Policy Analysis No. 770

Friends Like These: Why Petrostates Make Bad Allies

In what the Obama administration describes as a “years-long” coalition effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, the United States has reentered conflict in the Middle East. The White House heralds its close cooperation with Arab allies, including a number of petrostates such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, describing their cooperation as vital to the success of the campaign.

But petrostates are unlikely to be good allies for the U.S. campaign in Iraq and Syria. The reliance of those countries on oil and gas revenues distorts both foreign policy decisions and their implementation. First, petrostates have weak foreign policy institutions, producing policy that is of poor quality and strongly driven by personalities. Second, the vast flow of oil income enables the states to back nonstate actors in conflicts, but their weak civil service cannot control the flow of arms or funds. Third, oil income also enriches private citizens, some of whom directly fund terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Thus, largely through ineptitude, those states have helped to foster Syria’s civil war, indirectly facilitating the rise of ISIS.

The idiosyncrasies of oil-rich states make them poor partners for the United States in this instance and in future conflicts. As allies, petrostates are especially likely to draw America into unnecessary and intractable conflicts. In particular, Washington should largely disentangle itself from the Saudi alliance and from reliance on Saudi intelligence and diplomatic services. Keeping Saudi Arabia at arm’s length will help to minimize involvement in Middle East conflicts that are not vital to U.S. interests.

Emma Ashford is a visiting research fellow at the Cato Institute. She holds a PhD and BA in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and an MA in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service.