Time to reset military relations with Saudi Arabia
by Mel Gurtov
An Uneven Balance Sheet
Saudi Arabia and OPEC have decided to cut oil production by two million barrels a day. The President is miffed, and has signaled that he’s fed up with the Saudis who, according to a New York Times report, “duped” the administration into believing OPEC would not be cutting oil production—and in fact would significantly increase it.
If the episode amounts to Saudi duplicity and Russian influence, as opposed to an honest Saudi cost-benefit calculation on oil pricing, the question is: What will Biden do about relations with Saudi Arabia?
Let’s look at the balance sheet on US-Saudi relations.
Supporters of the partnership argue that Saudi Arabia offers US military access, is a major weapons buyer, shares hostility to Iran, is tolerant of Israel, and of course has all that oil.
On the negative side, it’s a serial human-rights violator, home to most of the 9-11 terrorists, purchaser of Russian oil that helps fund Putin’s war machine, war crimes candidate in its Yemen intervention, and unreliable partner when called upon for support.
And there’s the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi on orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). He will lie to Americans whenever it suits him, confident that his decisions on oil production and pricing will always keep them in line. And for decades, he and other Saudi leaders have been right: Cheap oil and the Iran enemy have always trumped human rights and other supposed American priorities.
(One other item closer to home: A Saudi agricultural company, Fondofirm, rents 3,500 acres of state-owned farmland in drought-stricken Arizona to grow feed for Saudi cattle. The water the company uses could supply 54,000 homes, according to a Sierra Club report in its Fall 2022 magazine. Maybe Biden should get on the phone to Arizona’s governor about that arrangement.)
Joe Biden is the latest US president to be hoodwinked by the Saudis. He entered office seemingly determined to recalibrate the US-Saudi relationship. The Khashoggi murder and the humanitarian disaster in Yemen were getting a bad press and faced rising anger in liberal quarters of Congress.
Biden vowed the Saudis would “pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah they are.” Yet by the time Biden made his first trip to the Middle East in July, he was backtracking. In an op-ed for the Washington Post prior to his trip, Biden said: “From the start, my aim [with Saudi Arabia] was to reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years.”
Thus, the infamous fist bump with MBS and the message, intended or not, that all is forgiven. The head of the US Central Command for the Middle East chimed in, saying of military ties with Saudi Arabia: “The Kingdom is poised for the future, and I look forward to a continued military partnership.” That was a bad idea then, and it’s an even worse idea now.
Terminating the Military Partnership
But remember this: MBS never promised Biden that the Saudis would increase oil production—a major goal of Biden’s trip. The trip was a win for MBS, who gave up nothing in return for American renewal of a partnership that has resulted in billions of dollars in US military aid to Saudi Arabia, as well as over $100 billion in weapons sales contracts.
What should be happening is termination of US military ties with Saudi Arabia—the direct assistance, the supporting role in its Yemen intervention, the soldiers on the ground, the US bases, and (as the Washington Post has just revealed) the retired senior US military officers who serve as well-paid advisers to the Saudi defense ministry.
That last practice is not new; recall General Michael Flynn’s work for Turkey. With the Saudis, it’s generals like James L. Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, who recruited four other retired generals and William S. Cohen, the former defense secretary, as part of a team set up by Jones in his consulting firm.
Similarly with the Saudis’ partner in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), another absolute monarchy that not only is a major customer for US arms and provides bases for US air and naval forces. The UAE also counts on advice from retired generals like James Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary.
These advisers, by the way, can only serve upon approval of the State Department and the Pentagon, which turn out to be very reluctant to report it and quick to defend the practice. (The State Department’s response:
“The UAE has long been a vital U.S. partner on a wide range of regional security issues. … We intend to continue to help them improve their capabilities to defend their territory and are confident that our strong relationship will continue.”)
That should tell you how obliging administrations are, even when they know full well that retired military officers are supporting reprehensible regimes that now are playing ball with Russia on oil pricing. It’s only thanks to a lawsuit by the Washington Post that we know about this revolving door.
In short, the US military relationship with Saudi Arabia, now under scrutiny in Congress, is a classic case of MAGIC’s (the military-academic-governmental-industrial-complex) influence on Middle East policy. Fact is, military ties are the only basis for relations; the Saudi regime has made clear that Russia and China are equally important partners.
One Congressional critic said “what galls many of us in Congress is the ingratitude.”
Galling? How about this for gall? MBS recently asked the US for help when his intelligence reported an Iranian threat of attack. But beyond gall is our own gullibility in accepting Saudi excuses and lies.
Ending military ties with the MBS regime is long overdue.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.