The Saudi and Gulf Perspective on President Obama’s Visit
April 20, 2016
Americans have never been particularly good at seeing the world from the viewpoint of other countries. Perhaps it is the production of distance and two oceans, or never having had modern war on U.S. soil, but it seems exceptionally hard for Americans to realize that even friends and allies can have different strategic perspectives, different priorities, and values that differ strikingly from those of a Western secular democracy.
The fact is, however, that America’s strategic ties to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states — which in practice include Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE — have been critical to U.S. strategic interests ever since Britain withdrew from the Gulf, and the loose strategic partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has been progressively more important ever since President Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud on the deck of the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal on February 14, 1945.
A Changing Saudi Arabia
There is no question that Saudis have different values than Americans. Modern Saudi Arabia emerged out of a war with Turkey during World War I, and in the face of British support for a different royal family. It was formed as a conservative and puritanical Sunni Muslim state comprised of a group of tribes under a monarchy. It was one of the poorest countries in the world for the first decades of its existence, and it was not until the first major rise in oil prices in 1973 that Saudi Arabia could afford serious modernization, public services, education, and a modern structure of government and defense.
At the same time, they have been under constant pressure or threats from at least one major neighbors ever since the rise of Nasser in the mid-1950s and British withdrawal from Yemen, and they have faced massive internal pressures for change as their population has increased from some 3.9 million in 1950 to 27.8 million in 2015 — an increase of over seven times with a projected further increase of 45% by 2050.
A once rural and nomadic society is now a hyperurbanized nation that is over 83% urbanized and becoming more urbanized at a rate of 2% per year. A young population — with a median age of 26 — is so young that 27% of the population is 14 years of age or younger, and another 19% is between the ages of 15 and 24.
A population that had virtually no schools for either sex until the early 1950s is now 94% literate, and has a school life expectancy of 16 years. Discrimination against women is all too clear in many areas, but gender bias gives men more social outlets than women, and women spend an average of a year longer in school. They now make up a larger portion of both secondary education and university education (60% are women) than men, and the gross enrollment rate for females is 36.1 percent as opposed to 24.7 percent for males.
Women also have the advantage that they tend to take modern courses while men must often devote significant time to religious instruction. At the same time, the Saudi government has created private universities that do not require religious training, has slowly reformed parts of the overall curriculum, and has tightened restrictions on its religious police. Change is carefully managed, and the rate is limited, but the net cumulative effect is both massive and deliberate. Moreover, it did not react to the tragedy of 9/11 by keeping its best students away from the United States. Instead, it not only created U.S.-managed universities in Saudi Arabia, it raised the number of Saudi students studying in the United States to well over 125,000 in 2015.
These forces combine to create massive pressures for better education, social change, and job creation, and for government efforts to create development, jobs, housing, new schools, medical services, and infrastructure. Unlike most of its neighbors, however, Saudi Arabia has made massive investments ever since oil wealth became real in the mid-1970s. Moreover, former King Abdullah succeeded in creating one of the only serious programs that dealt with the challenges destabilizing the Arab world after political uprisings began in 2011.
The net effect is that Saudi income per capita was $54,400 in 2015, and if one compares this to other large high-populated states in the Middle East with far longer modern economic histories, Algeria was $14,400, Egypt was $11,500, Iran was $17,500, Iraq was $15,000, and Syria was only $5,100 — even in 2010. In fact, one of the key aspects of modern Saudi history is that its royal family, technocrats, and business elite have led a conservative population towards change rather than having been pushed towards reform from below.
The Saudi royal family and government may not meet U.S. ideals in moving towards democracy and Western concepts of human rights, but if one looks at decades of Saudi budgets and five year plans, Saudi Arabia has reacted by consistently investing a larger share of the nation’s wealth in modernization and meeting popular needs than any other highly populated Middle Eastern state.
Saudi Arabia has invested major amounts in mosques and religious schools, but some of the commentary on Saudi Arabia’s religious practices and funding programs ignore realities that the United States cannot safely continue to ignore.
- First, survey after survey – including excellent work by the Pew Trust – shows that largely Muslim states give religion, religious law, and religious extremism the same or higher polling support than Saudi Arabia.
- Second, some countries like Pakistan are more than willing to blame the Saudis for their own low and terribly managed investment in education; willingness to tolerate native extremist movements like the Deobandis; and consistent (ISI) state support of terrorist and extremist movements to use against other countries like India and Afghanistan.
- Third, all legal Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia are state-funded, and no other largely Muslim state has exerted tighter control over what they say since the rise of Al Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia is no model of stability or rapid modernization — although it is rather hard to list other states that are actually doing better. It is important to note, however, that security, stability, and rising living standards are also indicators of human rights, and scarcely unimportant ones.
Saudi and U.S. Common Interests
If the United States is to have lasting strategic partnerships anywhere, it must avoid the kind of broad political rhetoric and false assumptions that other countries should act on the basis of U.S. strategic priorities and needs. No U.S. ally in the world has identical strategic interest with the United States, and partnerships need to be based on respect for that fact and on compromise.
