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JWA Debates Whether Saudi Arabia is America’s Asset or Liability

Is Saudi Arabia America’s asset or liability? Ranhita Bora and Tatiana Zinn take on Zachary Durkee in JWA’s first debate series. We hope to challenge preexisting ideas and foster a better understanding of America’s strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia by encouraging an openness and a willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints and think critically about the nature of strategic relations.

Dear Journal on World Affairs readers,

I am excited to welcome you all to the Journal’s first debate series. To start us off, we thought we would turn towards a question that has been at the forefront of policy debates regarding America’s relations with the Middle East: is Saudi Arabia an asset or a liability for the United States? This argument is one that I myself debated live in 2018, one month after Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi was murdered. Khashoggi’s tragic death raised speculation that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) ordered the assassination. This past February, over two years later, the U.S. intelligence community confirmed that MBS plotted Khashoggi’s death.

Both in 2018 and today, foreign policy analysts have pointed to Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses as a signal to change America’s strategic posture towards the country. The war in Yemen, the detention of women’s rights activists and human rights defenders, and the use of public executions are at the forefront of movements to end friendly relations with Riyadh. Those chants amplified this past year during COVID-19 due to the intensified repression of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association.

Yet, there also exists a group that advocate strongly for the maintenance of a U.S.-Saudi partnership. For decades, the United States has considered oil-rich Saudi Arabia as one of its most valuable allies in the Middle East, and that power is used as a security leverage against adversaries. On the humanitarian front, individuals in this camp underscore the liberalization of the region championed by Saudi Arabia’s large youth population. They contend that it is wrong to view the tragedies of 9/11, the Khashoggi assassination, and continuing human rights abuses as indicative of the country as a whole. Saudi Arabia, as they say, is evolving, and now is the time for the United States to support those efforts while retaining its strategic partnership.

We have three writers participating in this debate. Their positions on this topic do not necessarily reflect their personal beliefs or ideals.

First, we will have Zachary Durkee arguing that Saudi Arabia is America’s asset, followed by Ranhita Bora and Tatianna Zinn contending that Saudi Arabia is a liability. Each side offered their initial remarks and had the opportunity to refute the opposition’s points with a brief 400 word remark.

After reading their analyses, you will have the opportunity to vote for who you think won this debate. Polling will open on June 16th at 8:00 am PST and will close 24 hours later on June 17th at 9:00 am PST.

Our debaters hope to challenge preexisting ideas and foster a better understanding of America’s partnership with Saudi Arabia by encouraging an openness and a willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints and think critically about the nature of strategic relations.

We hope you enjoy!

Taylor Fairless
Editor-in-Chief

Opening Remarks: Saudi Arabia is an Asset to the United States

By Zachary Durkee

In his seminal book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, John Mearsheimer characterizes international politics as a “nasty and dangerous business.” To him, states operate in a self-help world where trust between one another is in short supply and competing interests often clash. Nothing, therefore, is clear-cut, and virtue is but one variable to consider when any state is formulating foreign policy.

The United States has historically struggled to reconcile this reality. It is a country in constant pursuit of trying to live up to its founding ideals while simultaneously grappling with the fact that it is the largest player in an international system where one’s values do not always translate into realistic (or effective) policy. Determining whether relations with Saudi Arabia serve as an asset or a liability for the United States embodies this age-old dilemma our democracy has often found itself in.

My goal is to present a more nuanced understanding of U.S.-Saudi relations. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate to readers that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is indeed an asset to the United States and that treating it as a liability will only undermine U.S. interests and lead to further instability in the Middle East.

At the core of this debate lies a single question: Why does Saudi Arabia matter? It is a country in a far-flung region that is governed by an absolute monarchy with an abhorrent record on human rights. In addition, it is embroiled in a brutal proxy war with Iran in the country of Yemen, where U.S.-supplied weapons have been used to kill and maim innocent civilians. The Kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, even orchestrated the murder of a Washington Post journalist in 2018.

Beyond these unsavory facts, the United States has displaced Saudi Arabia and risen to become the world’s largest oil producer thanks to a boom in fracking in recent years. Energy independence has meant that the U.S. is now far less reliant on Saudi oil. Indeed, at the end of 2020, the U.S. did not import any oil from Saudi Arabia for the first time in 35 years. Why then would the U.S. view any such relationship as an asset rather than a liability? Answering this question gets to the “nasty” part of the business of international politics; or, in other words, why one’s domestic values and ethical standards cannot always be treated as an industry standard.

