Somewhere along the line, we seem to have forgotten that our strategy in the Middle East is dependent on Saudi Arabia as our most important single security partner. Israel’s security is certainly a key American concern, but it does not play an active role in most of America’s ongoing military engagements in the region, in dealing with Iran, or in a direct fight against violent extremist movements like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia’s role as a strategic partner has also been enhanced by the fact that Egypt and Algeria are focused on their own internal stability and their roles in the region have sharply diminished, and Iraq and Syria both must deal with major instability problems and are at war. Our European allies have declining power projection capabilities, and Turkey’s role in the region is increasingly problematic.
But the United States needs Saudi Arabia as well. Saudi Arabia is now the most critical single security partner in ensuring the stable flow of petroleum out of the Gulf region. While the United States is largely eliminating its need for direct petroleum imports, it is steadily increasing its dependence on the health and growth of the global economy and imports from Asian states like China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, which are critically dependent on Gulf petroleum exports. The end result is that U.S. strategic interests in the region continue to increase in spite of the steady cut in U.S. direct oil imports.
This is why focusing on more U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Saudi investment in the United States, ignoring the growing role Saudi Arabia has played in fight terrorism since 2003, down playing the need to cooperate in checking Iran, and treating the war in Yemen as is if Saudi Arabia does not face real threats is not the way the United States should deal with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s visit to the White House.
Saudi Arabia’s reform and economic development plans are critical to its stability and the region’s security. The kingdom needs U.S. encouragement and an understanding that Saudi Arabia cannot implement these plans effectively without outside support. The burden sharing argument has become absurd. Saudi Arabia cannot be treated as a source of ready money every time the United States has a need.
It is already spending more than 10 percent of its economy on security, which is three times the economic burden security places on the United States. This spending is too high given the kingdom’s other needs, and the United States should be focusing on better ways to make its security partnerships with Saudi Arabia, as well as the other Gulf states and Jordan more efficient and less costly, not simply on spending more.
At the same time, Iran is all too real a threat. Effective joint action in dealing with Iran’s nuclear programs, its ballistic and cruise missile programs, its asymmetric threats to Gulf shipping, and expending military influence in the region are all critical common U.S. and Saudi priorities.
The United States also badly needs to find some common approach to dealing with Iraq and Syria that will move both towards recovery and lasting stability, limit Iranian and Russian influence as much as possible, and help stabilize relations with Turkey. There are no easy options in either case, but Saudi Arabia is the key potential Arab partner any such efforts.
The United States, especially members of Congress, needs to remember that we have had at least as many military problems in fighting the Iraq and Syria wars as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have faced in fighting in Yemen. Cutting U.S. arms shipments to Saudi Arabia may do little more that lead the Saudis to ignore the systems that the United States has helped set up to limit targeting of civilians and using unguided and more damaging air munitions. It raises a whole new round of questions about the U.S commitment to its partners in the region.
We need to forge a common solution in Yemen, not a decoupling that leaves Saudi Arabia exposed. This would fail in both military and human rights terms, and leaves both the United States and Saudi Arabia with no options for dealing with the Houthi or Iran, seeking ways to end the war, dealing with Al Qaida or the other terrorist movements in Yemen, and without any means to help Yemen back to some form of stability and development.
These challenges are also are reasons why the United States should do as much as possible to persuade Mohammed Bin Salman to end the divisions that have led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to split with Qatar, and to rising tensions with Oman. More unity between the southern Gulf states in dealing with Iran and terrorism can do far more to help the United states than more arms sales. Finally, more interoperability, common facilities and cooperation are key to countering Iran.
We need to take this visit seriously, and stop focusing on pomp and deals. The United States is highly unlikely to find a better Saudi leader for reform and change in Saudi Arabia during the next decade, or one more committed to improving Saudi security in ways that serve the common interests of both the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.