Turn Saudi Arabia into trusted partner in Middle East conflict

Turn Saudi Arabia into trusted partner in Middle East conflict
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It has been a month since Saudi writer and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. That case may have faded from the front page, but debates about American policy towards Saudi Arabia remain heated. Democrats and quite a few Republicans have vowed to punish the kingdom for his death and for the war in Yemen, but these issues sidestep the basic problem. Unless the United States wishes to return in force to the Middle East, Washington needs Riyadh.

The Middle East is a tangled web, but American interests have been largely consistent across administrations, with the commitment to security of Israel, containment of Iran, and suppression of Islamist extremism. The commitment to Israel is straightforward, executed through aid and trade, and support for those at peace with the Jewish state. The questions of Iran and Islamist extremism are more complex, with policy in these areas vacillating from president to president.


On their face, the arguments against Saudi Arabia are compelling. The kingdom is the godfather of Sunni extremism, working for decades both to put its ultra conservative stamp on Islamic practice worldwide and stifle more moderate iterations of Islamic interpretation. Individual Saudis have underwritten terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and others, making possible the attacks that have killed thousands of Americans.

But there have been substantial changes since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The regime cracked down, first on financing of extremist groups, and then, to a certain extent, on the export of religious radicalism. Since coming to power, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has further throttled back support by the kingdom for Sunni extremists and defanged the religious establishment at home. He is, as he readily admits, no liberal reformer. But the reforms under his leadership are indisputable.

At the same time, since accepting the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been cruising. Notwithstanding a commitment from Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Democratic race for president may not sort itself out 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Krystal Ball: Patrick's 2020 bid is particularly 'troublesome' for Warren MORE that the nuclear deal did not imply a blank check for Tehran predations in the region, Iran has stepped up its destabilizing efforts from Iraq to Yemen, Bahrain to Syria, and further afield. Enter Saudi Arabia.

Saudi relations with Yemen have long been fraught, but the collapse of the Sunni government in the wake of the Arab Spring, and the decision by Iran to support the Zaydi Shiite Houthis, brought Riyadh and other Middle East allies including the United Arab Emirates into the conflict. Like other Iranian proteges across the region, the Houthi conflict began with legitimate grievances which Tehran then exploited and escalated.

That the Saudis feel threatened by yet another Iranian proxy on their doorstep is not irrational. Even President Obama, no friend to the kingdom, provided intelligence to support their efforts in Yemen. That decision made sense, as the United States and Saudi Arabia faced a shared threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, headquartered in the tribal areas of Yemen. The problem was not so much the Saudi decision to go to war, but rather their incompetent prosecution of it.

The Saudi military, notwithstanding billions of dollars in top platform purchases, is not terribly capable. Yemen is complex terrain, and almost no one is game to tackle the underlying drivers of the conflict. Much like the effort of President Obama to “end” the war in Iraq, any plan to “end” the war in Yemen requires some answers. Can the United States accept that Yemen be dominated by Iran and shared with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? Is the United States itself willing to commit troops to defang Iranian proxies and squelch Al Qaeda and some ISIS offshoots? Does the United States have the diplomatic patience to manage the drivers of conflict in Yemen? If Syria is any example, the answers here are no.

Then there is the question of the rest of the Middle East. There has always been a Sunni power broker in the region. Right now, that nation is Saudi Arabia, in part because there is no one else with the stature, money, and will. When the United States has hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, that Sunni power broker becomes irrelevant. When it does not, having a partner to stand ground against Iran becomes important. In many ways, Saudi Arabia has become that partner for the United States.

Finally, it is because the United States wishes to step back from the region that Saudi Arabia has stepped up by taking more action. It is neither an ideal partner, nor a mature and capable power. While Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has made some good decisions, he has also made many bad ones. The answer for the United States is not to run from these issues, or to cede the Middle East to Iran, nor is it to forego pressure for meaningful reform or use realism as a carte blanche for bad behavior.

Rather, it is to recognize both the difficulty of enacting reforms decades overdue and the threat posed by Tehran, whose human rights violations exceed even those of Riyadh. It is to insist on justice in the case of Jamal Khashoggi and others less celebrated who are also at risk. It is to provide sufficient additional assistance to ensure that human rights violations in Yemen cease. Finally, it is to help Saudi Arabia mature into the kind of Middle East partner that the United States can trust in the future.

Danielle Pletka is senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and former longtime senior professional staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.