Power matters, and whether one likes it or not, Saudi Arabia is the most powerful Arab state in the Middle East. It boasts a GDP larger than any of its neighbors and retains a powerful military force in the region. Geographically, it is positioned between the Red Sea and Persian Gulf— two vital sea routes for oil and global trade that are vulnerable to disruptions. These three factors, combined with its rivalry with Iran, make the country a consequential partner in America’s effort to check Iran and ensure that no single country can come to dominate its neighbors. This matters because maintaining a regional balance of power remains the highest, most fundamental interest the United States has in the Middle East.

America’s balancing efforts recently culminated in the various Abraham Accords agreements signed by Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco in 2020, and Sudan in early 2021, which normalized relations between Israel and the signatories. Egypt, Jordan, and Oman all expressed support for the diplomatic agreements, signaling that the U.S.-led effort to forge a degree of solidarity and increase cooperation between Israel and its historically estranged neighbors was beginning to materialize in light of growing shared concerns over Iran. Saudi Arabia, which has not yet joined its regional counterparts, did not actively sabotage the initiative or speak out against it. Instead, many observers believe Riyadh privately endorsed it and could follow suit once Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman eventually ascends to the throne. It is hard to imagine that U.S.-Saudi relations put the United States at a disadvantage in achieving this diplomatic breakthrough which will undoubtedly serve U.S. interests for years to come. On the contrary, the relationship likely served as a valuable asset behind the scenes, as Saudi Arabia is an influential power broker among its neighbors and allies that the U.S. often needs to pursue its interests.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship also matters when it comes to counterterrorism. As America is increasingly preoccupied with China’s rise and Washington looks to shrink its footprint in the Middle East, cooperation on intelligence sharing with and among regional partners will become more important for U.S. national security and regional stability. According to Middle East policy expert Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at Brookings and professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, Saudi officials are vital counterterrorism allies. He points to their critical role in stopping funding to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda and looks to examples such as the foiling of the 2010 AQAP cargo plane bomb plot— a planned attack on the United States that was prevented due to valuable last-minute Saudi intelligence. Many of these achievements can be attributed to a 2008 bilateral agreement on technical counterterrorism cooperation signed between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Under the agreement, the U.S. has provided training and assistance to Saudi forces to help build their own intelligence capabilities. Though far from perfect partners on this front, the country nonetheless retains a valuable intelligence network that can only be harnessed through cooperation. Coordinated, multilateral intelligence sharing will be a key component of a successful, stable, and secure U.S. shift from the Middle East toward the Indo-Pacific. To view Saudi Arabia as a liability to U.S. interests rejects the value and necessity of a crucial actor in this effort.

And although the U.S. may no longer rely as much on Saudi oil, the country still holds 17 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. Therefore, Saudi Arabia plays a central role in influencing the global price of it. This matters if the U.S. wants to effectively combat climate change and transition energy markets away from oil and gas. As Harvard professor and former national security official Meghan L. O’Sullivan writes, “the transition away from fossil fuels will be aided by a stable price of oil, not a widely fluctuating one or one so low it makes it hard for alternative energies to compete.” As such, “success in dealing with climate change demands a cooperative relationship with Saudi Arabia, which could otherwise choose to be a spoiler to U.S. and international efforts.”

Indeed, the true liability would be failing to leverage the full breadth of our relationship with Riyadh to advance cooperation on the most critical threat humanity faces. One may point to the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-74 and assert that our relationship did nothing to dissuade Saudi actions then, so why should we believe it can now? But a crisis provoked by war at a time when deep religious and political grievances were at their peak does not say much about America’s ability to leverage the current relationship for long-term cooperation on stabilizing oil prices (aside from occasional disputes and fluctuations). While it is appropriate to concede that cooperation is not guaranteed, treating the relationship as a liability trades precious diplomatic capital required to move the needle on climate change for pessimism about whether the U.S.-Saudi relationship can ultimately serve U.S. interests in this dimension.

Finally, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is not a one-way street. In fact, it is our leverage we maintain through the relationship that allows the United States to wield any positive influence over the human rights situation within Saudi Arabia. This fact may appear elusive given how unbalanced the relationship came to be under the Trump administration. The president’s constant praise of the Crown Prince; boastful proclamation that he had “saved” the young leader by getting Congress to “leave him alone” following the outcry of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing; vetoing of a bipartisan resolution in 2019 aimed at ending U.S. involvement in the Yemeni Civil War; circumvention of Congress to sell billions in weapons despite reservations about the civilian death toll in that war; and an overall staggering level of arms sales to the country may lead one to believe that the relationship is, in fact, a liability. This is especially true considering that the U.S. got virtually nothing in return for generous diplomatic overtures that appeared to be based more on personal affinity than any level-headed strategy.

