The US-Saudi Alliance Is on the Brink
The relationship has survived for seven decades. A Democratic president could change that.
An effort is under way in Washington to fundamentally overhaul, if not end, a decades-old American alliance—but it didn’t come at the direction of the alliance-skeptical Donald Trump. The president, in fact, has paradoxically emerged as the greatest force of resistance to the change.
Fed up with the catastrophic human cost of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen’s civil war and appalled by the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Congress seemingly attempts some sort of measure to censure the kingdom every week. Yet at every turn, the White House has blocked or circumvented those moves, standing staunchly by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, while escalating its confrontation with his archenemy, Iran.
The real reckoning in the U.S.-Saudi partnership could come if a Democrat is elected president in 2020, though early warning signs are already visible. Virtually all Democratic lawmakers, along with several Republican members of Congress and various lobbyists, analysts, and former officials, are shunning the Saudis to the point where a visit to Washington, D.C., by MbS, the heir apparent who was welcomed in 2017 and 2018, seems inconceivable anytime soon.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz met aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, neither could have foreseen the cracks that would form in a relationship built on mutual benefit: a steady supply of Saudi oil in exchange for U.S. military protection.
But even the fallout from the September 11 attacks—in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi—did not present the kind of existential challenge evident today. U.S. lawmakers are engaged in numerous efforts to restrict arms sales to the kingdom and hold MbS, along with other top officials, accountable for Khashoggi’s death.
For now, the Saudis are banking on the Trump administration’s allegiance. Yet they acknowledge, or at the very least pay lip service to, their precarious position.
“We in [Saudi Arabia] recognize that the relationship has come under strain recently, but we are working hard on restoring it to what it once was. We realize it’s going to take some time, but we see it as a marathon not a sprint,” a senior Saudi official wrote to us recently on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue. That’s far from the mea culpa U.S. lawmakers are demanding.
In May, the administration invoked emergency powers to bypass Congress and sell billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a show of support that nevertheless reflected the administration’s awareness that it would not have been able to get lawmakers to approve the arms sales. The Senate responded by passing several measures to try to prevent the sales—moves remarkable not just for their bipartisan backing, but also for the fact that they came amid heightened tensions with Iran, which Trump cited as grounds for the emergency transactions.
In April, Trump vetoed a resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military intervention against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen. He had to take that step because seven Republicans in the Senate and 16 in the House of Representatives had joined nearly every Democrat in both chambers to support the legislation.
Trump, whose first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia, has championed the alliance in part because his administration and the Saudi government are both alarmed by Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons pursuits and support for militant groups in the Middle East. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo focused only on the threats posed by Iran during meetings with the Saudi king and crown prince in Riyadh last week. And while Trump said he raised Khashoggi’s killing with MbS at the G20 summit in Japan, he would not be drawn on the CIA’s intelligence that reportedly concluded with high confidence that the crown prince ordered the journalist’s murder.
But Trump’s motivations for dismissing concerns about the war in Yemen and Khashoggi’s assassination range from the close personal relationship between MbS and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to Riyadh’s plentiful purchases of U.S.-made weapons, which the president argues create American jobs. “You have people wanting to cut off Saudi Arabia. They bought $450 billion” worth of military equipment, Trump declared at a recent campaign rally, greatly inflating the actual figures. “I don’t want to lose them!”
Most Americans, of course, have had negative views of Saudi Arabia since the 9/11 attacks; two-thirds of the public currently view the kingdom unfavorably, Gallup’s highest reading in its three decades of polling on the question.
The big development now is that there’s also serious ferment in the nation’s capital, where Saudi Arabia by one estimate poured more than $40 million into lobbying Congress, the executive branch, think tanks, and media outlets in 2017 and 2018 alone—tripling its spending on influence operations from the last year of Barack Obama’s administration to the first year of the Trump administration. All the Saudis have to show for that money, though, is a rock-solid friend in the White House and an open revolt on Capitol Hill.
“The Saudis used to have really strong bipartisan support in Washington,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a Democrat and longtime critic of Riyadh, told us. Now “they are clinging to this alliance simply through the force of the regime’s relationship with one person: Donald Trump.”
