Why the United States will not Abandon Saudi Arabia 

by Antonino Occhiuto

BY ANTONINO OCCHIUTO - Recent events such as the midterm elections results in the United States (US), the Khashoggi affair and Congressional scrutiny over US military support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, have prompted media reports, that the US is set to reduce support  for Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. These underestimate the longevity and importance of the dyadic relationship. Since the United Sates replaced the UK as the main pillar of the security architecture of the Middle East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has been among the US’s most reliable allies in the region and the strategic objectives of the two countries remain compatible. As such, the cases below illustrate why the US administration feels there is no urgency to pressure Saudi Arabia to change its foreign policy or get involved in the Kingdom’s internal affairs.

Yemen and the military dimension

As recently as March 2018, the US Senate voted to reject a resolution to end US support for the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen that aims to restore the United Nations (UN)-legitimised government and against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The resolution had been championed by Democratic senators Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy and Republican Mike Lee. However, Congressional action aimed at halting US support  for Saudi Arabia’s war efforts has been criticised by all members of the US National Security Council. In Yemen–according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his remarks to Congress on US  involvement in Yemen (November 2018)–the US and Saudi Arabia are closely cooperating to avoid Iranian entrenchment in the Arabian Peninsula. A more robust Iranian presence in Yemen would allow Tehran to target Saudi Arabia with impunity using the Houthis in the same fashion as the Ayatollahs’ regime already does with the Lebanese Hezbollah against Israel. A Saudi  failure in Yemen would also carry a significant setbacks for the Kingdom’s leadership and its military establishment. A weaker and more unstable Saudi Arabia would complicate Washington’s plans to establish the Middle East Strategic Alliance (a.k.a. Arab NATO) which requires Saudi Arabia to play an essential role. Such developments would force the US to further expensive military commitments in the region which are not in line of the America first, internal focus approach prioritised by the Trump administration.

The Khashoggi Affair and its Repercussions

In the aftermath of the murder of Saudi columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, a bipartisan group in Congress, led by Senators Lindsey Graham and Bob Menendez, urged the administration to take action against Saudi Arabia. The group suggested unprecedented measures going as far as a complete arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. However, the Trump Administration’s response has been confined to the selective sanctioning of 17 Saudi citizens implicated in the murder and already facing prosecution by Saudi Arabia’s own national authorities for their actions in the Khashoggi affair. More importantly, the US is resolved not to support initiatives that could damage US-KSA economic relations. The States imports 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Saudi Arabia,  5% of the total US supplies, and goods and services traded with Saudi Arabia amounted to some $45 billion(USD) in 2017. Riyadh is the premier purchaser of US arms and an additional $14.5 billion(USD) Saudi commitment to buy US military equipment – part of a larger $110 billion(USD) arms sale deal involving including Lockheed Martin and Boeing – now hangs in the balance. In the current, uncertain, global economic situation–also characterised by trade wars between the US and some of its most important trading partners, China and the European Union (EU)–Trump may feel as though he cannot afford to alienate Saudi Arabia since their alliance ensures coordination in the control of the oil market. Furthermore, the US seeks privileged access for its companies in the Kingdom’s market–revived by the Vision 2030 diversification programme that was inaugurated by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

The 2018 Midterm Elections

Recently, some media outlets have also speculated on the foreign policy changes forced on the Administration by the Democratic “Blue Wave” in Congress. However, losing control over the House of Representatives is unlikely to force any significant foreign policy shift. First, the legislative branch has a limited impact over US foreign policy compared to the executive branch. Second, despite Democrats securing the House of Representatives, Republicans increased their number in the Senate, the house that out of the two has the most pronounced impact on foreign policy issues. The Administration’s current course of action is therefore set to proceed forwards largely along the same path. Since his election, US President, Donald Trump, has taken a number of controversial measures, however, this has not been the case with Saudi Arabia. Trump has not deviated from the traditional policy of support for the country. Changing regional dynamics such as the growing influence of Russia, Iran’s interventionism and Turkey’s ambiguity regarding its positioning in the Western-NATO camp are all likely to increase the Trump’s willingness to back Saudi Arabia which, itself continues to act in alignment to Washington.


21 December 2018

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