President Biden, in contrast, has moved swiftly to rebalance the relationship since taking office. The current administration understands that the relationship can (and does) serve as an overall asset to the United States. It is why a gap immediately formed between Biden’s campaign rhetoric (such as vowing to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”) and his actual policy (stopping short of directly sanctioning the Crown Prince for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to avoid a possible rupture in relations). The gap formed because concerns over human rights became just one variable in the administration’s overall assessment of the relationship’s value to the U.S.

Furthermore, by taking into account the full strategic merit of the relationship, Biden has been able to leverage recalibration to assuage liabilities and asymmetries within it. His vocal criticism and higher premium he has put on positive relations and human rights have been followed with the release of the imprisoned women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, and the end of a Saudi-led blockade imposed on Qatar nearly four years ago. Riyadh did not undertake these actions out of generosity or good grace, but rather its own strategic calculation that preserving ties with the new administration was vital to its interests.

If the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a liability, one must explain whether treating it as such will place the U.S. in a better position to maintain the balance of power in the region; retain access to valuable intelligence networks as it pivots to Asia; stabilize energy prices in the fight against climate change; and increase America’s ability to shape Saudi behavior and improve conditions (no matter how incremental) on human rights. My position is that the relationship is inextricably linked to all of these efforts and, as a result, is a net asset to the United States. Its imperfections, far-from-flawless history, and shortcomings do not render it a liability to U.S. interests— and it is U.S. interests that matter most in this debate.

The fact of the matter is that foreign policy is a complicated enterprise that entails balancing multiple competing interests and values simultaneously. Good policy is therefore dependent on recognizing this reality and understanding that no relationship with a foreign country is without trade-offs or negative features. Declaring that U.S.-Saudi relations puts the United States at a disadvantage sets the ideal as the benchmark in a business where aims, values, and expectations must be tempered with pragmatism. And it is through a pragmatic approach that one finds a strategic partner in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Opening Remarks: The U.S. – Saudi Relationship is a Liability

By Ranhita Bora and Tatiana Zinn

As the humanitarian crisis in Yemen surged, President Biden abided by his stance of “moral leadership” and ceased offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This marks a pivotal shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia, as America attempts to value human rights over economic and security interests.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have been allies since the U.S. officially recognized Saudi Arabia’s statehood in 1931. The two countries have two critical common interests: oil and the security of the Gulf region. The nearly century-long partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia is often cited as proof of a relatively stable and prosperous relationship, yet its true nature has been tenuous throughout history and is currently on the brink of collapse. Saudi Arabia has consistently proven its discordance with American values, and its aggressive behavior and frequent human rights violations only serve to cement its status as a liability to the United States. 

Historically, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have had a close relationship hinged on economic partnership. Saudi Arabia has the second-largest reserves of oil in the world, and as the number one global consumer of oil the U.S. has had a vested interest in maintaining friendly relations. This economic relationship is certainly mutual; Saudi Arabia is America’s largest foreign military sales customer and second-largest trading partner. Although the ties between Washington and Riyadh were spurred primarily by economic motives, the two countries have collaborated on military efforts as well: Saudi Arabia was a firm U.S. ally during World War II, and the Islamic Revolution in 1979 damaged U.S.-Iranian relationships, leaving Saudi Arabia as the U.S.’s primary partner in the Middle East. On the same note, Saudi Arabia’s geographical location in the world’s largest oil-producing region has provided the U.S. with strategic military and economic advantages. 

