National Security & Defense

Our Relationship with Saudi Arabia Is an Embarrassment

President Trump speaks with Saudi King Salman (at right) in Riyadh in May. (Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters)
It also has very real strategic and moral costs.

When he was 17, five years ago, Mujtaba al-Sweikat committed the “crime” of participating in a pro-democracy rally in Saudi Arabia. Instead of attending Western Michigan University, as he had planned to do that fall, he was put in prison. Reports are now leaking out of Saudi Arabia that al-Sweikat will soon be beheaded for his transgression. It’s just the latest reminder that Saudi Arabia is America’s worst best friend.

The U.S. does get something out of its relationship with Saudi Arabia; there is real intelligence sharing, and the Kingdom has used its power over OPEC to drive oil prices down when we want to humiliate Russia or accomplish some other goal. That’s not nothing. Nor will I pretend that a global superpower can do the business of horse-trading only with saints and scholars. But there are real costs to our relationship with the Saudis, and I’m not sure that our policy elites are reckoning with them at all.

A day will come when we need friends with whom we share a real civilizational affinity, and our relationship with the Saudis will hurt us on that day. Saudi-funded mosques and preachers flow into the nations of our friends and allies, preaching hatred and occasionally terror. We often talk about how nationalism is a response to the globalization of commerce. But it’s also a response to the globalization of Saudi Arabia’s favorite forms of Islam. Syrian refugees come to Germany and find Saudi-funded mosques that are far more extreme than anything they knew at home. Saudi-funded clerics are a major engine of extremism, and of the nationalist backlash it produces, from France to India.

Saudi actions in this regard are so embarrassing and brazen that Western nations won’t even let themselves be heard discussing them intelligibly. Last Week, U.K. home secretary Amber Rudd refused to publish her own government’s delayed report on the funding of extremist groups. Even in the press releases, the government was too ashamed to admit the fact that everyone knew to be in them: Saudi Arabia funnels money to the extremist groups that threaten Europe with terrorism.

There is a major strategic cost to our alliance with the Saudis, whether anyone cares to admit it or not. The U.S.–Saudi preference for regime change and demotic movements (no matter how loathsome) has been a gift to extremists everywhere. It’s destabilized several Middle Eastern countries and contributed to a refugee crisis that is reordering the politics and society of Europe, while also visiting terrorism on our historic allies. By contrast, the Russian and Iranian strategy of siding with sovereign states (no matter how loathsome) so long as they represent predictable national interests seems rational.

There is also a moral and reputational cost to the alliance. U.S. and European foreign-policy thinkers often talk about putting forward our “values” in dealing with authoritarian regimes in China or Russia. We criticize Russia and China for violating human rights, and our leaders whip up popular antipathy for these regimes by highlighting their crimes. That we will do nothing as our close friends the Saudis decapitate someone who should have been matriculating at one of our schools makes us hypocrites of the worst kind. What’s more, when the U.S. Air Force is refueling Saudi planes as they indiscriminately bomb hospitals and food-supply centers in Yemen, contributing to famine conditions and the worst outbreak of cholera in modern times, our complaints about Putin’s similar adventures in Syria ring hollow.

Our support of Saudi Arabia doesn’t just make it difficult to “win hearts and minds” to the cause of a more-liberal Middle East; it adds to the overall cynicism about how foreign affairs are conducted. Worse yet, the mismatch between our rhetoric and policy contributes to our own capacity for self-delusion.

It’s simply embarrassing to be friends with the Saudis. No, we cannot conduct foreign policy with only neutral and peaceful countries. But sometimes a man looks at his pals and sees something so ugly he thinks less of himself. Our alliance with this squalid little Kingdom is demoralizing.


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