Can Saudi Arabia Be Trusted?
Will Nuland and Tobias Bock of the Atlantic Community present the pros and cons of the US relationship with Riyadh. How will the arms deal announced in July affect the West? Is Saudi leadership in the Middle East worth rewarding? And what about human rights?
In July, the US Department of State announced a new arms deal for the Middle East that included $20 billion for the Saudis, ostensibly to promote stability in the region. Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who rarely travel together, made a joint trip to Riyadh to cement alliances. But are the Saudis trustworthy allies? The official line from the State Department is that promoting new defense technology among “moderate states” in the Middle East is an important safeguard against Iranian power plays. Some argue, however, that arming Riyadh is tantamount to giving guns to the enemy. The Atlantic Community looks at both sides of the story in this Pro and Con.
* Saudis ensure regional stability: After years of stalled and failed diplomacy in which Middle Eastern state actors refused to step forward and facilitate positive change, Saudi Arabia is stepping in as a legitimate regional leader. The Kingdom reintroduced its 2002 peace initiative at the Arab League summit in March, and the plan, which includes recognition of Israel, was unanimously approved. An arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia (extending to Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) would bolster the more moderate Arab states against Iranian military buildup and the Syrian threat to Lebanon. Israel has lent cautious support to the arms deal, potentially signifying a new era in Mideast security cooperation. More importantly, Saudi Arabia’s lead role in jumpstarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is no aberration, according to Thomas Friedman:
“In recent months, we’ve seen Saudi Arabia publicly blast Hezbollah for launching an unprovoked war on Israel; we’ve seen King Abdullah forge a cease-fire between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza; we’ve seen him try to tame Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
* Saudis are improving their human rights record: Riyadh is taking steps toward domestic reform. The Kingdom has a five-year plan to increase the percentage of women in the Saudi workforce from 5.4 to 14.2 percent. Education is also becoming comparatively more liberal, with women accounting for 56.5 percent of total university graduates. In April 2005, Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections since the 1960s. Though only men were allowed to vote, full participation has been promised for 2009. King Abdullah has also committed to international human rights issues: his involvement in a May 2007 deal between Sudan and Chad to reduce spillover fighting from the crisis in Darfur helped lay the groundwork for the joint AU-UN force deployment resolution this July.
* A valuable strategic partner for the US: Academics, pundits, and conspiracy theorists have called it an unholy alliance, but the bottom line is that the United States and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed a strategic partnership since the early 1930s. Though ideological differences can be vast, national interests are not; cooperation between the two countries furthers both parties’ broader Middle East agendas. Venerable organizations have been created to maintain and secure the US-Saudi defense relationship (USMTM, ARCENT-SA, OPM-SANG) and dismantling them would deal a huge blow to regional security. None of these considerations take into account Saudi Arabia’s clout within OPEC, and the US interest in influencing the Kingdom to keep oil prices low. Finally, Saudi Arabia is–and has been—the largest purchaser of US defense equipment in the world. The new arms deal is not a significant departure from past US policy, and should be nothing to cry wolf about.
* Saudis kill Americans: Saudi donors and charities (up to and including those most renowned) have been a major source of financing to extremist and terrorist groups on a global scale over the past 30 years, donating between $US 85 and 90 billion. Moreover, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens. The largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from Saudi Arabia, accounting for as much as 45% of all external militants, who target US troops as well as Iraqi civilians and security forces.
* Saudi organizations promote violence and religious intolerance: A 2005 report by Freedom House found that mosques in major cities across the US and Western Europe had been given materials bearing the seal of the Saudi government which incited violence among Muslims and propagated anti-Christian and anti-Semitic messages. The dogma of Wahhabism, the national Saudi religion, not only condemns the Judeo-Christian tradition but also rejects other Muslim belief systems.
* A bad role model for a new Middle East: Regardless of Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance, such an expansive arms deal with the country sets the wrong precedent. The “significant human rights problems” listed in the US State Department’s 2006 Country Report on Saudi Arabia include denial of fair public trials, judicially sanctioned corporal punishment, arbitrary arrests, restrictions on civil liberties, and violations of religious freedom. Non-Wahhabi worshippers—Muslim or non-Muslim—are not allowed to possess their own holy documents or to worship in public. The Saudi government also does not comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. As a result, Saudi Arabia has been ranked in the worst category possible for the third year in a row in the US State Department’s report on Trafficking in Persons.