While the economic and military aspects of the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship appear superficially as amicable and beneficial, we must consider this alliance from an ethical standpoint. The alliance between the two nations was driven by greed on the part of the U.S., who was willing to overlook Saudi Arabia’s well-known human rights violations in order to profit from Saudi Arabia’s oil and need for arms. This economic driving force cannot sustain U.S.-Saudi Arabian relations when there are deeply rooted ethical and moral conflicts underlying their partnership. While the United States has prided itself on its identity as a free and fair nation, Saudi Arabia has committed many egregious violations of basic human rights. Riyadh has banned homosexuality, enforcing punishments as harsh as prison time for “violating public morality.” It also has a history of institutionalizing gender inequality, such as the requirement that female victims of domestic abuse obtain permission from a male guardian to leave a shelter. Most notoriously, the recent government-sanctioned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has brought Saudi Arabia’s abhorrent history of human rights abuses to the forefront of international relations discourse. The United States, as a global superpower, must recognize Saudi Arabia’s blatant disregard for the same civil liberties which constitute the United States’ ethical foundation. In order to reach an equitable society, basic civil liberties such as freedom of religion, speech, and press are necessary. The United States has affirmed its commitment to promoting human rights at home and abroad, so Saudi Arabia’s frequent violations of internationally recognized human rights are a clear liability to American values. 

We must further consider both the motives and ramifications of U.S.-Saudi joint ventures. The two countries partnered up against Iraq during the first Gulf War, an undertaking motivated by the U.S.’s vested interest in Middle Eastern oil. However, the ramifications of the U.S. involvement in the Gulf War have undeniably exposed the fault lines of this alliance. The first Gulf War was a major contributing factor to the ongoing war, poverty, and terrorism that plague the Middle East today. For instance, one of the stated motivations behind the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 was continued U.S. military troop presence in Saudi Arabia following the Gulf War. Saudi Arabia first welcomed U.S. protection as tensions grew between Iran and other states in the region, with Riyadh fearing Iran’s motive of spreading its earlier Islamic Revolution to surrounding states with significant populations of Shia Muslims. However, as Saudi Arabia developed closer relations with Iran, its desire for U.S. military presence waned. This led to deep unrest among terrorist groups like Al Qaeda as the U.S. encouraged Saudi Arabia to adopt a dual containment policy towards Iran and Iraq, thus attempting to quell any form of radical Islam in Saudi Arabia. The 9/11 attacks also caused American public opinion to swing sharply against an alliance with the Gulf Monarchy, thus highlighting the profound cultural differences between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and eventually exposing the fundamental incompatibility of their economically motivated partnership.

Currently, relations with Saudi Arabia are more fragile than ever. Following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, U.S. President Biden announced that he will only speak to the Saudi King Salman and has terminated personal links with the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. This is the first time in the history of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance that an American President has cut off ties with a Saudi heir, marking a significant shift in the nature of the partnership. Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s support of the civil war in Yemen has further alienated the United States, as the war-torn country has experienced excessive civilian casualties and egregious human rights violations. Riyadh’s direct involvement in one of the most devastating humanitarian crises of recent times has created an insurmountable chasm between American morality and the violence permitted and promoted by Saudi Arabia.

It is important to note that Saudi Arabia’s propensity for government-sanctioned violence is not just directed at its neighbors, but is also internally expressed towards some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations: its Christian and Shia minorities. In fact, Saudi Arabia has earned international condemnation for its utter lack of freedom of religion — one of the most fundamental constitutional rights of American citizens and a point of immense ideological pride in the U.S. — and accompanying religious persecution. In 2019, the U.S. Department of State released a report on the nation’s religious intolerance, detailing unjust state-led detention, imprisonment, torture, and execution of Shia citizens. Amnesty International has long characterized the nation’s judicial treatment of its religious minorities as being rife with “deeply flawed legal proceedings” and tactics, as well as condemned Saudi Arabia’s wielding of the death penalty as a political strategy aimed at quashing (even nonviolent) dissent. The state report details a few of these abhorrent practices: the sentencing of individuals to death for crimes they committed as minors, the use of brutal torture to extract confessions, and the blatant mischaracterization of peaceful protests and antigovernmental political expression as terrorism (which merits the death penalty under Saudi law).

Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its Christian minority is just as appalling. Conversion from Islam to any religion (most commonly Christianity) is considered apostasy under Saudi law, and thus grounds for the death penalty (although execution for apostasy has not occurred in nearly thirty years). Saudi law also prohibits Christians from congregating in church buildings, so Christians in the kingdom often congregate in regularly-raided house churches. The 2003 Human Rights Watch World Report chronicles the 2001 arrests and subsequent detentions of eleven foreign nationals due to their private practice of Christianity in their homes. One of the arrested individuals was even detained for months on end without being formally charged with any crime, as well as witnessed his fellow inmates endure inhumane, excessive, and archaic floggings. In 2011, this disturbing trend of religious persecution continued when Saudi police arrested nearly forty Ethiopian Christians who were holding a private religious celebration of the Christian Advent in Jeddah. The majority of those arrested were women, who were subjected to humiliating and violating strip searches as well as ultimately saddled with deportation. Although the Saudi government pledged to the U.S. in 2006—seven years before these Christians were arrested—to “guarantee and protect the right to private worship for all, including non-Muslims who gather in homes for religious practice” it is clear that these promises have rung hollow.

