US-Saudi relationship status: It’s complicated

The weapondollar-petrodollar coalition of interests best describes US and Saudi ‘special relationship’, writes Levine.

"With all the talk of “warm friendship” and “productive and enjoyable” lunches between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Saudi counterpart in Paris this week, one could be forgiven for imagining the article was about Israel, and not Saudi Arabia," writes LeVine [Reuters]

After decades when the core components of US and Saudi strategic policies were more or less in sync, the United States is suddenly not playing by the Saudi playbook. It won’t give the Syrian resistance a blank check; it is daring to consider softening its stance towards Iran; it has dared to criticise, however mildly, Bahrain’s crackdown on the country’s majority Shia population; and finally the Egyptian military’s reassertion of its political primacy with the removal of President Mohamed Morsi this past summer.

This will not do, according to long-serving Saudi Ambassador to Washington and present National Security Chief Bandar bin Sultan, who is warning that his country will make an “major shift” in its relations with Washington if the Obama Administration doesn’t come to its senses soon.

Many are imagining that the sudden emergence of fracking has so increased US domestic reserves that the time will soon come when it won’t need Saudi oil and the messy relationship that comes with it. But this is most likely wishful thinking; first because the US has never depended on the Saudis for its own consumption. Second, because it’s still not at all clear that the reserves recoverable by the new technologies will be anywhere near the predicted amount of resources discovered. And third, because the US-Saudi relationship has always been about a lot more than oil, with military and strategic considerations playing an equally important role in the past 60 years.

Saudis and Israelis: One Hand

With all the talk of “warm friendship” and “productive and enjoyable” lunches between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Saudi counterpart in Paris this week, one could be forgiven for imagining the article was about Israel, and not Saudi Arabia. And indeed, historically speaking, the “special relationship” between the US and Saudi Arabia is older and even deeper than the US-Israel relationship, going back to World War II, and placing Saudi Arabia at the centre of US geostrategic planning well before Israel had “proved” its worth with its performance during the 1967 war.

Of course, Soviet Union’s support for so-called “radical” Arab countries ran counter to both Saudi and Israeli interests, so both countries, along with Iran and ultimately Egypt, become the “pillars” of US defence policy in the region by the 1970s.

So close are the interests of the two major US allies that, borrowing a phrase from the Egyptian uprising, it is as if Israel and Saudi Arabia are like “one hand”, their interests inseparable, even if the Saudis do try every few years to prod Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians.

If we consider the more than $150bn in weapons purchases by the Saudis over the last half-century, and the similar amount of weapons supplied to Israel – or rather, largely to US arms companies under the guise of aid to Israel – at US taxpayers’ expense (and tens of billions more in military aid to Egypt, which is directly tied to aid to Israel and sales to Saudi Arabia), the unparalleled coalescing of interests shared by the two countries becomes clear.

This shared interest also extends to long-term support for other Arab dictatorships in the guise of a level of “stability” that will ensure the continuation of the strategically favourable status quo, and a visceral desire to ensure Iran remains without the ability to produce nuclear weapons or otherwise constitute a strategic threat to either country.

This raises the question of what Israel will do if the Saudis actually downgrade their relationship with the US, in particular by purchasing more arms from other countries. Any serious deterioration in US-Saudi relations and the money it brings into US government and corporate coffers would constitute a pretty serious threat to Israel’s strategic position.

We share the same goals”

It is perhaps no longer surprising, but is still quite disheartening to hear the Obama Administration, three years into the “Arab Spring”, openly admit not only to having the same goals as one of the world’s most ruthless and oppressive dictatorships, but to having “an obligation to work closely with them – as I am doing”. At least with Israel, there is the pretence of supporting the “only democracy in the Middle East”. That such claims were nonsense doesn’t gainsay the fact that at least there was a feeling that the truth about Israeli policies must be avoided in order to keep the aid flowing.

Aside from a tepid attempt to declare that the US and Saudis both want a “return to democracy” in Egypt, the Administration doesn’t ever feel the need to hide or obfuscate the reality of the Saudi regime. That’s because hardly anyone in the mainstream media ever bothers to question having such a “special relationship” with one of the world’s most corrupt and brutal states.

The litany of abuses is well-known: From preventing women from driving, to beheading migrant workers on a regular basis, and being the single most important funder of extremist Islam for the last 40 years. If people rightly complain that Israel too often gets a free pass from the US media, what should they say about the US-Saudi relationship?

Quite simply, Saudi Arabia has always been and remains one of the least free countries in the world; the epitome of how disastrous the mixing of absolute monarchy and uncompromising religious conservatism can be. Beyond its internal politics, from West Africa to Southeast Asia and most places between it’s hard to think of an anti-American or Western jihadi movement that hasn’t been supported by senior Saudis at one time or another.

And yet, year after year, tens of billions of dollars in weapons sales, incestuously close intelligence cooperation, and other aspects of the US-Saudi alliance, continue as if they were a fact of nature instead of an artifice of politics and economic interests in a relationship which for decades has been defined by the politicisation of oil sales and commercialisation of arms exports.

Recycling of petrodollars

Together, the all-powerful recycling of wealth and power from oil to weapons has defined the power of the “weapondollar-petrodollar” coalition of interests in the US and its Persian Gulf allies, to the point of ensuring a routine surge of instabilities that ensure continued high oil prices and ever increasing weapons purchases.

But recycling petrodollars through massive arms purchases is only part of the story. Equally important has been the untold billions – by some accounts, in the trillions – of dollars that the Saudis have traditionally invested in the US, in another form of petrodollar recycling, as well as the Kingdom’s historic role in preserving the dollar as the de facto global currency through its predominant role in global oil pricing.

These policies have not merely determined the agenda of repression, violence and war that dominates the relationship between Western and governments across the Middle East and North Africa (any variance in which, as we now see, will be met with stiff resistance by the Saudis), but also the neo-liberal economic policies that have equally stunted efforts at sustainable and democratic development in the US as much as in the developing world.

What becomes clear when you look at the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, and particularly the nature, extent and directions of the money flow between them, is that even more than determining the present order across the Middle East and North Africa, the relationship is central to the maintenance of the existing political economy within the US, one that has seen an intensification of wealth and inequality and the growing power of finance capital in the last 40 years as part of the rise of neo-liberal capitalism in the US and globally.

So if Kerry is running to Paris to dine with his Saudi friends, it’s a good bet that he’s not just doing that to make peace about Syria, Iran or the lack of deference towards Saudi wishes in Egypt and Bahrain. As the $10.8bn arms sales agreement signed last April makes clear, a paramount concern is to ensure that Saudi surpluses continue to flow back to the US to the greatest degree possible at a time when the US economy remains frighteningly anaemic.

The US-Saudi relationship has never been just about oil; it’s been about ensuring that the incredible capital oil production generates, strengthen key sectors of the US economy rather than those of its competitors or allies. If the Saudis are really thinking of upending this relationship, the long-term consequences could reshape the American economy and its politics in ways most commentators and even policy-makers have yet to consider.  

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and  distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.