Fix the U.S.-Saudi Alliance. Don’t Break It.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Democrats are planning a "deep dive" into ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia when they take control of the House of Representatives in January. Republicans in the administration of President Donald Trump are putting pressure on the Saudi government to back off its military and diplomatic adventures in Yemen and Qatar.
The murder last month of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has created a backlash against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that’s led both sides in Washington to raise new questions about the limits of U.S.-Saudi cooperation.
The tension, despite close relations between the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family, presents an important opportunity for a needed reset in relations. But it also presents dangers of overreaction that need to be carefully avoided.
The U.S.-Saudi partnership remains essential for preserving the stability and security of the Persian Gulf region and the broader Middle East. There are no good alternatives for either side. Its core elements — military ties, intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation and work to secure and stabilize global energy markets — are too important to place at risk.
However, there are four changes that could rejuvenate the U.S.-Saudi relationship, benefit both parties and respond to legitimate concerns about recent conduct by Riyadh.
First, the Khashoggi family and the world deserve the truth about his slaying. This shocking atrocity can’t simply be accepted as business as usual.
With this in mind, U.S. sanctions have already been imposed on a small number of Saudi operatives by the Trump administration, and members of Congress have invoked the Global Magnitsky Act that could lead to sanctions on more senior officials. Both houses of Congress should push the administration to work with Turkey and the Saudi government to secure as much accountability as possible.
Second, now’s the time to push for an end to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, with its civilian casualties, potential famine and burgeoning cholera epidemic.
Legislators have been urging the U.S. to end all cooperation with the Yemen war and the administration has announced the suspension of U.S. refueling for Saudi-coalition aircraft.
Beyond that, it’s also possible to use the threat of withholding upcoming sales of such arms as precision-guided munitions, aircraft and helicopter contracts and an advanced anti-ballistic missile system to push Riyadh and its partners to cooperate in easing the humanitarian crisis and eventually ending the conflict.
But the push for a resolution to the war must be realistic. The coalition did not start the conflict in Yemen. On the contrary, it intervened in the country, pursuant to a United Nations Security Council resolution, after Iran-backed Houthi rebels overthrew the legitimate government.
Many in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates insist that if the coalition leaves Yemen, the war will intensify. Even if that’s true, it’s no reason for those countries to stay if they can extricate themselves.
Yet they do have legitimate concerns. The Saudis cannot allow themselves to remain vulnerable to Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities, and the U.A.E. is not going to stand by and watch al-Qaeda grow stronger in the south.
Indeed, the international community also has reason to be concerned about Houthi threats to maritime security in the Red Sea, with its crucial shipping lanes, and the possibility of a consolidated Iranian and Hezbollah foothold in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.
Any arrangement to end the fighting, let alone the war, will have to address these concerns.
To end the conflict, the world will have to discover something that no one yet apparently knows: What is the Houthis’ bottom line?
Until there is a reasonable international understanding of what this group seeks, finding a workable long-term arrangement is going to be difficult.
Third, Washington needs to make it clear to Riyadh that the U.S.-Saudi partnership is based on a mutual goal of preserving regional stability, and that this cannot be accomplished through destabilizing tactics. The Khashoggi murder is only the latest example of a rash, reckless or destabilizing action by Saudi Arabia that increases regional instability.
Fourth, the U.S. should push for an easing of the Saudi crackdown on potential rivals and repression of internal dissent. The social and economic reforms undertaken by the crown prince are welcome. But they’ve been accompanied by a concentration of power around his inner circle and an assault on freedom of speech and conscience.
The continuing pattern of arbitrary detentions of Saudi citizens, at times apparently for the mildest criticism and usually without charges, should be unacceptable to the U.S.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is essential, but it needs repair. By pressing for justice in the Khashoggi case, easing the Yemen conflict, pressing Riyadh to focus on stability, and helping to ease the internal crackdown in Saudi Arabia, Washington can use this opportunity to strengthen the relationship. That would benefit both parties and improve security in the Middle East.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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