After Khashoggi, Will US Continue Faustian Bargain With the Saudis?
For decades, many in the United States looked the other way as the Saudis undermined US values and interests. Then the Saudis committed an unpardonable sin that merited the media’s attention — they made a journalist disappear. Without the media uproar, it’s likely that the Trump administration would have looked the other way; even now, the president has said he accepts Saudi government denials of involvement in Jamal Khashoggi’s apparent murder, and suggested it was committed by “rogue killers.” Trump’s reluctance to confront the Saudis is nothing new; it is a Faustian bargain that every president has accepted since the discovery of oil.
When oil was detected in Saudi Arabia, State Department Arabists made the case that the United States had to protect the kingdom to ensure our access to their oil and deny it to the Soviet Union. What is interesting is that we pursued this policy even before the Saudis began producing significant amounts of oil, and before America became dependent on their exports.
By the 1970s, OPEC had grown powerful and the United States had become heavily reliant on foreign oil. The Saudi sense of insecurity also became more acute. They cleverly played on America’s own concerns over the years to convince the United States to provide them arms to offset threats first from the Egyptian pan-Arabism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, then the Soviet Union, and now Iran.
On its face, the US-Saudi relationship is mutually beneficial. The Saudis sell us oil and we guarantee the survival of the monarchy. By selling the Saudis billions of dollars’ worth of arms, we basically get the money we spend on oil back. The weapons do little for Saudi security; it was preposterous, for example, that arming them would protect them from the Soviets. Today, despite possessing some of our most sophisticated weapons, the Saudi military cannot even defeat their enemies in Yemen.
The fact that the Saudis don’t need the weapons is irrelevant. The arms sales benefit US defense contractors and create jobs in places that a president needs to collect electoral votes. This is why the administration will be unlikely to withhold arms sales as punishment for the murder of Khashoggi.
The other side of the bargain is that in exchange for American support, the Saudis manipulate the price of oil. They keep the price high enough to make a healthy profit to fill their coffers, while preventing it from going so high that it will stimulate greater investment in alternative energy sources. By moderating the price of oil, the Saudis help the American economy, which benefits the president.
But as I documented in The Arab Lobby, what makes the US-Saudi relationship so problematic goes beyond oil. Even as we guarantee the kingdom’s survival, the Saudis are working to undermine our values and interests.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most intolerant societies in the world. It discriminates against Jews and Christians, and is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Even if it is not true that the Saudis murdered Khashoggi and chopped his body into pieces, you can find other examples of Saudi atrocities such as the beheading of a woman for “witchcraft and sorcery.”
The Saudis have also consistently obstructed American efforts to facilitate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. President Obama, for example, hoped the Saudis would make some gestures toward Israel to show that a broader peace would be possible if an agreement with the Palestinians was reached. The Saudis refused.
Saudi Arabia also has a long record of sponsoring terrorism. Recall that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis, and the kingdom and individual Saudis have helped fund the PLO, Hamas, and Al Qaeda.
Furthermore, the Saudis are educating the next generation of Muslims to become jihadists through the radical teachings they propagate through the mosques and schools that they fund around the world. The Washington Post reported a few years ago about a Saudi textbook that had the following statements — even “after the intolerance was removed”: “Every religion other than Islam is false”; “The apes are Jews … while the swine are the Christians”; and “jihad in the path of God … is the summit of Islam.” Similar teachings appear in textbooks distributed around the world, and also appeared in a Saudi-funded school in Fairfax, Virginia.
The United States advocates for democracy around the world, but it has always made an exception for the Saudis. The reason is oil.
Some of you may be thinking the equation has changed now that the United States no longer needs Saudi oil, and the US itself has replaced the Saudis as the world’s leading oil supplier. The Saudis, however, are still able to influence the price of oil. In April, the Saudis reportedly wanted to see oil prices reach $80 a barrel. Guess what the price is today: Brent crude oil is $81.41.
By withholding supplies from the market in response to any sanctions imposed over the Khashoggi affair, some analysts predict the price of oil could soar as high as $400 a barrel. This would not only severely impact the US economy just before the midterm elections, but would undermine the Trump administration’s efforts to cripple Iran by denying it oil revenue.
Threats to withhold arms may do little good either, as the Saudis could turn to the Russians. This would have the negative effect of allowing Putin to expand his influence in the region beyond Syria.
Still, we should have no doubt that the Saudis need us far more than we need them. Any reprisals they take will ultimately harm the kingdom. Provoking a rise in oil prices will lead to greater conservation measures and retaliatory action against other Saudi interests. Going to the Russians for arms would alienate the United States, provide the Saudis with inferior weapons, and immobilize their existing arsenal by leaving them unable to buy spare parts. More important, the Saudis cannot afford to risk losing their principal ally when they are threatened by Iran.
Ultimately, the king and the prince care most about their survival, and only America can assure them that their royal heads will remain on their shoulders.
Mitchell Bard, Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library, has written 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews, and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.