“Maybe we have a hard time forcing a reset while Trump is in office,” added Murphy, who has sponsored numerous bills to rein in the security relationship with the Saudis. “But a reset’s coming.”
Republican and Democratic presidents alike have been forced to mostly give Saudi Arabia a free pass on rights abuses and political repression, given the extent to which Washington relies on Riyadh as a stable geopolitical weight in the Middle East.
But several 2020 candidates have made their displeasure clear. Joe Biden, the current front-runner among Democrats vying for the White House, wants out of the war in Yemen and once likened the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia to America siding with a “no-good SOB” like Joseph Stalin during World War II. Cory Booker has called for the United States to “reexamine [the] entire relationship” with Riyadh. Elizabeth Warren has slammed Trump for appeasing U.S. defense contractors by not halting the flow of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Pete Buttigieg, in a national-security speech last month, said that on his watch the United States would “remain open” to working with Riyadh for the American people’s benefit. “But,” he added, “we can no longer sell out our deepest values for the sake of fossil-fuel access and lucrative business deals.”
And Bernie Sanders has referred to MbS as a “murderous despot,” included Saudi Arabia in an “axis” of authoritarian powers that he claims Trump is emboldening, and inserted Saudi lobbying in Washington into his signature issue of wealthy special interests corrupting government policy making. Sanders, the sponsor of one of the Senate’s Yemen resolutions, questions “whether the basic bargain that was made between FDR and the Saudi king back in 1945,” of “security for oil,” still holds, says his foreign-policy adviser, Matt Duss.
Nonetheless, it’s “not necessarily productive” to “flip over the table on the U.S.-Saudi relationship” at the outset of a new administration, Duss adds, noting that Sanders recognizes that elements of the relationship, such as intelligence sharing, remain important and that the stability of oil markets has an impact on the U.S. economy.
Asked how worried the Saudis are about the future of the alliance should a Democrat be elected in 2020, the senior Saudi official said that the relationship is “institutional,” and that Democratic and Republican presidential candidates tend to change their campaign position on Saudi Arabia once they’re in office and understand “our economic cooperation, coordination of oil policies, and our partnership in countering terrorism” and Iran.
This time, however, campaign broadsides may not give way to business as usual. United Nations and U.S. assessments have implicated the crown prince himself in the murder of Khashoggi—who was a U.S. permanent resident—constituting a brazen betrayal of the alliance, “the equivalent of a spouse cheating in the marriage,” says Representative Ro Khanna of California, a Democrat and leading proponent in the House of ending U.S. military involvement in Yemen. “The marriage may recover and survive, but it will never be the same.” The Saudis are “not going to be an enemy” of the United States, he adds, “but I certainly think [they] have lost their status as an ally.”
The Khashoggi killing has not just angered members of Congress, but also prompted some lobbying firms and think tanks to reject Saudi funding. Saudi leaders recognize that the damage done to relations with the United States by the incident “is worse than 9/11” in terms of the toll taken on the alliance, says Firas Maksad of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank familiar with Saudi officials’ thinking, who met with Saudi officials during a visit to Riyadh in March. (Riyadh denies the crown prince’s role in Khashoggi’s killing. The senior Saudi official highlighted the government’s efforts to bring those behind Khashoggi’s murder to justice, but these steps haven’t satisfied many U.S. lawmakers.)
While the Treasury and State Departments have sanctioned more than a dozen Saudi officials for their involvement in the Khashoggi killing, these actions also fall far short of the punitive measures against those in the highest ranks of the Saudi government that many in Congress are demanding.
The GOP rebellion is real, if limited. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s top allies in the Senate, hasn’t supported all anti-Saudi efforts in Congress, but he has nevertheless been extremely critical of MbS. Graham and other Republicans, such as Senator Todd Young of Indiana, have backed a sweeping bill that would mandate sanctions on any Saudi official found responsible for Khashoggi’s murder and seek to restrain Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Most Republicans, however, are sticking with the kingdom as a bulwark against Iran.
Occasionally, however, the administration has succumbed to pressure from Congress. Last year it halted U.S. refueling of Saudi-coalition aircraft involved in the Yemen conflict. And, as Murphy pointed out to us, earlier this year Trump quietly signed a budget bill that prohibits assistance to Saudi Arabia through a military-training program. That assistance had qualified the Saudis for discounts on purchases of additional U.S. military training.
