The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will not shift American ties in any way, say U.S. officials. King Abdullah ibn Abd al-Aziz passed away at the age of 90 on January 23; he had outlived two other crown princes. The new king, Salman, is 79 years old–and allegedly riddled with dementia. Nevertheless, the kingdom is expected to spend $56 billion on defense in 2015; $17 billion is earmarked for new weaponry; and they plan to modernize their navy, according to Defense One. The U.S. has supplied the Arab nation with weaponry as well. In 2010, the U.S. approved a $60 billion transfer with the Saudis, supplying them with Black Hawk helicopters, Apaches, and F-15s:
The younger Salman “certainly understands the U.S. alliance and the reason for it,” said Anthony Cordesman, analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has been an adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
American officials do not expect any major shifts in policy with oil-rich kingdom, a key ally that has supported some U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Middle East. Saudi Arabian aircraft have been a small part of the coalition striking Islamic State militant strongholds in Syria, and Riyadh has offered to host a training program for moderate Syrian rebels. Abdullah over the years had raised concerns about Washington’s reluctance to get involved in Syria, which the kingdom sees as being heavily influenced by Iran.
“[President Barack Obama] certainly hopes, and we expect, that the strong relationship that exists between the United States and Saudi Arabia will endure under the leadership of the new king,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said [last] Friday.
Yet, this may just be diplomatic protocol. It’s been reported that the late King Abdullah wasn’t a fan of Obama (via RCP):
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, ISTANBUL: What I think is most important is the idea of continuity. Saudi Arabia wants to maintain stability, they want to maintain the same policies which have worked for them, and kept the Saud family in power for nearly a century.
That is the key thing here, not to, in fact, Saudi Arabia was actively against rapid moves towards democratization. One of the big ironies here is that President Obama in his statement said how close he was to King Abdullah.
King Abdullah did not like President Obama. In fact, a lot of people I know who are quite close to the late King Abdullah said that the King could not stand President Obama because the president was supportive of the Arab Spring, and because the president did not support Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, in fact turned his back on Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
So this close personal bond between the president and the Saudi leader is just people being polite at a time of sadness.
Additionally, with the fall of Yemen, the president seems to be aloof concerning the possible geopolitical disaster that awaits thanks to his ineffectual foreign policy; Obama once used Yemen as a model for counterterrorism operations, specifically ISIS.
There’s also navigating through Saudi Arabia’s legacy of spreading Islamic fundamentalism, our part in that effort, and balancing America’s national security interests, which Sarah Chayes, former special adviser to Chairman Of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, noted:
But perhaps the most disturbing Saudi legacy may be the spread of fundamentalist Islam itself. It is a matter of historical record that the ibn Saud clan made a deal with the religious establishment that espoused the rigid interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism — especially when fighting to consolidate power over the peninsula in the early 20th century. In return for supporting the ibn Sauds, the Wahhabi establishment gained sweeping control over judicial, social, and educational affairs.
Anxious to keep the Wahhabis occupied and to deflect their puritanical zeal away from their own house, the ibn Sauds encouraged and helped finance a sweeping proselytization movement, which included the radicalization of guest-workers in Saudi Arabia and the establishment of thousands of fundamentalist mosques across much of the continent.
U.S. officials are proud of the Arab participation in their anti-ISIS effort. Saudi Arabia is the coalition’s crown jewel. But too often, Washington rewards counterterrorism cooperation with a blank check. One reason it should cease doing so is that counterterrorism alone is not the answer to extremism, and that’s a sentiment U.S. officials keep repeating. As Secretary of State John Kerry put it Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, “Eliminating the terrorists who confront us today actually only solves part of the problem…. We have to transform the very environment from which these movements emerge…. The future will be determined by accountable and accessible political and justice systems, so that people feel they can be protected by the government — not fear it.”
The U.S. should use this moment of transition and its new oil independence to adjust its relationship with Saudi Arabia, so that military considerations cease to dominate all others. In the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring, U.S. officials have not been especially consistent in their support for political reform in the Arab world. And the argument for authoritarianism may appear stronger than ever to Saudi rulers. But a reinforcement of past practices would be dangerous for the Middle East and ultimately for the Kingdom itself.
The suggestion here is not that Washington brand Saudi Arabia a pariah nation. It is that a close and substantive partnership does not mean an unconditional one. In the short term, as counterintuitive as it may seem, Washington should push for the rollback of recent Saudi antiterrorism laws. They are used to clamp down on ordinary political activism.
Most importantly, U.S. officials, military and civilian, should ensure that issues of substantive political reform stay high on the agenda in interactions with their Saudi counterparts. Not in spite of the extremist menace, but because of it.
You can debate whether this is the course of action we should take in the region; it’s always hard to argue for western-style liberal democratic reforms in a region of the world that has no historical precedent for such principles.
But given Obama’s list of intelligence failures–and the failures of smart power diplomacy–it’s safe to say that we shouldn’t be surprised if this administration continues to fumble in the realm of foreign affairs and confronting Islamic terrorism.
For now, at least this relationship seems to be intact, or at least, on paper.