In Increasingly Turbulent Middle East, US-Saudi Partnership Is Indispensable

By Charles F. Wald

April 18, 2016

When President Obama travels to Saudi Arabia later this month for a summit meeting with Gulf Arab leaders, he will need to reassure these longstanding American allies that the United States intends to stand by its friends in the increasingly turbulent Middle East. 

President Obama’s visit comes in the midst of complex and alarming challenges—sectarian bloodbaths, ethnic hostilities, regional rivalries, big-power meddling, and international terrorism—that demand urgent U.S. engagement.

Supported by Iran and Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is slaughtering his own people. The terrorists of ISIL have conquered a wide swath of territory in Syria and Iraq. In Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are battling to overthrow a government supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies. Instability and political paralysis persist in Lebanon. The Israelis and Palestinians are still at odds.

Into this simmering cauldron, add the recent nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran, which lifted sanctions against the Islamic Republic and gave it an additional $100 billion to invest in its military, its proxies, and its expansionism and trouble-making.

This toxic mix threatens to ignite warfare throughout the Middle East, inspire terrorism worldwide, and destabilize global energy markets. And like it or not, these crises call for more, not less, American engagement.

Read more: Start Preparing for the Collapse of the Saudi Kingdom

Related: There’s Far More to the Saudi-Iran Feud Than Sunnis-Vs.-Shia

Now as in the past, American interests in the Middle East include preserving the peace, ensuring reliable energy sources, combating transnational terrorism, and preventing an adversarial nation from attaining regional hegemony.

The answer need not always be more U.S. troops. But to advance these enduring goals, the U.S. must reinforce its relationship with Saudi Arabia—a longstanding force for regional stability and a crucial counterweight to an enriched and emboldened Iran.

With the growth of ISIL and the strengthening of Iran, the Kingdom’s strategic role in the region is more essential than ever.

For seven decades, Saudi Arabia has been our close strategic partner, steadying world oil supplies and prices while helping to maintain peace and stability. From the Cold War to the present, Saudi interests have aligned not only with the U.S. but also with our friends in the region, including Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the other Gulf States – and even, at times, Israel.

But preserving the Saudi partnership is a matter of necessity, not nostalgia. With the growth of ISIL and the strengthening of Iran, the Kingdom’s strategic role in the region is more essential than ever.

Itself targeted by terrorists such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia launched a coalition of 34 countries—mostly Muslim and ranging from Egypt to Turkey to Malaysia—to combat these international extremist organizations. Recently, Saudi Arabia offered to send ground troops to Syria to fight ISIL.

It is difficult to imagine a solution to the Syrian civil war without the support of Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni country that has been an outspoken opponent of the Assad regime and Iran’s military role in propping him up. Similarly, while Iran continues to call for the destruction of Israel, Saudi Arabia has long advocated a comprehensive settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Yes, Americans should be critical of some Saudi practices, particularly the treatment of women and religious minorities. 

The U.S. needs to recognize that Saudi Arabia feels increasingly threatened, potentially imperiling regional and international security. Contributing to Saudi Arabia’s anxieties are the severe decline in oil prices, the collapse of many Middle Eastern governments during the Arab Spring, ISIL’s intentions to overthrow the governments of the Gulf States and Iran’s stoking of sectarian rifts in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and, more recently, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia itself. 

Without American reassurance and support, Saudi Arabia will be tempted to act on its own and seek new allies. There has been talk of the Saudis seeking to pursue their own nuclear program, as well as reaching out to Russia for military and diplomatic support. Such actions could compound the chaos in the Middle East, while threatening the US-Saudi alliance that has been a foundation for regional and international security.

Instead of straining our relationship with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. should strengthen it, from security to diplomacy, economics and support for the far-reaching reforms now underway.

Yes, Americans should be critical of some Saudi practices, particularly the treatment of women and religious minorities. But we should also remember that the Saudis are a youthful people, with 70 percent of the population under age 30 and millions engaged with social media.

Such a society is poised for change. In recent years, women have begun to vote and to seek and win public office, while a new generation of leaders is assuming positions of responsibility. These young reformers are typified by the 30-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has proposed programs to diversify the economy and privatize state-owned enterprises.

The U.S. should encourage Saudi Arabia’s emerging leaders as they move forward with reforms, from women’s rights to free-market economics. A changing Saudi Arabia can be a catalyst for peaceful change, not violent conflicts, and the United States should nurture our partnership and encourage this evolution.

By Charles F. Wald // Charles F. Wald, a retired U.S. Air Force general and former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, is co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Program.

April 18, 2016