War Stories

Long Live the King!

Why President Obama is suddenly cozying up to the Saudi royal family. 

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman.
President Barack Obama meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman at Erga Palace in Riyadh on Jan. 27, 2015. 

© Jim Bourg / Reuters

President Obama’s hasty trip to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday—cutting short his time in India and summoning an unusually large entourage, including his secretary of state and CIA director, to meet him there—signals not only an intent to repair the damage in relations with Riyadh, but perhaps also a return to the hard-headedness that marked his first term’s foreign policy.

The express reason for the visit was to pay respect to the royal family on the occasion of King Abdullah’s death, but Obama used the opportunity to declare—in a more palpable way than he has with any other ally of late—the primacy of this particular special relationship. This is the reason he brought along not only his own top advisers, but also tokens of bipartisanship (notably Sen. John McCain) and, more significant, key foreign-policy hands of the Bush presidencies (James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley), when Saudi ties were golden.

The longtime coziness between the oil kingdom and the leader of the free world has gone cold for some time and turned frigid in 2013, when Obama refrained from bombing Syria and undertook negotiations with Iran—the Saudis’ two main enemies. Those moves came in the wake of Obama’s abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, their main ally, during the Arab Spring protests of 2011.

At the low point, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief and former longtime ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar Sultan al-Saud, publicly grumbled that the kingdom was losing trust in Obama’s judgment and might reassess the whole web of relations between the two powers.

Obama didn’t panic over the threat, nor did he need to. Bandar’s rhetorical flourishes coincided with, and may have reflected, a weakening of Saudi power—its standing as the world’s largest petroleum supplier, the basis of its international influence, having just been overtaken by the United States. For once, they needed our arms more than we needed their oil.

The Saudis, as the region’s leading Sunni power, were also trying to draw America into their war against the Shiites, and Bandar was clearly peeved that Obama wouldn’t play along. The Saudis took his reticence as a personal slight; but, in fact, it reflected the reality that, on some matters, the two powers had different interests. No American president would view the Middle East, or frame policies toward the region, simply in terms of a Sunni-Shiite battle.

That said, Obama seems now to recognize—in fact, has recognized for some time—that the Saudis have much to offer along the spectrum of U.S. interests and, given certain realities in the region, it’s a good moment to mend those ties.

Since Bandar’s outburst, and especially in the past few months, the Saudis have joined the fight against ISIS, offered their land to train “moderate” Syrian rebels, refrained from criticizing the nuclear talks with Iran (or the broader diplomatic overture that they might herald), and kept up their output of oil, even though this has abetted the sharp plunging of prices.

The Saudis are doing these things not to curry America’s favor but rather for the same reason that nation-states do most things—because it’s in their interest. They fear the incursion of radical jihadists, even Sunni jihadists like ISIS, because their own territory and thus their rule have come under attack. They host the “moderate” rebels to put pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (and want to encourage Obama to apply more pressure). They stay mum on the Iran talks because they accept, however unhappily, that an accord might delay development of an Iranian A-bomb. And they’re promoting lower oil prices, even at the cost of their own reduced revenue, because they know that it hurts Iran even more.

In short, to an extent that wasn’t true a year ago, the United States and Saudi Arabia share a complex of interests (another being the continuation of peace with Israel) that go well beyond the supply of oil. It’s important for an American president to acknowledge these shared interests, proclaim them loudly, and there are few forums more suitable for sending this message than the memorial for a dead king in a nation-state of patrimonial rule.

Not that this openly renewed friendship doesn’t carry risks for both sides. Jihadists, many of them homegrown, have tried to pierce the walls along the Saudi border—four such attacks in the last six months, killing eight civilians and 11 policemen or border guards—in part because of the kingdom’s alliance with Western infidels. Meanwhile, Obama comes in for criticism, from human-rights groups, for tolerating the royals’ hideous acts of intolerance and cruelty against women and critics—as well as their financial support (albeit less than before) for the very jihadists they now say they want to crush.

Even as a matter of strict realpolitik, it’s a fair question how long the royal kingdom—not merely authoritarian but sclerotic—can last and, therefore, how wholeheartedly we should support it. King Abdullah was 90 when he died; his brother who instantly succeeded him, King Salman, is 79; Salman’s deputy, his half-brother Crown Prince Muqrin, is practically a spring chicken at 69.

But there are some wild cards coming up, not least Mohammed bin Nayef, King Salman’s nephew, the new deputy to the crown prince (before then, the interior minister), and a truly young 55. He is said to understand the socio-economic roots of jihadism and to have promoted job programs for wayward youth. Some attribute this relative enlightenment to his having gone to college in the United States (Portland’s Lewis & Clark College). But no one really knows; after all, when Bashar al-Assad replaced his father, many took his having attended grad school in London as a hopeful sign. Nor is the line of succession, post-Salman, remotely clear, given the scattered breadth of the royal family and the possibility—now that half-brothers and nephews are getting high posts—of internecine fights and instability.

Still, it’s not as if any “moderate” opposition groups are banging on the palace gates. Given the choice between the royals and their most potent opponents, this isn’t a head-scratcher. At the same time, if there are fledgling reformers among the new generation of princes, they’re more likely to be nudged quietly from trusted sources within than by loud and hostile broadsides.

Besides, in the interests of regional peace, stability, and influence, the United States should have a foothold in the Sunni and Shiite camps, and, at the moment, Saudi Arabia seems less turbulent than Egypt. If Iran weren’t run by mullahs, it might make sense to tilt more broadly in that direction; Tehran is more like a western city—more literate, cosmopolitan, and (for all its limits) freer in expression—than Riyadh, Jeddah, or Mecca. But that road is still strewn with obstacles.

It’s significant that Obama stopped in Riyadh on his way back from India, where he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi renewed a long-stalled strategic partnership and heralded a slew of trade agreements, including the possible supply of nuclear-power equipment, even though India is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many describe India as the world’s largest democracy, and that means much in its relations with America. But at least as significant from the vantage of U.S. interests, it’s a bulwark against China (much of the Obama-Modi dialogue reportedly dealt with containing China), a bolsterer of Japan, and a counterweight to Pakistan.

As another sign of the administration’s leanings, it has widely been noted that, in their remarks about Syria, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have stopped demanding the ouster of Assad. In one sense, this is too bad; Assad is a monster. In another sense, someone seems to have realized that his cooperation—even if completely unspoken and uncoordinated—is needed in the more urgent fight against ISIS. Josef Stalin was a monster, too; but Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill decided that Stalin was needed in the far more urgent fight to put down Hitler, and as a result the world was saved.