exist – not only would the rest of the world be immeasurably better off but so would Muslims as well. Unfortunately, most of them are brainwashed from an early age and don’t know the incredible damage Islam has inflicted on the world, greater by far than any other ideology. I expect truly extraordinary events to occur as a result of Islam’s activities and violence in the next 5 years.

        • rodger the dodger

          “I expect truly extraordinary events to occur as a result of Islam’s activities and violence in the next 5 years.”

          Agreed. Islamic State is going to ramp it up in the ME and in the rest of the world. So far, we are not yet 50% of the IRA’s mainland UK death toll – plenty more bodybags to come. And I reckon a minimum of 2m more dead in the ME before the peak hits.

          What we are seeing from Islam is weakness, not strength. It’s a cornered, seriously wounded animal, lashing out at those around it.

          Keep your distance, and watch it decline.

          • TrippingDwarves

            Encouraging stuff. In response to this, the west really needs to stand firm and protect its values – they might come in handy one day. Sadly, they seem to be generally melting away like butter on the patio.

          • rodger the dodger

            “the west really needs to stand firm and protect it’s values”

            had we done this, the problems with Islam would simply be a side issue that could more or less be ignored as an annoyance. But we now find ourself in the position where it’s not.

            I find the view that Europe and the UK will become Islamic utterly preposterous. People presume that trends continue in the same direction forever, but they don’t – not by a long shot. If that were the case, the dinosaurs would still be roaming the earth, and we wouldn’t exist. Or take it even further back to single cell organisms if you like. What happened? Trends changed. It’s the same as Americans believing they can be number one forever – just daft, it’s in decline. Nobody in history has been number one forever, otherwise Ancient Babylon would still be running the show. The Chinese will be number one in every respect by the mid 2030s, and there’s nothing the US can do to stop it, now.

          • Cyril Sneer

            Well the trend hasn’t changed yet so let’s all the roll the dice and hope for the best eh.

          • Kennybhoy

            Again generally sound but does your first paragraph not contradict the final line of your previous post?

          • rodger the dodger

            No, it doesn’t. Let me explain if I’m not being clear. Standing back and not interfering means not going there and waging war against them. Leave them to chop each other up in their sunni vs shia hell. It doesn’t mean not taking measures here, in the UK, to protect us from their, ahem, “high spirits”, shall we say.

          • S Jay

            Great points and I feel the same as an American. This is why it burns my ass why we won’t ramp up more support for India which will be the second largest economy in the same timeframe. We need them as a counterweight against both Pakistan and China. The Chinese are encroaching on nations, building manmade islands and world is just letting them do this!!! I don’t get it.

          • Jim Station

            I am afraid that even if we keep our distance, they will not keep theirs… as can be unfortunately seen with the massive immigration of the followers of the religion of peace. It beggars belief that our own leaders are not protecting us from this threat.

          • Kennie

            Might be better if its decline was helped along a little. Saudi Arabia has said they want nuclear weapons and may ask Pakistan for some help. I suggest we send them a dozen or so just to let them see how they work.

      • Faulkner Orkney

        “Islam cannot survive in the modern world.”
        …which is why it’s making such efforts to return the world to a medieval one.

        • rodger the dodger

          Yes, that’s right. it’s returning to what worked the first time around – jihad – because it cannot survive in the modern world.

      • Kennybhoy

        I might argue with your timescale but otherwise pretty sound. However, and it is a very big however, you fail to factor in the possibility of of nuclear proliferation down to terrorist level…?

        • rodger the dodger

          No, it takes everything into account. Them getting nuclear weapons of some sort is possible, but not a definite by any means.

  • Malus Pudor

    These ragheads look so different when they are driving their Lamborghinis up and down Sloane Street at breakneck speed…..

  • Patrick Roy

    Hello WWIII … As oil slowly loses its value, this should get really, really interesting.

    • Wildflowers

      Just a ploy on their part to eliminate the viability of shale oil and fracking and corner the market again.

      When you have very low production costs (SA), and a large bank account, it’s not that painful to undercut the competition to force them out of business. Once that’s achieved it’s back to business as usual with high prices. It’s economic war on their part.

      • Patrick Roy

        They’ve lost.

      • Saudi Arabia is digging 2,000 new oil wells every year looking for oil. The oil from their biggest and most important field is getting more and more difficult to access. They have oil now – but in 15 years their capacity will be massively less. Saudi Arabia is in a death spiral, because without oil and the Western technical expertise that goes along with it they need a new economic model, which Islamic culture will prevent them from developing. The entire oil-rich Middle East is nearing total collapse.

        • Wildflowers

          I’m sure, as you point out, that the overall picture is more complex than I’ve stated but if their oil is getting more difficult (expensive) to extract eliminating or stalling your competition while you can therefore makes sense? A number of friends in the oil industry (UK/RSA/Africa/USA) have opined that this is what they believe to be happening – they are already seeing the effect of cheap (RSA) oil causing a cut back in investment in shale and other low-margin supplies.

          • It still makes sense, but the Saudi Arabians are guided by a misplaced sense of destiny, and fail to grasp that a civilised Western society is not possible in the peninsula unless they abandon their preposterous version of Islam. They are doomed, either way.

          • Jim Station

            The truth is that the Saudis do NOT want a ‘civilised Western society’ in their country (or anywhere else for that matter is they had the choice) …they want wahhabist Islam to dominate the world first and foremost and any luxuries they receive are a pleasant extra. The mosques built throughout the world espousing the vitriolic wahhabist islam funded with Saudi money, Saudi money being behind the Afghan mujahhaddeen, Al Qaeda, ISIS are the most obvious examples…many more are out there.

