Backgrounder: Saudi Arabia
As the fallout continues over the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s western allies have been scrambling to repair the damage. But where do the origins of this alternative ‘special relationship’ lie?
The US and western relationship with Saudi Arabia has been dominated by oil. After the Second World War, the US was looking to ensure another supply of crude oil. American oil companies were already in Saudi Arabia, so US policymakers focused on securing Saudi oil supplies for American companies and crafting good relations with the Saudi government.
Saudi oil became more significant for the US in the early 1970s, when domestic US production was no longer able to keep up with American consumption. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, through its involvement in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, proved it could rile the global economy during the 1973 oil crisis, cutting oil production, embargoing oil to the west and causing a serious spike in prices. After this, the US felt it needed to remain close to Saudi Arabia out of fear the country could harm the global economy again.
In the post-Gulf War era, Saudi Arabia’s influence over the west has come both through its control over the oil supply and the huge amounts of cash it was able to spend. Government-owned Aramco, the only company allowed to produce oil in Saudi Arabia, embarked on a massive expansion that saw profits skyrocket. And the Saudi government increased its spending rapidly. Western businesses and institutions have made great profits selling arms to Saudi Arabia, building infrastructure there and educating Saudi university students. More recently, the Trump administration has also looked to Saudi Arabia to build a coalition against Iran, and there is speculation that the US wants Saudi Arabia to help facilitate an Israel-Palestinian peace plan.
This close relationship, however, has meant that some aspects of Saudi behaviour have been ignored or downplayed by the west. For example, the US actively ignored and participated in Saudi discrimination against Christian and Jewish American workers. And western businesses and governments to this day abide by restrictions on women. Female employees wear abayas – long robes that disguise their shape.
Even in recent months, there was little western pushback when Saudi Arabia arrested people for speech or ideas. Dozens of feminists and their supporters were arrested between May and July 2018, and held on treason charges with no due process.
There had been an assumption that Saudi Arabia was in the midst of a major reform agenda. Although Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has warned that he does not consider himself a reformer, many observers in Washington and London have given him credit for a modernisation movement that has not materialised. This is likely a result of the Saudi government’s efforts to show the west what it thinks the west wants to see. For instance, it recently launched a massive PR campaign highlighting decrees permitting new cinemas and allowing women to drive.
The reality of Saudi Arabia is that women still live under male guardianship laws, entertainment is still severely restricted and economic changes are almost all centralised planning. Most importantly, there have been no signs of political or human rights liberalisation. No one in Saudi Arabia has rights, only privileges granted by an absolute monarch.
The need to secure oil supplies has meant some aspects of Saudi behaviour have been ignored or downplayed by the west ELLEN WALD
Saudi Arabia has always needed a powerful foreign patron. In the early days, before and after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was born in 1932, that role was played by Britain. The country was never formally colonised but was unmistakably part of Britain’s sphere of imperial influence. After the Second World War, Britain was supplanted by the United States. The bargain that underpinned US-Saudi relations – an exchange of oil (for the Americans) and security (for the Saudis) – was to prove remarkably durable.
Saudi Arabia became a close but never an easy ally for the west. It mattered to western powers because it was a major oil producer, bought expensive weaponry, offered military bases, and by and large supported western objectives in the Middle East. But these were state-to-state, not people-to-people relationships. The kingdom’s social backwardness, its human rights abuses, and above all its mission to use oil wealth to spread an austere and intolerant version of Islam, made it an awkward bedfellow. Western diplomats tried to promote reform, but always knowing that to press too hard might provoke a backlash – and benefit a rival power. Advice and criticism were offered in private, seldom in public – and when they had little effect, relations continued much as before.
Against this background, when a purportedly reformist prince, Mohammed bin Salman, emerged in 2015 as the most powerful man in the kingdom, there were high hopes in the west that this most conservative of monarchies was embarking on change. His aims were ambitious – to wean the Saudi economy from dependence on oil and transform the social climate by allowing women to drive, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing cinemas and concerts in a country that had hitherto been stultifyingly dull. MBS (as he’s known) became popular, especially among the young. But there were danger signals. He accrued more and more power, sidelining rivals; displayed growing intolerance of dissent; and embarked on a brutal and disastrous war against neighbouring Yemen.
All of this – followed by the recent killing of the prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi – has shocked and embarrassed Saudi Arabia’s western allies. Given the high stakes, they are likely to do their utmost to resume business as usual as soon as they decently can. But this will not be easy. The magnitude of the crisis over Khashoggi’s fate is such that the fallout will linger, and relations with previously staunch allies are likely to be marked by a new level of mistrust.
Worried as they are by the power of their great regional Islamic rival Iran, and by their vulnerability as a relatively weak military power, the Saudis must be asking themselves whether they can indefinitely depend on Washington for protection. Thanks to the shale-oil revolution, the US has overtaken Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s biggest oil producer. In time, that could undermine the oil-for-security bargain that has served the Saudis so well.
The kingdom’s mission to spread an austere and intolerant form of Islam has made it an awkward bedfellow ROGER HARDY
Ellen Wald is senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center
US president Donald Trump meets Mohammed bin Salman in 2017. The purportedly reformist Saudi crown prince has not lived up to his liberal reputation, argues Roger Hardy
Aramco’s Ras Tanura refinery in 1974. The Saudi government gradually took control of the US-owned company in the 1970s and 80s
In 1973, Saudi Arabia flexed its muscles by embargoing oil exports to the west, causing a serious spike in prices
Roger Hardy is an associate fellow at Green Templeton College, Oxford