“There are limits to what Congress can do when it comes to rightsizing a bilateral relationship,” especially when only “a handful of Republicans” are willing to vote with Democrats, Murphy said. “We can set boundaries. But we can’t do day-to-day management.” These limits, though, might disappear if a Democrat succeeds Trump in the White House.
Saudi officials look at the chorus of criticism from American politicians and complain that the kingdom “is guilty by association in Washington because of having cultivated a close relationship with Donald Trump,” and that it has become a “political football” between the president and his opponents, Maksad notes.
Duss, the Sanders adviser, acknowledges that the Democrat-led push to rein in the Saudis isn’t just a policy dispute. “Trump, just by being Trump, has created a political incentive for questioning the relationship,” he says. “But it’s an opening to have a really important and long-overdue discussion. We started to have it after 9/11, then it kind of went nowhere.”
Trump’s approach is to “align with this growing Saudi, Emirati, Israeli, anti-Iran conception of the region, and [Sanders] is very much of a different view,” Duss said, speaking with us in March before the spike in hostilities with Iran. “We have serious problems with a lot of what Iran is doing in the region, what they are doing with their own population, but the idea that we’re going to achieve our own goals or stability in the region through conflict with Iran is bonkers.” That conflict almost erupted last month, after Iran shot down a U.S. drone, but was averted—for now—when Trump called off planned strikes on Iranian targets.
The president’s loyalty to Riyadh seems to stem in part from his desire to reverse the foreign policy of Obama, who was criticized for trying to reconcile with Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia. Obama negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and was deeply ambivalent about the alliance with Saudi Arabia, but he avoided upending the partnership—suggesting that he wouldn’t have broken off relations with the Saudis were he still president under today’s circumstances.
“The narrative that Obama was abandoning Saudi Arabia was kind of bullshit to begin with,” Murphy observed. “He sold them more weapons than anybody else sold them, and he was willing to support this war in Yemen.”
“I think it’s really dangerous to be in business with Mohammed bin Salman. I think he’s a reckless, destabilizing force in the Middle East,” Murphy said, using language that Trump’s camp often applies to Iran. “Saudi Arabia will remain an ally,” he predicted, in regard to what policy toward the kingdom could look like in a Democratic administration. But “we will be more careful in the nature of the military relationship and less willing to follow them into battle,” he added, advocating scaled-back arms sales that exclude offensive weapons.
Asked to respond to lawmakers who say they no longer want to work with MbS, the senior Saudi official said, “Our leadership is a red line, with all due respect to U.S. lawmakers, but the succession in the kingdom is strictly a domestic affair.” The official added that “it is unimaginable to go in a different direction” now that King Salman has appointed the crown prince as his successor.
Democrats and other American critics of MbS need to acknowledge that the 33-year-old crown prince is firmly entrenched in power and will be the one dealing with any future U.S. president, Maksad argues. But the Saudis, for their part, have not launched “a concerted, thought-out strategic effort” to reach out to these detractors, particularly since the aftermath of the Khashoggi killing left the Saudi embassy in D.C. without an ambassador. (The new ambassador, Princess Reema bint Bandar, is set to start her post soon.)
There is some concern among Saudi watchers that the kingdom has staked too much on its personal relationship with Trump and that U.S. support for the alliance could crater if he’s not reelected, Maksad says.
But the Saudis are reassured by the notion that as a behemoth in the oil markets, a strategic ally in the struggle against Iran, and an arbiter in the war of ideas in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia is too powerful a player to be overlooked, no matter who is in power in the United States. “Ultimately, the relationship is too important (for the world) to fail,” the senior Saudi official wrote to us.
Asked what it would take for MbS and other Saudi leaders to be received more favorably in Washington, Murphy said they would need to act as the “instigator” for a peace agreement in Yemen rather than a “roadblock” and curb repression of political dissidents.
“Presidents come and go, but nations that have stable relationships and strong relationships with the United States” need to retain support in Congress, Khanna argues, citing U.S. alliances with Britain, France, India, and Israel as examples: “Why I would be so concerned if I were the Saudis is they’ve lost that foundational support.”