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?

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Com­piled by Chris Bowlby, a BBC jour­nal­ist spe­cial­is­ing in his­tory

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

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