In broad terms, U.S. and Saudi strategic priorities have much in common:
- Ensuring the stable flow of some 17 to 18 million barrels of petroleum exports per day out of the Gulf, and steadily increasing the flow of oil, gas, and product exports to meet the demands of the global economy. These exports are critical to the Saudi economy, but also to the overall health and growth of the U.S. and Saudi economies.
- The U.S. for example, had a GDP of some $18 trillion in 2015, $1.6 trillion in exports (9% of GDP) and $2.35 trillion in imports (13% of GDP).
- In 2015, it still imported some 9 million barrels of petroleum and product per day. Only 1.51 million barrels came from the Gulf (16%), although 1.06 million barrels (11%) came from Saudi Arabia. This was well under 8% of total U.S. imports.
- Direct import dependence, however, is only part of the story. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that U.S. dependence on imports from nations whose economies are critically dependent on the stable flow of Gulf petroleum exports is far more important. In 2015, 16.3% of U.S. imports came from China, 9.7% came from Japan, 6.3% came from South Korea, 4% came from Taiwan, 3% from India, and 1.1% from Vietnam: A total of 40.4%. Even assuming that the United States eliminated all petroleum imports and exported some oil and gas, it would still be strategically dependent on the stable flow of Gulf petroleum exports.
- Saudi armed forces are largely U.S.-equipped, and are shaped on the basis of American support and advice. A recent Administration fact sheet noted that Saudi Arabia had some one billion dollars of U.S. arms in active delivery. Reporting by the Congressional Research Service shows a steady build up in U.S. arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia.
- Saudi Arabia ordered $13.2 billion worth of U.S. arms in 2007-2010, out of a total of $29.6 billion. Saudi Arabia ordered $47 billion worth from the U.S. in 2011-2014, out of a total of $56.4 billion. These included systems tailored to supporting joint action against Iran and counterterrorism.
- Deliveries lag far behind orders. Saudi Arabia only took delivery on $5.3 billion out of $10.9 billion in 2007-2010, and $9.0 billion out of $16 billion in 2011-2014. The end result is a massive backlog of arms deliveries tailored to cooperation with the United States that predates the war in Yemen.
- Saudi Arabia conducts regular joint exercises with the United States, seems to have flown some sorties with the U.S.-led air campaign operating against ISIS, and receives extensive support in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has reshaped its air force to develop long range strike capability that is interoperable with U.S. forces, decided to modernize key elements of its navy in ways that improve cooperation with the U.S., and is working with the other Gulf states to create effective missile defense and more modern land-based air and cruise missile defense systems.
- While the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have made little progress in standardization and cooperation, Iraq, Kuwait, and Oman have all made major purchases that are tailored to some degree to operating with the United States, and Bahrain and UAE are steadily improving their cooperation with the United States.
- Saudi-Omani tensions remain serious, and Oman’s role in the JCPOA negotiations has not helped. Internal tensions in the GCC spill over to a limited degree in U.S.-Saudi relations.
- Dealing with the full range of complex threats posed by Iran:
- Avoiding a nuclear arms race in the region and Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.
- Countering the massive Iranian build up of conventionally armed rockets and missiles that are evolving towards precision-guided systems, and can reach virtually every major energy, desalination, population, and military target in the Gulf region.
- Countering the equally massive Iranian build up of an asymmetric threat combining air, missile, and naval systems that include smart mines, a wide variety of anti-ship missiles, easily dispersible patrol boats, submarine, and submersibles, all of which Iran has threatened to use to “close the Gulf.”
- Halting the steady expansion of Iranian influence and arming of non-state actors and proxy forces in areas ranging from Lebanon and Gaza, to Syria and Iraq, which threatens states like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Yemen.
- Suppressing and defeating any form of violent extremism, particularly ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, Al Qaeda, and groups like the Al Nusra front.
- Ending the conflicts and human tragedies coming out of the conflicts in Libya, the Sinai, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
- Helping to support and stabilize moderate states and regimes like those in Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt.
- Creating an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and a stable, secure two-state solution.
Saudi and U.S. Differences
There are, however, important differences in the Saudi and U.S. view of the security situation in the Middle East. These are differences that President Obama failed to acknowledge in his criticism in the Atlantic’s April 2016 article, but which are nonetheless vital to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states:
- ISIS is seen as the primary terrorist threat to the United States and Europe, to the point that U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria is focused largely on defeating ISIS and the Al Nusra Front.
- Saudi Arabia also sees ISIS as a threat, and is an ally in the U.S.-led air effort. However, its primary terrorist threat is still Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has some strength in Saudi Arabia, but is based largely in Yemen. Other Arab Gulf states — other than Iraq — also see ISIS as a lesser threat.
- Saudi Arabia has improved its relations with Iraq to some extent, but it sees the U.S invasion of Iraq as having divided the country, putting it under Shi’ite and Kurdish control, removing Iraq as a key military counterbalance to Iran, and giving Iran a critical level of influence in Iraq that it will retain, even if the U.S. can bring Iraqi forces to the point where they can defeat ISIS. Saudi Arabia also feels that the U.S. has been far too slow and limited in its efforts to build up Iraqi forces.
