One striking feature of the first debate featuring the top tier GOP presidential candidates was how many of them described Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf as “friends” of the United States. And clearly that is a bipartisan attitude. Obama administration officials routinely refer to Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally, and one need only recall the infamous photo of President Obama bowing to Saudi King Abdullah to confirm Washington’s devotion to the relationship with Riyadh.
It is a spectacularly unwise attitude. As Cato adjunct scholar Malou Innocent and I document in our new book, Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes, Saudi Arabia is not only an odious, totalitarian power, it has repeatedly undermined America’s security interests.
Saudi Arabia’s domestic behavior alone should probably disqualify the country as a friend of the United States. Riyadh’s reputation as a chronic abuser of human rights is well deserved. Indeed, even as Americans and other civilized populations justifiably condemned ISIS for its barbaric practice of beheadings, America’s Saudi ally executed 83 people in 2014 by decapitation.
In addition to its awful domestic conduct, Riyadh has consistently worked to undermine America’s security. As far back as the 1980s, when the United States and Saudi Arabia were supposedly on the same side, helping the Afghan mujahedeen resist the Soviet army of occupation, Saudi officials worked closely with Pakistan’s intelligence agency to direct the bulk of the aid to the most extreme Islamist forces. Many of them became cadres in a variety of terrorist organizations around the world once the war in Afghanistan ended.
Saudi Arabia’s support for extremists in Afghanistan was consistent with its overall policy. For decades, the Saudi government has funded the outreach program of the Wahhabi clergy and its fanatical message of hostility to secularism and Western values generally. Training centers (madrassas) have sprouted like poisonous ideological mushrooms throughout much of the Muslim world, thanks to Saudi largesse. That campaign of indoctrination has had an enormous impact on at least the last two generations of Muslim youth. Given the pervasive program of Saudi-sponsored radicalism, it is no coincidence that 16 of the 19 hijackers on 9-11 were Saudi nationals.
Riyadh also has shown itself to be a disruptive, rather than a stabilizing, force in the Middle East. Not only has Saudi Arabia conducted military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, thereby eliminating the possibility of peaceful solutions to the bitter domestic divisions in those countries, the Saudi government helped fund and equip the factions in Syria and Iraq that eventually coalesced to form ISIS. Although Saudi officials may now realize that they created an out-of-control Frankenstein monster, that realization does not diminish their responsibility for the tragedy.
In light of such a lengthy, dismal track record, one wonders why any sensible American would regard Saudi Arabia as a friend of the United States. We do not need and should not want such repressive and untrustworthy “friends.”