Why the US Should Move on from Saudi Arabia

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Jake Ferguson is a Master’s degree candidate in the International Security program in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His research is primarily focused on the future of US-Middle East relations, and how the Unites States can strategically counter Chinese aggression.

OPINION — Why would the United States continue to reward a country for repeatedly making bad decisions that undermine its interests? That country is Saudi Arabia and that question recently spurred Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) to propose a bill that calls for the removal of all U.S. military personnel and equipment from the Kingdom, and their transfer to another Middle Eastern country.

Senator Cramer is right.

The United States should not support a Saudi Arabia that does not act in our interest. The proposed legislation, which Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) co-sponsored, would benefit the United States by sending a message about the type of behavior we expect from our allies, and it would allow for a transition away from an unstable, unreliable Saudi Arabia as America’s main strategic partner in the region and instead invest in strategic, stable partnerships in the Middle East.

Saudi is no longer a reliable ally due to the leadership and temperament of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), whose actions have not been in the best interest of the United States. MBS is widely viewed as the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, while his father King Salman is seemingly a figurehead. His decisions largely revolve around consolidating power for himself and are leading to the destruction of the U.S.- Saudi relationship.

What have the Saudis under MBS done that has undermined the interests of the United States? Three issues stand out.

First, our support for Saudi undermines our ability to promote American values and human rights throughout the globe, as the international community views our silence about MBS’s actions as complicity. Saudis actively crush dissent, whether from civilians or within the royal family. Their orchestration of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi exemplified this tendency. Such ruthlessness by a close American partner hurts our credibility as the shining city upon the hill, as it appears to the rest of the world that we are willing to sell out those values to the tune of billions of dollars in weapons contracts.

Second, the relationship is a strategic liability. The Saudi royal family under MBS has continued to participate in, fund, and direct a coalition force in support of one side in the Yemeni civil war. By doing so, the Saudis have directly contributed to one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history, including the purposeful starvation of innocent Yemeni civilians and the direct killing of thousands of others. These actions undermine American counterterrorism efforts in the regions as the Saudi-created instability in Yemen leads to opportunities for terrorist groups.

Third, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is economically harmful. Bilateral economic tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia led the Saudis to increase their oil output in an effort to crash global oil prices, as they responded to Russia’s attempt to grab market share from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis’ choice to use economic warfare instead of solving the issue diplomatically directly hurt U.S. energy producers, damaged the U.S. economy in the midst of a pandemic, and showed that the Saudis lack concern about whether their decisions hurt the United States.

Senator Cramer’s proposed legislation, S.3572, did not name the Middle Eastern country to which the U.S. armed forces leaving the Kingdom would relocate, but the top two choices should be Qatar and Jordan. Qatar has proven in recent years that they possess stable leadership. They have also exhibited their willingness to assist and invest in American foreign policy objectives, exemplified by their multi-billion dollar investment in Al-Udeid Air base. The Al-Udeid Air base is the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, the forward operating headquarters of United States Central Command, and integral to the American counterterrorism efforts due to its strategic location in the heart of the region. Qatar is also developing the Hamad Port to make it capable of hosting expanded U.S. Navy operations.

Jordan too is a reliable U.S. partner and strategically located in the region. Amman plays a vital role in U.S. counterterrorism efforts and enjoys a great relationship with the U.S. intelligence community. Jordan boasts the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base, which the United States spent over $140 million to update and renovate to house more personnel, drones, fighter jets, and cargo planes. Jordan has demonstrated a willingness to work closely with the United States. Moreover, it already benefits from millions of dollars in U.S. foreign assistance, exemplifying the trust the United States has in Jordan’s leadership.

The chances of this bill’s passage through Congress are slim. There are too many districts that rely on defense contractors, and lobbyists will remind the Hill that Saudi Arabia buys a great deal of U.S. made weapons. If by chance it did pass, there are even slimmer odds that the President would sign it into law.

However, there is hope as skepticism of the U.S. relationship with the Kingdom is increasingly bipartisan—demonstrated by recent legislation passed in the House and Senate condemning the Saudis. The Democratic Party’s presidential primary debates have also featured a number of candidates who wanted to reevaluate the relationship with Saudi Arabia. Combined, this growing skepticism could force the 2020 national campaign to address the future of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia.

Whether America chooses to lighten our footprint in the Middle East, or whether we choose to stay and maintain a presence in the region, we will be reliant on having stable relationships with countries in the region. Saudi Arabia and MBS have continually taken advantage of their relationship with the United States and have made choices that directly hurt our interests. It is time that the United States asks itself if we can rely on Saudi Arabia, or if we should move on and invest in more stable relationships in the region.

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