          • Yes – Saudi Arabia is the committed enemy of civilisation.

        • S Jay

          That’s why the “little general” is resorting to increased sponsorship of terrorism. Saudis bombed 9/11 and most Americans don’t even know that.

      • ScaryBiscuits

        I do get bored of lefties who argue it’s all about money or oil. Sure, greed is an important driver but it is not all that is important. It’s not even factually correct. The US spent far more on the war in Iraq than it could ever have hoped to have gained from trade there.

  • TrippingDwarves

    We need to talk about Islam. I mean, we REALLY need to talk about Islam.

    • Shazza

      We are not allowed to – telling the truth is now ‘hate speech’ and you may get your collar felt.

      A politician was arrested and almost prosecuted for quoting Churchill…….

      • TrippingDwarves

        Indeed, but we still need to talk about it as openly as possible. And it’s not a discussion about race, or even really one about religion. It’s about politics, and if we stop talking about politics openly, we cease to be a democracy and place all our freedoms in jeopardy.

        • Shazza

          I agree but the big problem is that we only have access to platforms such as this and therein lies the problem. We are preaching to the converted.
          When I have tried to engage, very politely, on Left wing sites, I have been banned!

          All print, TV and radio outlets outlaw any in depth discussion on the ‘values’ of the RoP, the teachings of their prophet and indeed the exhortations contained in their book.

          We have certain discussions as in The Big Questions but these are so skilfully handled that it is impossible to have an open and honest debate.

          It is game over. We have lost.

          • TrippingDwarves

            I share your concern, hence the original post. I personally have been shouted down by people I thought were friends simply because I dared to express ‘incorrect’ opinions – and I really wasn’t saying anything outrageous. But we cannot give up. The inability to engage in debate shows weakness, and that weakness should not be ours.

          • Shazza

            I sincerely hope that we never have to say to them ‘told you so’……..

  • edlancey

    They’ve spent more on spreading propaganda (wahabi dawa) than the Soviets ever did – although they’ve bought off the same idiots in academia.

    They’ve been using America, not the other way round – when you think you’re f**king then, they’re f**king you.

  • chump23

    I realise that The Spectator has to have a shallow end – Rod Liddle, Charles Moore etc but this is simple click bait.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    Nice threads. We used to make fabulous fabrics here in the UK.

    • Kennybhoy

      We still do.

  • jeffersonian

    Is there anything more stomach-turning than an American president abasing himself before a degenerate Arab potentate? Great work Barack Hussein.

    • EasyStreet

      Isn’t that the wrong way around? The presidents doing the abasing were those who uncritically supported the Saudis for decades, doing their military dirty work and overlooking the ideological absurdity of the place. Obama has, I think, recovered a measure of respectability for the US by distancing it from the god-awful hell hole.

      • Kennybhoy

        Aye. I am no fan of Obama but even the deil’ must be given his due and he is due an an uptick here.

    • Kennybhoy

      Wot EasyStreet wrote.

  • Ivan Ewan

    Of course Arabia is fighting the Houthi rebels. They’re aligned with Iran. It’s the same story in Syria. What do you expect them to do, now that Obama has so generously demolished the Pax Americana?

  • kevinlynch1005

    Saudi Arabia were for a long time merely useful to the US. They have served their purpose and can be soon be thrown to the dogs as far as the Americans are concerned. I predict that within twenty years, the House of Saud will fall and the Kingdom will be ripped apart by its competing forces and interests. And into that vacuum will rush something truly hellish.

    • Jim Station

      and yet more evil collateral damage will hit the world as a result

      • ScaryBiscuits

        Or perhaps less. The collateral damage that is being caused by the Saudis is already too much. The US and UK fought the wars in Iraq mainly at the behest of the Saudis. They thank us with 9/11, 7/7 and support Deash and countless other murderous regimes. Instead of thanking us for our custom, they use their oil cartel aggressively as a weapon against other suppliers. All the extremist mosques and websites is the UK are funded by Saudi and, therefore, the terrorism they cause.
        It would probably be in humanity’s interest for Saudi Arabian and Iranian regimes to have a war (that is to say, more overtly than they are already in Yemen, Iraq and Syria). That’s the best way for to avoid either regime being replaced by something even worse as whilst evil dictators often have initial successes on the battlefield, they generally collapse in the long-run.
        We should stay well out of it. The US has done itself no favours with its Faustian pact. The UN and the international aid industry specialise in propping up evil regimes in defiance of the people they abuse (c.f. Col. Gadhafi, former UN lead on human rights, peace be upon him). At worst they will weaken each other and at best a more moderate and sensible versions of both Sunni and Shia Islam will emerge by force of necessity.

        • Jim Station

          I am not disagreeing with much of what you say…the problem for us will be the ever escalating immigrants, legal or otherwise of followers of the religion of peace to our country bringing their problems and antagonism towards us, whether we like it or not.

  • Stubbington

    The Houthis, who are Shia, pose a direct threat to the Saudi’s as its oil rich eastern province is overwhelmingly Shia and there are growing sign of sectarian violence there as well.
    The degenerate House of Saud faces two mortal threats; one from its own disgruntled Sunni many of whom support ISIS and other similar groups; and from Shia Islam which could lead to a break of the country and the loss of the eastern province. .

  • ashleyhk

    Leaving aside the specifics of the US-Saudi relationship, what is really striking about the Obama administration is the loss of “faith” from previously strong allies all over the world. Whether deliberate or not, under Obama the US has lost credibility in every theatre in the world, including Asia, where I live. Nobody trusts the US under him.

  • fartel engelbert

    We defeated Hitler, then we defeated communism and now we have islamic imperialism back when we thought it had gone away forever. It’s not going to be pretty.