How Important is Saudi Arabia?

The United States is in no position to jettison the relationship it has with Saudi Arabia


by Stephen Bryen


As information about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi leaks into the press, there is growing discontent in Washington and other foreign capitals.  The description of the murder, provided by Turkish authorities is incredibly horrible –it wasn’t just an ordinary sanctioned killing, something not unknown in the world, but it was intentionally gruesome, so much so that the Saudi Consul General in Istanbul was so appalled he ran away and on Tuesday, October 16 got on a plane early in the morning heading back to the Kingdom.


The Turks probably had the Consulate wired for sound and video, so they certainly have the goods on the Saudis and no doubt photos of all the killers who arrived at the Consulate just in time to torture, kill and (maybe) soak Khashoggi’s body parts in acid, as the Turkish media has reported.  The Turks have been leaking the blow by blow of the torture, screams, dismemberment (while alive) and final death of the victim. At some point it can be expected they will release or leak the actual audio and perhaps even the gruesome video.


So for the United States, which counts Saudi Arabia as a key ally, the killing of Khashoggi is a body blow to US strategy and policy in the Persian Gulf and Middle East.


Saudi Arabia has been an important partner in Syria where Saudi money (and covert and not-so-covert US collaboration) funded, trained and supplied the anti-Assad, anti-Iranian and anti-Hezbollah coalition which still is hanging on by a thread in Idlib and Tal Afar.


Likewise Saudi Arabia has taken up the fight in Yemen against Iran’s support of the Houthis in Yemen.  While much of the Saudi and UAE effort has been a botch and has created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in that country, it is the only counterweight to Iranian control of vital waterways, especially the Bab-el-Mandeb straits on the Red Sea. The US has strongly backed the Saudi effort, supplying weapons especially in the form of smart bombs, intelligence and tactical guidance.  Unfortunately the Saudi coalition execution has left a lot to be desired, and the Houthis have proven more resilient than anticipated, largely because the Iranians are helping them and giving them anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons and ballistic missiles which they have fired into Saudi Arabia.


Saudi Arabia is also an important lure for the Russians, who have depended on Iran in Syria and see the Iranian regime as a big potential customer for Russian weapons.  But Saudi Arabia is dangling a similar carrot, and the Saudi’s have caught Putin’s attention.  Iran historically has been a target of Russia’s geopolitical interest, going back to Catherine the Great.  But the Iranian regime’s ambitions are starting to clash with Russia’s interests, especially Russia’s effort to keep themselves as closely aligned to Israel as possible.  Israel, long regarded by her enemies as a US outpost, still has its own policy needs, including pushing the Iranians out from Israel’s borders (especially Syria and the Golan region) and to encourage maximum interaction between Jews living and working in Russia and the nearly 1.2 million former-Russians living in Israel.  Israel’s interest in keeping Russia on friendly terms at the end of the day is strongly in Israel’s security interest, even though the Russians have often played fast and loose with the Israeli arrangement.


For sure, during the Cold War no one would have ever predicted a close Russia-Israel relationship or could have dreamed that millions of Russians and Israelis would be going back and forth, or even that the Russian government would go out of its way to try and put an end to endemic Russian antisemitism.


Saudi Arabia remains a major oil producing country, and its exports of oil are important globally, but particularly in Europe (where they compete with Russian oil and natural gas).  The US retains a very strong interest in an effective NATO alliance, and the Trump policy of trying to get the Europeans to share more of the NATO burden is beginning to have some success, although the road ahead is rocky and key players such as Germany are unwilling to make the needed investments and are facing political chaos at home.


For the above reasons, the United States is in no position to jettison the relationship it has with Saudi Arabia, and it is certainly in no position to cut off arms deliveries in the middle of Iran’s push to expand in the region. In fact, US policy should be, and no doubt is aimed at finding ways to push the Iranians back, to limit their control over Syria and Lebanon and their increasingly strong position in Iraq.  Saudi Arabia is a vital partner to achieve that goal, just as Israel holds the power balance in being able to stop the Iranians, if it comes to that.


Therefore the bottom line for the United States is to find a way to somewhat calm the waters.  Secretary of State Pompeo’s main effort, therefore was not in meeting with King Mohammed bin-Salman al Saud and other Saudi Leaders (which appears to have been largely cosmetic and a waste of Pompeo’s time), but rather in his effort to try to convince the Turks to stop the agitating against the Saudis and the continued leaking horrific information.  Naturally there will be a price which Turkish President Erdogan will extract from the US government should he decide to cooperate: let’s hope it isn’t too high.