The U.S.-Saudi “Special Relationship” and the Arab Spring

The following long piece was contributed by Arabist reader Paul Mutter.

Recently, the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies announced the engagement of a Saudi princess to a Bahraini prince. A substantial bridal party has preceded her, though: 4,000 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, mostly from Saudi Arabia, have arrived in Bahrain since March 14th, 2011. Some 1,600 Saudi soldiers will remain in the country indefinitely to safeguard the regime there from further “disturbances,” i.e., pro-democracy protests.

Bahrain’s government will be seeking accommodations for these soldiers in the form of new, permanent GCC bases. This process will be helped along by the billions of dollars in aid that Bahrain is set to receive from the GCC.

The GCC presence has freed up the hard-pressed Bahraini security forces to take more “proactive” actions such as these. The U.S. has called on all parties to exercise restraint – though this has fallen on deaf ears with respect to Bahraini security forces.

Some dowry. 

And at main site of the pro-democracy demonstrations in the Bahraini capital of Manama, a public plaza (formerly) known as Pearl Square had been remodeled and renamed the Gulf Cooperation Council Square to expunge any associations with Cairo’s Tahrir Square or Bahraini nationalism.

“Now even the Arab counterrevolution has its heroic square,” opined the German news outlet Der Spiegel.

 It is fitting that the square has been renamed after the Saudi-dominated GCC because the Saudis have been working hard to keep the winds of “Arab Spring” from blowing into the Persian Gulf. Human rights in the region rank rather low on both countries’ list of priorities.

 The US has sanctioned this counterrevolution. The “special relationship” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has stood the test of time based on mutual interests—oil for security. It is therefore not surprising that this alliance continues unabated as Saudi Arabia attempts to manage and turn back the winds of revolutionary transformation, from Bahrain to Yemen.

 “Commentators have long speculated about the demise of Saudi Arabia as a regional powerhouse. They have been sorely disappointed”, wrote Prince Turki, an influential former Saudi intelligence director. “The kingdom’s wealth, steady growth and stability have made it the bulwark of the Middle East. As the cradle of Islam, it is able to symbolically unite most Muslims worldwide.”

That bulwark would not exist as it does today without U.S. support.

But over the course of the “special relationship,” the U.S. had aided and abetted active measures that Saudi officials, including members of the royal family, took in financing Islamist organizations for decades. After 9/11, the relationship has become particularly strained between the two powers because of continued private financing of Islamist organizations well after their use for the US had abated.

But, despite mistrust, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are actively practicing containment against Iran, al Qaeda and the “Arab Spring.” Their overall interests in the region remain the same – which is bad news for the demonstrators.

Shia Scares

The “Arab Spring” is clearly an unsettling development for both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, despite all the talk in Washington about the democratic aspirations of Arab peoples (as an aside, the Palestinian people’s aspirations, a grave concern for both Israel and the U.S. are noticeably absent from such official plaudits).

Protests have already removed pro-U.S. and Saudi-friendly leaders in Tunisia (whose exiled president now resides in the Kingdom) and Egypt (the Saudis, for their part, now fear Egyptian rapprochement with Iran: Der Spiegel reports that the Kingdom has promised the new transitional government US$4 billion) and Syria (though no friend of either power) is becoming a potential flashpoint.

Discontent in other Arab monarchies, such as Jordan and Morocco, has caused consternation in the House of Saud – even though neither Morocco nor Jordan are Gulf countries, the Saudis have been pressing for their acceptance into the GCC (which, if it is now looking for a new name, ought to consider “The Holy Alliance).

Red Scares have long since given way to Shia Scares in the region. The reactionary fear in these countries is very real: with growing Shia populations, the minority Sunni monarchies of the Gulf states face increasing pressure from their subjects for change and see an Iranian (meaning, “Shia”) hand in everything. There is a growing sense of abandonment by the U.S. in Riyadh over the supposed Shia threat, according to Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid [Ed note: Obaid is in fact an advisor to Prince Turki): 

“As Riyadh fights a cold war with Tehran, Washington has shown itself in recent months to be an unwilling and unreliable partner against this threat. The emerging political reality is a Saudi-led Arab world facing off against the aggression of Iran and its non-state proxies [Hezbollah, Hamas] and Saudi Arabia will not allow the political unrest in the region to destabilize the Arab monarchies.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudis have made overtures to Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia towards a policy of containment toward Iran. “The U.S. shouldn't be counted on to restore stability across the Middle East,” Prince Bandar, who served as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. from 1983 to 2005, is said to have told a group of Pakistani generals recently.

Concerns over a reputed Iranian “fifth column” in Bahrain (Iran supports the protests in this Shia-majority country ruled over by a Sunni royal family) remain pronounced among GCC (and U.S.) officials. The U.S., despite expressing some human rights concerns, has largely praised the actions of the Bahraini monarchy in managing demands for greater democratization and warned against Iranian interference.