But Saudi Arabia’s most frequent and potentially most abhorrent domestic practice is not its transgressions onto freedom of speech or freedom of religion, but rather its continuous violation of international labor standards. At the heart of Saudi Arabia’s atrocious culture of exploitation and abuse is the kafala system, a visa sponsorship program common in the Middle East. The kafala system essentially allows sponsors (the foreign laborers’ employers) unlimited control over their foreign employees, given that the sponsors must give written consent for such workers to leave the country or switch employers. This system is rife with abuse and mistreatment, as many sponsors confiscate their workers’ passports and other important documentation, refuse to allow their workers to return to their home countries for promised vacations and even withhold their pay. Domestic workers (who are primarily female) also face physical, sexual, and psychological abuse at the hands of their sponsors. Largely unprotected by Saudi Arabia’s labor laws and entirely at the whim of their sponsors, foreign laborers have little opportunity or autonomy to challenge the unjust treatment to which their sponsors subject them. Rebelling against the oppressive kafala system and, for instance, leaving one’s employer without their permission leaves laborers vulnerable to imprisonment and deportation, of which the conditions (for non-Saudis) are notoriously poor and inhumane. It is important to note that Saudi Arabia’s foreign labor force is roughly ten million strong, constituting almost a third of Saudi Arabia’s entire population. Thus, Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights abuses facilitated by the kafala system are not peripheral or minute; rather, they are widespread, intense, and painfully common.

In recently ceasing offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, President Biden took a vital step in distancing the U.S. from the atrocities committed by the kingdom. This action, however, does not account for the breadth of Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, and must be followed by a direct and public condemnation of MSB’s role in the murder of Jamal Kashoggi, the humanitarian crisis callously manufactured by the Saudi government in Yemen, the continued existence of the brutal kafala system, as well as the unceasing persecution of religious minorities, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. To single out offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia as being uniquely deserving of condemnation would be to obscure Saudi Arabia’s decades-long commitment to brutality, inequality, and persecution.

The U.S. government must no longer consider Saudi Arabia its friend or ally; to do so amidst the kingdom’s continued devotion to violating human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion would be to make a mockery of those key values. While American interests in oil and regional stability have long fostered a relationship between the two nations, it is increasingly evident that such a relationship is no longer tenable. The kingdom constantly undermines its own trustworthiness (such as its backsliding on its 2006 agreement to be religiously tolerant as mentioned above), and thus the U.S. cannot count on promises of even slight political progressivism. The U.S. government must therefore move to unequivocally condemn the Saudi Arabian government and its most recent transgressions, ultimately affirming its ability to put long-term ethical considerations over immediate economic interests. 

Rebuttal Against U.S.-Saudi Relations

In response to Saudi Arabia’s continued disregard for human rights, the United States must immediately impose economic sanctions. There are several reasons why these sanctions are urgent and vital. Firstly, in response to growing conjecture that renewable energy will come to dominate the globe’s power sources in as little as two decades, Saudi Arabia launched the ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 program aimed at economic diversification in 2016. This program, which intends to lessen Saudi Arabia’s economic dependence on oil and gas exports, is designed to solidify the country’s hegemony and afford it an enduring (and not oil-dependent) position in the global economy. Although the first five years of this campaign brought a mixed bag of triumphs and failures, there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia will continue to pursue this program with fervor, especially considering the economic downturn the nation faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the political turmoil that ensued after the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi 

Because of Saudi Arabia’s vulnerable position as an undiversified economic power, there is no better time for the U.S. to impose comprehensive sanctions. On the other hand, should Saudi Vision 2030 be victorious in diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy and providing Saudi Arabia with increased economic and political power, sanctions will have a much less profound impact on Saudi Arabia. However, should the U.S. take such measures this year, while Saudi Arabia is still struggling with diversification, they have much more potential to encourage political progressivism and pro-human rights legislation. And, as experts on Saudi Arabia’s economy attest, foreign capital is absolutely essential for Saudi Arabian economic diversification to materialize. In addition to the immediate economic ramifications of sanctions, such sanctions would also create long-term economic instability for the nation, given that the deprivation of foreign capital would inevitably halt Saudi Arabia’s ability to diversify its economy.