- Saudi Arabia sees Assad and Hezbollah as major threats to the Arab Sunni world, and as closely tied to Iran. It has seen the United States as indecisive and ineffective in supporting Arab rebel forces and checking Assad ever since 2012, as having failed to act decisively on its own red lines, as having failed to react or check Russian intervention in support of Assad, and as having been willing to accept a settlement that might well either divide Syria permanently or keep Assad in power. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Arab rebel forces, and the United States are improving their coordination, but Saudi experts are still deeply concerned that recent U.S. efforts to build up Syrian rebel forces with a larger U.S. advisory effort and heavier arms will come too late to be effective.
- Saudi Arabia sees Iran as having effectively made Hezbollah the major power in Lebanon, as a key power in Syria and Iraq, and as a major threat in Bahrain. It gives the expansion of Iranian military forces and regional influence far higher priority.
- Saudi Arabia sees the war in Yemen as a war that effectively began in 2009, and potentially would put an Iranian supported Houthi-Saleh Shi’ite government in control of a state that has a critical strategic position in controlling access to the Red Sea, and a 1,307-kilometer long border with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has had constant security problems with Yemen since the 1960s, and also sees the fighting as having led to the halt in its partnership with the United States in seeking to defeat AQAP in Yemen, and as having greatly expanded AQAP influence in Yemen. It welcomes limited U.S. support in the war, but sees the war as having far more strategic importance than the U.S. does.
- Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned that regardless of what it does, it is still seen by many Americans as supporting terrorism and being responsible for 9/11. Saudi intelligence officers raise questions about CIA support of Bin Laden in Operation Cyclone in Pakistan, but the exact sequence of events there and leading to Bin Laden leaving Saudi Arabia in 1992 remains unclear. In any case, Saudi Arabia treated Bin Laden and Al Qaeda as a steadily more serious threat, and attempted to push the Taliban into putting him under their control well before 2001. Saudi Arabia had its own “9/11” in the form of AQAP attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003, and has become a steadily closer partner in counterterrorism since that time. It has created the equivalent of a third U.S. advisory mission in Saudi Arabia to focus on counterterrorism supporting the Saudi Ministry of the Interior – in addition to the two long-standing military advisory groups working with its regular military and National Guard.
- The U.S. support of an expanding role for Iraqi and Syrian Kurds in the war on ISIS has led to an expansion of Kurdish occupied territory that is largely Arab. Saudi Arabia does see this as a threat to the unity of Arab states and Arab control, although not the kind of direct threat seen by Turkey.
- Saudi Arabia sees current efforts to make the Saudi government legally liable for “9/11” as a major political attack on Saudi Arabia, and one that shows no recognition of Saudi partnership with the U.S. The full details of “9/11” remain classified, but there is other evidence that the Saudi government never supported Bin Laden or Al Qaeda. At the same time, there is a broader problem in that at least some senior Saudis — and senior figures in the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar — did support extremist charities and causes, and that controlling the flow of all such funding remains virtually impossible.
- President Obama’s statements in the Atlantic implying that Saudi Arabia was not doing its share in the security field have not helped. Saudi Arabia feels its cooperation has been high, that the United States has failed to create effective force postures in Syria and Iraq, and does not seem to recognize Saudi priorities at the White House level. It feels as though its arms purchases and cooperation with the United States have involved a major effort, and that supporting the third largest military budget in the world represents a massive effort. Saudi Arabia spent some $81.9 billion on defense in 2015 – ranking third in the world after the US ($597.5 billion) and China ($145.5 billion) and above Russia ($65.6 billion), This amounts to 12.9% of its GDP at a time when nations like Britain and France find even 2% a challenge.
- Saudi Arabia also feels the U.S. still sometimes regards it as an all-purpose source of aid and security funding for U.S. needs at a time when Saudi petroleum revenues have dropped to the crisis level — only 40% to 60% of their 2013 and 2014 levels.
Uncertainty, Not Crisis, in Relations
The end result is several ironies in the meeting between President Obama, the Saudis, and the other GCC states. First, such meetings almost inevitably announce improved cooperation in areas like missile defense and common resolve, and downplay serious issues. Unlike previous meetings, however, Obama is to some extent a lame duck President, and one clearly operating without the support of a Congress that Saudi Arabia sees as uncertain and to some degree hostile. In a year where every major security issue involves critical uncertainties, this U.S. President brings little clear leverage to the negotiations. His success will consist largely of restoring the image of cooperation without having an impact on the substance.
Second, the Saudi royal family is all too familiar with the constant outside obsession with Royal politics and succession issues. This time, however, the U.S. President’s succession issues involve three main populist candidates whose foreign and security policies are almost all rhetoric and no clear substance. If the U.S. delegation is worried about future Saudi leadership, imagine how the Saudi leaders feel about the United States!
Third, and perhaps most ironic of all — regardless of what the Saudi Arabia can or cannot say publically — the only competent U.S. Presidential candidate that serves the common Saudi and U.S. interests, and now now seems to have a serious chance of winning, is a woman.