"The US has not been as supportive of human rights activists in Bahrain as it would be in other circumstances, and it's not putting as much pressure on the Bahraini government as it's putting on Yemen, Syria and other countries where the government is engaged in suppressing protests," Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Al Jazeera. According to her, Saudi pressure is exercising a significant influence on U.S. politics.

The U.S., though, needs no allied pressure to keep its head down over Bahrain. President Obama recently met with Bahrain’s rulers to discuss the strategic situation in the region, and with good reason: Bahrain is the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

And while Washington has observed this studied silence over human rights violations in Bahrain and (with Saudi help) is now ramping up a “drone war” in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Yemen: A “Backstop” against al Qaeda

One could compare Yemen’s historic relationship with Saudi Arabia to that of Mexico’s with the U.S.: intervention in a 20th century civil war, a discriminatory economic relationship and even a border barrier (purportedly aimed at “keeping out” illegal immigrants). Saudi involvement is only increasing in response to unrest and pro-democracy demonstrations in Yemen.

Though not happy with the content of the pro-democracy protests (and ever worried about al Qaeda and Iranian influence in Yemen), the Saudis are hoping to ease out a besieged President Saleh, while at the same time do what they can to maintain Saudi influence in the country.

Although the U.S. publically supports a negotiated solution in Yemen (that will probably result in President Saleh’s removal), there is much talk in the U.S. of the Yemen becoming “another Afghanistan.” The rationale for the “drone war” is that it will prevent al Qaeda from finding a new safe haven.

The U.S. blames AQAP for failed attempts to destroy U.S. planes, the (abortive) actions of the “Times Square bomber” and the Fort Hood shootings. WikiLeaks disclosures reveal the extent of the “drone war” is larger than previously thought and that the Yemeni government is fully involved in it (in contrast to the drone campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

It is difficult to tell just how the “Arab Spring” has affected official U.S. policy in Yemen, but consider this: a “secret CIA airbase” in the Mideast is reported to be under construction to enable this expanded effort. The AP reports that the U.S. views the new airbase as “a backstop, if al-Qaida or other anti-American rebel forces gain control.”

Charity Begins at Home 

At home, the Saudis have moved quickly to suppress any stirrings of unrest relating to the “Arab Spring.” It would be an understatement to suggest that the U.S. looks the other way over Saudi human rights abuses – but unfair to say that the Saudis are inherently “worse” than other allies because they are “Arab” or “Muslim.” Strategic importance outweighs such “trivialities” as human rights when strategic allies are concerned – Musharraf’s Pakistan, Mubarak’s Egypt and Pinochet’s Chile, for instance (and, of course, in Bahrain).

That said, U.S. silence on human rights in Saudi Arabia is deafening (especially when compared to, say, U.S. statements directed at Iran). Whether it is has been on the suppression of public demonstrations (demonstrations by workers have been suppressed for decades, and striking was even made illegal in 1965), lack of religious freedoms (even for Saudi Arabia’s own Shia Muslim population), the indentured servitude that non-Saudi “guest workers” endure, or the arrest of women who have protested the country’s ban on female drivers, the U.S. response has been, in the words of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, “quiet diplomacy.”

Domestically, the Saudis have moved quickly to buy off dissent with new social spending programs, reports Foreign Policy. This approach is not new, though, but the scale of it is (US$130 billion this year alone). And that is partly due to ever-increasing discontent within the Kingdom.

In addition to financing housing and employment programs (as well as beefing up the bureaucracy), some of this money will go to the country’s religious establishment. “Many Saudis see the extra cash for religious institutions, including the religious police, as a reward for their vocal public stance against potential anti-regime demonstrations,” according to Foreign Policy.

Indeed, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia founded upon the basis of a religious-royal alliance, religious legitimacy is a vital competent of the House of Saud’s “legitimacy.” Wahhabism, a particularly Puritanical strain of Sunni Islamism, is the ideological glue that has held the country together since its founding in 1932.

”We are back to the 1950s and the early 1960s”

“We are back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when the Saudis led the opposition to the revolutions at that time, the revolutions of Arabism,” according to a Saudi political activist speaking to The Washington Post.

The “We,” of course, is a royal we: it refers to both Saudi Arabia and the U.S., who have maintained a “special relationship” for decades. The relationship between the two powers animates their responses to the “Arab Spring.” To understand it, though, we will have to go back before the 1950s.

“Such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary”

U.S. involvement with Saudi Arabia began with oil concessions in the 1930s. However, a formal engagement between the two countries had to wait until the closing days of WWII.