As the Biden administration seeks to resuscitate the Americas image, which was significantly harmed under the Trump administration, it is only fitting that the administration impose economic sanctions on Saudi Arabia on the basis of human rights transgressions. Moreover, our allies, hoping to repair their diplomatic alliance with the U.S. will possibly follow suit and impose economic sanctions of their own against Saudi Arabia. This increased pressure will practically force Saudi Arabia to then engage in political progressivism and human rights legislation. The U.S. has several other reliable streams of oil and gas, as well as an incredibly diversified economy. So, while the U.S. economy could foreseeably absorb any financial shock such sanctions might incur, Saudi Arabia certainly will not be able to do so. And, in an age where global energy initiatives are progressively gearing towards green energy, Saudi Arabia is more likely than ever to be receptive to any economic growth it can achieve. Thus, Saudi Arabia will be incredibly reactive to U.S. economic sanctions, and will be more receptive to the conditions of withdrawing sanctions than they might have been previously.

Ultimately, what is most important is that the U.S. uses this auspicious economic moment to take a stand against Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and open the door for further political progressivism in the region. That these sanctions will also prove to be economically advantageous to the U.S. economy and favorable for the climate is simply icing on the cake. Accordingly, America must immediately impose drastic economic sanctions on Saudi Arabia, and once and for all denounce its terrible track record of human rights abuses. 

Rebuttal in Favor of U.S.-Saudi Relations

The opposition’s argument should remind anyone of the danger of monolithic thinking when it comes to foreign policy. They contend that U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia are a liability strictly on the grounds of ethics. They claim that other aspects of the relationship, such as its geopolitical merit, are “superficial.” Their proposed solution? Employ the raw power of the United States to advance human rights within Saudi Arabia. 

Where has one heard this logic before? In neoconservatism’s heyday during the Bush administration, the president and his advisers believed that American power could reshape situations unfavorable to the U.S. throughout the Middle East. They decided that imposing democracy through military force was the most effective way to turn perceived liabilities into assets. As we all know, the result they got was the opposite. 

The opposition may have substituted a hubristic faith in American military might with a belief in the power of the U.S. dollar and financial system, but their underlying worldview is strikingly similar: A strong conviction in the United States’ ability to shape the domestic conditions within a foreign country and an imprudent zeal for human rights and Western values. As I have already made clear, international politics is far more complicated.

Sanctions rarely work. Believing that they will somehow coerce Saudi Arabia into undertaking substantive reforms is wildly unrealistic. A comprehensive study that analyzed over 200 cases where economic sanctions were employed revealed that they were instrumental and successful in achieving their intended goal 13 times. That is a success rate of 6%. 

Second, the opposition assumes that the Saudi regime values economic stability above its own grip on power. Perhaps this would be the case if Saudi Arabia’s economic survival depended solely on its relationship with the West, but this is not the world we live in. The country has options, chiefly Russia and China. It would surely feel immense pain from sanctions, but I contend that Riaydh would be willing to weather that pain before it decided to dramatically accelerate reforms at the behest of Washington’s demands.  

What would be the more likely outcome should the U.S. treat the relationship as a liability and enact these proposed sanctions? There are two probable consequences beyond simply rupturing relations. First, the U.S. would risk destabilizing the Saudi economy. This could lead to civil unrest that would surely be followed with brutal suppression on the part of the Saudi government. Second, Riyadh would be more inclined to cozy up to Moscow and Beijing, two authoritarian powers that would be more than indifferent to its human rights transgressions. This is far from the progressive dream promised by the opposition. 

This leads back to my original conclusion. Foreign policy is a complicated enterprise that requires one to balance and trade multiple competing interests and values simultaneously. Promoting human rights in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia is not a core strategic interest for the United States (nor should it be). Therefore, one must ask, why would the U.S. predicate its entire relationship with a powerful Arab state on just one of many variables it has to consider when dealing with that country and the broader region? The answer is, the U.S. would not, nor should it.

I have not only argued that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is an asset, but that leveraging those assets is the best chance Washington maintains at influencing any incremental change within Saudi Arabia. Treating the relationship as a liability would not only fail to secure the opposition’s goal, it would also undermine or rupture every other aspect that I have previously noted is vital to American interests and security.     

Winner of the debate: Saudi Arabia is America’s Asset, by Zachary Durkee.

Art by Jimena Madrigal


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