Earlier this month we learned that U.S. oil imports from Saudi Arabia increased significantly this year. The conventional wisdom is that the United States must unconditionally support the Saudi monarchy in order to keep the spigot running. The conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, pushing Riyadh to reform is the only way to preserve our access to Saudi oil.
America’s insatiable demand for Middle Eastern oil has been a driving force in U.S. foreign policy for more than half a century. And, combined with our Cold War strategy of supporting anti-Communists at any cost, led to a policy of championing Middle Eastern autocrats — even as they brutally suppressed their own people.
Nowhere was this policy more evident than in Saudi Arabia. During the 20th century, the United States supported the Saudi monarchy forcefully and often unconditionally, from military assistance during the Yemeni crisis to the deployment of U.S. forces during the Gulf War.
At the same time, the Saudi monarchy was oppressing its citizens (particularly women and minorities) and stifling all dissent. These practices went unchallenged by Washington, except when U.S. interests were affected (for example, when Jewish officials and soldiers were barred from entering the kingdom).
During much of the 20th century, the Saudi government also caused problems on the international stage, from waging war against Israel to financing terrorists. But the U.S. continued to support the regime, believing a strong alliance was essential to our interests (and on issues such as oil, it was). American officials also worried that if the Saudi monarchy fell, whatever replaced it would be worse.
But in the long term, America’s strategy of supporting friendly autocrats left the region in chaos and endangered our security. It left us dependent on a handful of leaders who did not represent the true will of their people. And our interests became tied to the hope that these unpopular autocrats would remain in power indefinitely. The Arab Spring has shown this hope to be a fallacious one.
Advocates of a “realist” foreign policy argue that America has to deal with the foreign leaders it has, not the foreign leaders it wants. But there is a difference between unconditionally working with autocratic regimes and working with them while also aggressively pushing them to reform and democratize.
Regimes that represent and reflect the will of their people are more stable partners for peace. On the other hand, autocrats and dictators almost invariably fall, as they have in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Regimes that don’t reform must often be willing to slaughter their people to maintain power. And as we’re seeing in Syria, even this isn’t always enough.
Thus, the only way for these regimes to peacefully maintain power is to moderate and begin to hand control to their citizens. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Jordan is one of the countries that the Arab Spring largely passed over.
The wisdom of reform is something that even Saudi Arabia’s leaders now publicly acknowledge. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud recently stated, “The revolution that took place around us was a wake-up call. No one will say it, but it was the catalyst.”
And over the past few years, reforms in Saudi Arabia have accelerated. Examples include the regime’s decisions to send women to the Olympics, promote reform-minded leaders, and relax restrictions on media outlets.
The U.S. should be doing everything it can to encourage and hasten these efforts. Unless the Saudi monarchy reforms, it will fall. It may take decades, but it will happen. And if it does, the consequences for the United States could be severe.
First, our access to oil could be cut off or severely restricted, whether because a radical regime rises in Riyadh or because there is no central government to continue and maintain production.
Second, Saudi Arabia could transform from a country that strongly supports our interests in the region to a radical theocracy or a listless state ruled by warlords or sects.
Finally, if the Saudi government falls, we would lose a stabilizing and moderating force in the region, and a bulwark that has proved helpful to the U.S. on numerous priorities (Iran, Syria, and Israel being some current examples).
And all of this ignores the compelling human rights and morality arguments for encouraging reform, which are just as strong as our direct security interests.
During his brief presidency, John F. Kennedy told the Saudis that internal reform was the best way to preserve their monarchy. Realists argue that Kennedy was mistaken, simply because the Saudi regime thrived for decades without reforming. In the wake of the Arab Spring, however, Kennedy’s warning looms ominously. And if the Saudis don’t heed his advice, they will prove him prescient.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.