On February 14, 1945, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with King Saud on board an American warship in the Red Sea. That meeting established the prenuptial agreement for the two partners: American protection of the Kingdom in exchange for oil access.

Since that meeting, the U.S. has increasingly committed itself to defending Saudi sovereignty (Saudi oil’s sovereignty, to be precise: the U.S. partly managed Saudi oil exports through a consortium called Aramco during much of the Cold War).

A succession of early Cold War policies (such as the Eisenhower Doctrine) entrenched the U.S.’s postwar presence in the oil-rich Mideast. By 1980, following the Iranian Revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. President Carter had declared that:

“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

During the 1980s “Tanker War” in the Gulf, in which Iran and Iraq attacked each other’s shipping and that of other nations, the U.S. made good on its word to use force to protect its interests there.

The “special relationship” deepened following the Iran-Iraq War (of which the “Tanker War” was an extension of) with the first Gulf War. Saudi Arabia, demanding intervention and even giving religious sanction to Coalition forces, subsequently served as a base for the first Gulf War coalition.

American subsidization of Saudi Arabia’s defense (to the tune of US$60 billion in 2010 alone) has long freed up Saudi oil revenues for other uses: modernization programs, foreign investment, extravagant royal lifestyles, a social safety net . . .

And financing Islamist terrorists.

Support for such organizations, such as al Qaeda, has been the justification (well, one of the justifications) for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, of Iraq in 2003, the extension of the “War on Terror” to Yemen, and U.S. opposition to organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad.

The U.S. has taken Saudi Arabia to task at the urging of the U.S. intelligence: after 9/11, the Bush Administration pressured the Saudis to share more information with them on terrorist suspects and cooperate with investigations of terrorist financiers – and the Saudis obliged.

But, this pressure was the exception to the norm: over the course of the “special relationship,” the U.S. had largely ignored active measures that Saudi officials, including members of the royal family, took in financing Islamist organizations.

And, during the Cold War, the U.S. aided and abetted these endeavors.

”We can live with that”

As noted earlier, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established by a religious-royal alliance. The Wahhabi religious establishment dominates social life, regulating religion, morality and education. As the clergy has gained greater power at home, Wahhabism has increasingly become Saudi Arabia’s leading export after oil.

The U.S. helped this along after 1945. After WWII, U.S. officials naively saw “Islam” (not really caring about or understanding sectarian differences) as a counterweight to socialism and nationalism.

When nationalists could not be cajoled or bought, the U.S. (and its allies), would turn to Islamic organizations to assist in demonizing and undermining them, as was the case in Egypt (under Nasser) and Iran (under Mossadeq).

The real religious boom, though, did not begin until 1979. The timing could not have been more opportune because of several factors: the Shah of Iran had been deposed in a popular revolution in 1979, leading to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan that year

And, most importantly, Saudi Arabia found itself awash in oil revenue – and in the midst of an identity crisis. It was a perfect storm that brought the U.S. and the Kingdom closer together than ever before.

In the winter of 1979, a group of Saudi radicals took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holy of holies. The radicals’ leader declared himself the Madhi, or savior, of all Islam and called for an overthrow of the “tainted” House of Saud. With the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran (whose very existence challenged the legitimacy of the Saudi Islamic state) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan also occurring in 1979, it was a tense year, to say the least, in Saudi Arabia.

Though the “Madhists” were defeated after a bloody siege of the Grand Mosque, the Saudi establishment was deeply shaken by the events of 1979 and looked to advance religious initiatives to regain domestic and international initiative. Support for the Afghan mujahedeen, and increased deference to the Wahhabi clergy at home, was the solution the establishment settled on.

Enter the U.S., smarting from its humiliation in Iran, hoping to give the Soviets a taste of Vietnam in Central Asia.

The Saudis eagerly became the primary channel for U.S. aid to the mujahedeen during the Soviet-Afghan War. The Bank of Credit and Commerce International, now defunct, was utilized by the CIA to fund the Afghan mujahedeen (and other secret programs).

Hundreds of millions of Saudi dollars went to promote Wahhabi-influenced religious schools in Pakistan for young Afghan refugees that engendered the Taliban. The Pakistan’s military political leadership supported these developments as well, benefitting from Saudi largesse.

“There was little impetus to step back and ask big uncomfortable questions about whether Saudi charities represented a fundamental threat to American national security,” writes Steve Coll in Ghost Wars:

“American strategy . . . was to contain and frustrate Iran and Iraq. In this mission, Saudi Arabia was an elusive but essential ally. Then, too, there was the crucial importance of Saudi Arabia in the global oil markets.”

The Taliban received further Saudi support in the form of guidance on implementing a harsh Sha-derived legal system (which included a copy of the Saudi religious police, the mutaween). Before 9/11, though, the U.S. was not overly concerned with such things. In fact, in 1997, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid reported a U.S. diplomat as saying:

“The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.”

