Amazingly, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is even worse than its domestic practices. The fixation on Iran has distorted the administration’s treatment of the Kingdom. Tehran is a weak state, with no effective ability to strike at the U.S. except for American forces in the Middle East. Washington does not need dubious allies like the Kingdom for protection against Iran.
Instead, the KSA, despite its pretensions of power, is the supplicant, seeking to buy bodyguards, just like it buys most ever other service. It has spent massively on the military: Riyadh’s $83 billion expenditure in 2018, much of it on U.S. weapons, put it at No. 3 in the world, ahead of Russia. Yet its military is a pitiful vanity force. Yemen’s Houthi irregulars have regularly embarrassed the royal legions.
Which should surprise no one. Who wants to die for the licentious, libertine royals? Who finds life’s greatest satisfaction kowtowing to an absolute monarch who chops up his critics? Who sees any reason to work hard in defense if no one works hard in any other job? So the crown prince, who dropped more than a half billion dollars on his yacht, almost as much, it is believed, on a Leonardo da Vinci painting, and some $350 million on a French chateau, sees money as the solution to his defense problem. He treats American military personnel as mercenaries, spending enough money on U.S. goods to convince politicians to provide de facto bodyguards. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned, the Saudis always desire to “fight the Iranians to the last American.”
Certain, at least until recently, in Washington’s protection, the irresponsible, reckless, and foolish crown prince has done more to destabilize the Middle East than Iran. He launched an invasion of Yemen to put a malleable client back in power, igniting a sectarian battle along the way. Until Riyadh’s attack, Iran had only limited influence over the Houthi movement. The KSA’s aggression created a humanitarian disaster and empowered al‐Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, along with other radical groups.
MbS kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, forcing the latter’s resignation — which was withdrawn the moment the man was freed. The Saudis underwrote Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup in Egypt; the general turned president is more repressive than Hosni Mubarak and risks sparking another popular explosion as a result of pervasive brutality, corruption, and injustice. The Kingdom even used troops to support another authoritarian Sunni monarch, this one in Bahrain, which hosts a U.S. naval base. The much‐abused Shia majority there makes for another unstable tyranny.
Riyadh backed jihadist insurgents in Syria, including enemies of America. The Kingdom intervened in Libya’s civil war, as well. And MbS launched diplomatic and economic war against Qatar, seeking to turn Doha into a puppet regime, dividing the Gulf States: the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are against, with Kuwait and Oman seeking to remain neutral. This is a record of extraordinary irresponsibility. With friends like this, the U.S. is better off with enemies.
MbS’s regime desperately deserves less money. A lot less. The good news is that tough times are likely to happen, despite the president’s unfortunate attempt to bolster the energy market. The New York Times reported, “Not only is the coronavirus redefining daily life for Saudis, but plummeting oil prices are robbing the kingdom of the enormous wealth that was underwriting the new Saudi Arabia. The twin blows threaten to sink Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s sweeping social and economic agenda, and have already curtailed the vast welfare state that has given most Saudis a comfortably subsidized life.”
This couldn’t happen to a nastier corrupt thug. He might even have to stop slaughtering civilians in Yemen.
Actually, another possible effect that would be even better. Sanctions advocates routinely try to impose economic hardship, encouraging people to revolt. It hasn’t worked anywhere yet, but hope breeds eternal.
Perhaps the KSA will be the first successful case. Falling oil prices operate in much the same way as sanctions. As the Times noted, “Saudis long accustomed to generous fuel and electricity subsidies, cushy government jobs and free education and health care may live far less comfortably than previous generations did, rewriting the relationship between Saudis and their rulers.” Maybe they will decide it’s time to stop letting the royals grab the cash first and take a huge cut before sharing anything with everyone else.
For years, decades actually, presidents abased themselves in Riyadh, desperate to ensure a steady oil supply. Yet the royals always had to sell the oil. Otherwise they would have no money for personal luxuries or public subsidies. Today Washington no longer needs to worry about access to Saudi oil. U.S. officials should remove the “kick me” sign they routinely wear when meeting Saudi leaders.
And Americans should enjoy the spectacle of hard times hitting Riyadh. MbS has spent his entire reign spending money for ill. It is time for him to finally do without. Maybe the Saudi people will eventually do without him.