In his speech last week on the Middle East, President Barack Obama left little doubt that America stands with the people of the region in their demand for change. This puts the U.S. on a collision course with Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom has emerged as the leader of a new rejectionist front that is determined to defeat popular demand for reform. One would have expected Iran to lead such a front, but instead it is America’s closest Arab ally in the region that is seeking to defeat our policy. Though the president made no mention of Saudi Arabia in his speech, in the near term, dealing with the kingdom is the biggest challenge facing the U.S. in the Middle East.
Saudi rulers have made clear that they find U.S. support for democracy naive and dangerous, an existential threat to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. If the U.S. supports democracy, the Saudis are signaling, it can no longer count on its special bond with Riyadh (read: oil).
The Saudi threat is intended to present U.S. policymakers with a choice between U.S. values and U.S. interests. The idea is that either Washington stays the course, supporting the Arab people’s demands for reform, and risks a rift with Saudi Arabia, or it protects that relationship and loses the rest of the Middle East.
In fact, the choice between U.S. values and interests is a false choice, as the president made clear in his speech. Now, American policy has to reflect this truth. So far, Washington has tried to placate the Saudis. It is time we challenged their words and deeds, instead.
It’s no surprise that the tectonic shift in Arab politics, a popular revolt calling for reform, openness and accountability, worries the Saudi monarchy. The kingdom, like the rest of the Arab world, has a young population that wants jobs, freedom and a say in politics. Thirty-nine percent of Saudis ages 20 to 24 are unemployed. Having watched Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak step down amid protests in which Egyptian youths played a key role, Saudi King Abdullah announced $35 billion in new social benefits to head off demands for reform at home. That bought the monarchy time, but too many dominoes are falling in its direction to allow for complacency. Violent protests on Saudi Arabia’s borders, inside Bahrain and Yemen, have been particularly troubling.
From the outset, Riyadh encouraged every Arab ruler to resist reform. The more Washington embraced the Arab Spring, the more Riyadh worried. Saudi rulers took particular exception to Washington’s call for Mubarak to resign, and when the U.S. urged reform in Bahrain, they saw U.S. policy as a direct threat to them.
Washington had encouraged Bahrain’s king, Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa, to enter into dialog with the opposition there, and American diplomats were directly involved in mediating talks. An agreement was almost at hand when Riyadh took the rare step of undermining U.S. policy. Saudi rulers persuaded Bahrain to scuttle the talks and bring in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to suppress the protests.
The weak excuse for this clumsy crackdown was that Iran was orchestrating the protests and Iranian expansionism had to be stopped in its tracks. A local protest inspired by popular demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt was transformed into a regional conflict. The Saudi strategy was clear: shift the focus from democracy to the bogeyman, Iran.
Emboldened by the outcome in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has mounted a regional strategy to defeat the Arab Spring. Riyadh has called for expansion of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Arab countries that are oil-producing and sit on the Persian Gulf, to include Jordan and Morocco, which qualify on neither count.
The expansion would transform the GCC into the Arab world’s club of monarchies. Membership would provide cash-strapped Jordan and Morocco ample financial resources to mollify angry protesters. In return, they would have to abandon reform and be prepared to lend their more serious militaries to put down protests should they erupt again in Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia’s new posture is a serious challenge to U.S. policy. Conceding to Saudi demands will put America on the wrong side of a widely popular historical transformation in the region, and thus will only hurt U.S. interests in the long run. Bahrain’s heavy-handed suppression of protests has already dented American standing in the region.
Having Saudi Arabia deliberately ratchet up tensions with Iran is also risky. The Persian Gulf monarchies don’t have the military muscle to back their aggressive policy toward Iran. Their credibility depends on U.S. support. And if baiting Iran escalates tensions in the Gulf, U.S. interests and the sheer size of its military presence there will inevitably put the U.S. in the middle of the conflict.
Confronting the Challenge
For all these reasons, the U.S. needs to confront the Saudi challenge head-on. Failure to do so will hurt our standing in the region and alienate public opinion there, which will only benefit Iran.
The U.S. should assert its leadership role in the Middle East. It should make clear that, our close ties to Saudi Arabia notwithstanding, we will be as vigilant in pushing for reform in Bahrain as in Libya or Syria. Washington should be prepared to act if the monarchy in Bahrain doesn’t end its crackdown and start a meaningful dialog with the opposition. We should also make clear to Jordan and Morocco that America supports their reform initiatives and won’t look favorably on reversing course.
It’s true that we rely on the GCC for oil, but there will be no interruption in the flow of oil if we disagree with the Gulf states. Their livelihood depends on oil; to profit from it, they must sell it. Moreover, the GCC countries need us to protect their security, as was made amply clear in both wars with Iraq. What should concern us, then, is not the Saudi threats but rather how the people of the Middle East will judge our policies at this critical juncture in their history.
(Vali Nasr is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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