Or rather, we could until 9/11.

”Kernel of Evil”

Saudi money, from official and unofficial sources, flowed to extremist groups all over the Muslim world. Although this had long been known within policymaking circles, the fact that fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers (and, of course, al Qaeda financier and demagogue Osama bin Laden) were Saudi that prompted a closer look at the Kingdom in the U.S., though the Bush Administration sought to deflect some blame from the Kingdom (and themselves).

In 2002, a controversial and widely commented on RAND Corporation study titled “Taking Saudi Out of Arabia” described Saudi Arabia as: “the kernel of evil . . . . active at every level of the terror chain.”

The Saudis, the Pentagon-commissioned study contended, sought to “spread Wahhabism everywhere” and to “survive by creating a Wahhabi-friendly environment – fundamentalist regimes – throughout the Moslem world.”

The study landed analyst Laurent Murawiec (d. 2009), a French neoconservative, in hot water (he also advocated seizing oil fields and Mecca & Medina), but it was indicative of the mood at the time, reviving old U.S. designs on seizing Saudi oil as a “worst-case scenario.”

Congress began conducting inquiries and referring to the Saudis as state sponsors of terrorism. Before 9/11, U.S. officials often let such Saudi peccadilloes slide. This is not so much the case nowadays.

As a result, the “special relationship” isn’t so special anymore. Many in the royal family opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (they were none to happy about the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, either, nor Saudi-bashing in Congress and FBI pressure to share information on Saudi charities with them). The Saudis asked the U.S. to leave their bases after the conclusion of “major combat operations” in Iraq, a request the U.S. complied with by building up its assets in neighboring Qatar. The influential Prince Bandar, who once referred to the U.S.-Saudi alliance as a “Catholic” marriage, certainly seems to have his doubts these days about the strength of the “special relationship.”

The Saudis have increasingly made overtures to China and Russia since 2003. Chinese and Russian military hardware (as well as diplomatic support) has fewer strings attached.

Ultimately, though, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have the same interests they have had for decades: maintaining the status quo in the Gulf. Iran has replaced the USSR as a source of mutual concern, and maintaining internal stability in the Middle East (even at the expense of democratization) has been a plank of the U.S. platform in the region since 1945 (and of the British and French before them).

Events at home, once again, helped bring the two closer together, because in 2003, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) first emerged. Arab fighters who had escaped the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan were returning to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations formed the core of AQAP.

A campaign of targeted killings and vehicle bombings tore through the Kingdom before petering out after AQAP relocated to Yemen and al Qaeda’s central apparatus turned its attention to Iraq.

These attacks (which failed to produce an uprising of any sort) led the Saudis to cooperate more closely with the U.S.-led “War on Terror.” The U.S. praised Saudi efforts to crack down on homegrown terrorism, and cooperation between the two (over such things as terrorist financing and renditions to Guantanamo Bay) increased – well, sometimes, that is.

In any case, by the mid-2000s, the furor over Saudi perfidy had partly subsided as all eyes turned to Iran’s nuclear program and influence in post-Saddam Iraq.

”As, if not more, indispensable”

So for all the talk of the Saudis striking out on their own, things are very much business as usual between the U.S. and the Kingdom these days. For instance, an arms deal is on the table involving the Saudi receipt of “warships with integrated air and Aegis missile defense systems, as well as helicopters, patrol craft and shore infrastructure” and a program to “train a new Facilities Security Force (FSF) designed to protect sensitive Saudi oil installations . . . to reach 35,000 strong” (although the U.S. bases there are closed, U.S. military trainers continue to work in Saudi Arabia).

The Facilities Security Force is rather indicative of the pillars of the relationship: protection of U.S. oil interests, as well as military cooperation against any actors – democratic, terroristic or otherwise – that threaten the Kingdom and U.S. influence in the region.

Even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound up in this oil, as Prince Turki – who masterminded the CIA links to the mujahedeen during the Cold War – has made clear:

“American leaders have long called Israel an “indispensable” ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region — not least the Arab street — who are as, if not more, “indispensable.” . . . .There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.”

One commentator predicts that U.S. support for the Israeli position on Palestinian statehood will prove to be “just not as indispensable as affordable energy.” Whether this will hold true for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict remains to be seen, but it has certainly held true for most other issues between the U.S. and the Saudis. 

Whatever happens at the UN this fall, though, the counterrevolution in the Gulf will continue. Neither the U.S. nor the Kingdom is truly willing to risk upsetting the Persian Gulf over the Palestinians.

Paul Mutter would like to thank Professor Deepa Kumar of Rutgers University for her assistance with this article.