“A permanent breach with Saudi Arabia is not an acceptable outcome.” That was the blunt assessment of former State Department official and longtime GOP foreign policy maven Marc Thiessen in the Washington Post this week. That’s more true than many would like to think, even amidst bipartisan disgust over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, apparently by Saudi security forces in Istanbul (on Friday night the Saudis finally confirmed Khashoggi’s death, but claimed he died in a fist fight). The United States and Riyadh are deeply entangled, both economically and around core security goals. Undoing those ties would be a slow process, but it may be a better bet than trying to change Saudi behavior.
A popular American stereotype is that the U.S. is dependent on Saudi oil. We’re not. Saudi Arabia accounts for 13 percent of global crude oil production, while the U.S. produces 12 percent. While we’re debunking outdated ideas, many Americans — including President Trump — still believe that the Saudi-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) controls world production and prices. While its members control about 40 percent of oil production, and 80 percent of proven petroleum deposits, it has been decades since its members have been able to agree on measures stringent enough to inflict pain on developed nations like the U.S. In fact, in recent years the Saudis have usually chosen to live with lower oil prices for political reasons.
The economic truth is more complicated. An awful lot of the U.S. economy is greased by Saudi money — the oil industry, but also the assembly lines making weapons the Saudis buy, or buy for others, and the Silicon Valley firms where the Saudis are parking their oil money in anticipation of a low-carbon future. Then there’s the Washington lobbying firms and think tanks that the Saudis and their Gulf allies have invested in heavily.
But like OPEC, the influence of Saudi money gets exaggerated awfully fast — and popular debate over Saudi doings can be quick to take on a racist tinge.
Let’s look at what Trump claims is a deal to supply $110 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh, maintaining profits and priceless manufacturing jobs here in the U.S. CNN reports that, 18 months after the deal was announced, the Saudis have only followed through on about one-eighth of the purchases. Bloomberg crunches some numbers to point out that, although the Saudis have been weapons customers for decades, their total purchases of U.S. goods annually are dwarfed by … Switzerland.
And about those defense manufacturing jobs? They do matter, tremendously, to the manufacturing communities where they are clustered, the unions who represent the well-paid workers, and members of Congress in states like Ohio, Missouri and Washington. Over all, though, the entire private sector defense industry represents .5 percent of U.S. employment.
In recent years, the Saudis’ heavy investment in Silicon Valley has led some observers to warn that the same government that apparently killed one of its own citizens on foreign soil could decide to turn the screws on the U.S. high-tech industry. But in fact, for every dollar the Saudis want to pull out, there’s still an American, Chinese or other global investor’s dollar eager to get in.
U.S.-Saudi economic ties are important — and convenient for whichever party is in power, as both Republican and Democratic presidents have found over the years. But the ties that hold Washington and Riyadh the closest are political.
For decades, Washington has seen the Saudi kingdom as a force for stability in the Middle East — stability of oil prices and thus not only the U.S. economy, but the regional politics of other U.S. partners. The Saudis formed many of their core policies in line with U.S. desires, using their oil money to help prop up Jordan and Egypt, and coming to a quiet understanding and even partnership with Israel, rather than continuing to promote the more radical of Israel’s Palestinian opponents. Washington, in turn, accepted whatever Riyadh chose to do internally to maintain its version of stability — occasionally raising a protest, supporting reformers, and allowing dissidents to settle here, but all quietly.
This bargain had frayed badly before Trump. The American public never got over the perception of Saudi royals’ tolerance of the growth of Al Qaeda and 9/11. Policymakers were deeply frustrated by the influence of Saudi-trained and funded extremists elsewhere in the Muslim world, and angered by Saudi efforts to promote hardliners and foil civil society movements during the Arab Spring. The two states’ fundamental goals seemed to have diverged, particularly over Iran. Riyadh sees Tehran as its chief regional foe and expected Washington’s support against it; President Obama and his team sought to defuse nuclear tensions and, for much of the administration, hoped to reset the relationship more broadly.
But the Trump administration reversed that course and built its Middle East policy entirely around the Saudis’ tacit alliance with Israel and their full-press hostility against Iran. The U.S. economy may be able to manage if the Saudis raise oil prices — but Trump’s plan to squeeze Iranian oil production to zero cannot succeed without Saudi willingness to supply substitute oil as needed.
Another administration might want to rebalance more evenly between Tehran and Riyadh — or play less of a role all together in the region’s quarrels. But the Trump team has defined Tehran as one of its chief foes, leaving them without a regional alternative — and Riyadh knows it, no one better than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose relationship with Jared Kushner has allowed him a close-up view into what this administration’s bottom lines are.
There is one last reason, regardless of who sits in the White House, for caution when thinking about changes to the relationship. Rapid change in the Middle East — or anywhere, for that matter — raises the risks of violence, instability, and human suffering. Washington has been so deeply implicated in the region’s arrangements for decades that it is just wrong to image we could dust our hands and walk away without any human cost following us.
Still, if Washington wants to disentangle itself, there are steps it can take. The fact that those would be slow and led by Congress might actually, given the risk of instability and violence, be just right. Congress can slow down the spigot of military aid and add stronger conditions to get serious about Yemen, where dozens of civilians are dying as horribly as Khashoggi every day. Congress can ease off the energy policies that promote fossil fuels. Congress can limit the administration’s gratuitous attempts to heighten tensions with Iran; there are plenty of real issues in Iranian behavior without creating non-issues. And Congress can insist that more information be released on what we knew, and when, about the plot to murder a journalist in a consulate, historically a place of refuge. Whether the current batch of lawmakers — or perhaps those elected in November — are willing to take any of those steps is another question.