Among the would-be therapists of the foreign policy world, the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia is a textbook case of a “loveless marriage.”
Though the values of the two states are at odds, or so the thinking goes, the great democracy and the absolute monarchy are bound together by mutual interest in the stability of the Persian Gulf, home to almost half of the world’s proven oil and natural gas reserves.
A recent report suggests that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may be looking to expand…again. The report says that, during a March summit, the group of six Arab petro-princedoms extended invitations to both Jordan and Morocco to join a pan-monarchical military alliance. And there is a chance, at least, that the GCC states would include a nominal republic, Egypt, in a broader regional military and defense pact (although it is not clear if Jordan, Morocco and Egypt would need to join the GCC or the military bloc would be a separate entity).
President Barack Obama capped his visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Saturday by presenting the International Women of Courage award to Maha al-Muneef, a pediatrician and executive director of the anti-domestic violence National Family Safety Program (NFSP). We are “very, very proud of you and grateful for all the work you’re doing here,” Obama told her in a brief ceremony at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton. “I’m looking forward to seeing you do even more wonderful things in the future.”
Officials say no, of course. But beneath the surface, the relationship is indeed marked by uncertainty. The rulers in Riyadh have come to question Washington’s commitment to the kingdom’s security, to Saudi primacy in the Gulf and to what has been one of the region’s most durable (and profitable) alliances.
President Barack Obama plans an overnight stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on March 28-29 for a rendezvous with King ‘Abdallah. The enduring but always strange bedfellows have been quarreling of late over Saudi Arabia’s belligerent relations with neighbors Iran and Syria. Both sides hope during this visit to kiss and make up.
In 2013, Mohamed, a 22-year old Somali, was making a living washing cars in Saudi Arabia. Late that year, due to increasing government pressure on employers of undocumented workers, he was fired. In December, after several weeks without a job, Mohamed handed himself over to the police. He spent the next 57 days detained in appalling conditions. “In the first detention center in Riyadh, there was so little food, we fought over it,” he said. “So the strongest ate the most. Guards told us to face the wall and then beat our backs with metal rods. In the second place, there were two toilets for 1,200 people, including dozens of children.” Mohamed is now in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
In 2011 Yemenis shared a vision of revolutionary change with protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria demanding the downfall of cruel, corrupt presidential regimes. Today, like many of their cousins, the peaceful youth (shabab silmiyya) of Yemen face a counter-revolutionary maelstrom from within and without. If Gulf sultans were anxious about insurrection in North Africa, they were even more fearful of subaltern uprisings in their own neighborhood.
A man walks into a library and asks the librarian for a book on human rights in Saudi Arabia. The librarian hands him a blank notebook.
A woman walks into a bookstore and asks for a tourist guide to Saudi Arabia. The bookseller hands her a blank notebook.
A reporter walks into the Saudi embassy and asks for a visa.
Americans follow events in Saudi Arabia by reading the New York Times and Washington Post.
These are all laugh lines. The first one pops up when you Google “jokes about Saudi Arabia.” The next one sort of suggests itself. The other two are equally funny to those in the know.
Senate hearings to confirm John Brennan as the Obama administration’s appointment to be director of the CIA brought to light a heretofore clandestine American military facility in Saudi Arabia near the kingdom’s border with Yemen. While journalistic and public attention rightly focused on extrajudicial executions of Yemenis and even American citizens, the new revelations suggest a larger covert Saudi-American war in Yemen. There’s almost certainly more to this story than what Saudi Arabia fails to confirm.
All claims to the contrary, the Persian Gulf monarchies have been deeply affected by the Arab revolutionary ferment of 2011-2012. Bahrain may be the only country to experience its own sustained upheaval, but the impact has also been felt elsewhere. Demands for a more participatory politics are on the rise, as are calls for the protection of rights and formations of various types of civic and political organization. Although these demands are not new, they are louder than before, including where the price of dissent is highest in Saudi Arabia, Oman and even the usually hushed United Arab Emirates. The resilience of a broad range of activists in denouncing autocracy and discomfiting autocrats is inspirational.
The popular uprising in Bahrain shows no signs of going away.
The royal family tried crushing the revolt, importing shock troops from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. It tried jailing important figures in the opposition, such as human rights activist ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, who as of early May had been on hunger strike for 90 days. The island’s rulers tried quieting the opposition by promising to investigate the abuses and making minor cessions of power from the king to the parliament.
At a press conference on October 11, the Obama administration unveiled a spectacular charge against the government of Iran: The Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, right in Washington, DC, in a place where large numbers of innocent bystanders could have been killed. High-level officials of the Qods Force were said to be involved, the only question being how far up in the Iranian government the complicity went.
Back in 2004, three years into the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 Commission report made its debut to the gushing admiration of the Washington press corps. The report was everything that the mainstream media adores: bipartisan, devoid of divisive finger-pointing, full of conventional wisdom.
Take this pearl: “One of the lessons of the Cold War was that short-term gains in cooperating with the most brutal and repressive governments were often outweighed by long-term setbacks for America’s stature and interests.”
Robert Lacey, Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia (Viking, 2009).
The abundance of oil in Saudi Arabia is staggering. With more than 250 billion barrels, the kingdom possesses one-fifth of the world’s oil reserves, affording it considerable influence
Deep in the morass of YouTube lies a disturbing video clip recorded in late February at the cemetery of al-Baqi‘ and on surrounding streets in Medina, Saudi Arabia. An initial caption promises images of “desecration of graves.” Al-Baqi‘, located next to the mosque of the prophet Muhammad in the second holiest city of Islam, is believed to be the final resting place of four men revered by Shi‘i Muslims as imams or successors to the prophet: Hasan ibn ‘Ali, ‘Ali ibn Husayn, Muhammad ibn ‘Ali and Ja‘afar ibn Muhammad. The prophet’s wives, as well as many of his relatives and close associates, are also said to be buried here, making the ground hallowed for Sunni Muslims as well.
Saudi Arabia, its image in need of polishing in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, has opened itself up to foreign scrutiny of its notoriously poor human rights record. Members of Congress now make regularly scheduled stops in the kingdom; in February 2008, the Saudis welcomed a second two-week fact-finding mission of the UN special rapporteur on violence against women. The scrutiny tends to be tightly managed: A visit to the government’s Human Rights Commission or the National Society for Human Rights, an NGO, is de rigueur.
Rachel Bronson, Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)