Why does the U.S. continue to support Saudi Arabia?

July 13, 2015 1:07 pm

Let’s start with the most obvious reason the U.S. is allied with Saudi Arabia: oil. Saudi Arabia is the second largest oil depository in the world, after Venezuela. It has 268,350 million barrels in oil reserves according to the U.S. Energy Administration’s International Energy Statistics and for the U.S., a country that uses 19.05 million barrels of oil a day, it is evident that keeping on the second largest oil producer in the world’s good side is vital for the U.S. oil industry to stay in business. If the U.S. were to denounce Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses and alleged funding of terrorism it would be hugely detrimental to companies such as the Saudi Arabian Oil Company who would be forced to leave. The Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Saudi Aramco as it is also known, has its origins after Saudi Arabia concession to Standard Oil of California, allowing them to explore for oil in Saudi Arabia following the U.S.’s pursuit of an “Open Door policy” under the Herbert Hoover administration to combat the San Remo Petroleum Agreement of 1920. The agreement, which was sponsored by Britain and France, prohibited U.S. oil companies from drilling for oil in Mesopotamia (now parts of Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria). This formation of Saudi Aramco enabled the U.S. to have a place in the oil business and is the origin of the complex relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Companies such as Saudi Aramco, which had an annual revenue of $378 billion in 2014, are vital to ensuring the U.S. economy remains functioning. If the U.S. upset the Saudis then U.S. companies in the country would be jeopardised and forced to pull out, allowing Saudi Arabia and other competing nations’ firms to take total control of the oil reserves. This would leave the U.S. suffering from a shortage of oil and the huge revenue the petroleum industry brings in. This is the main reason the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are such close allies and it backs up Marxist readings of U.S. foreign policy as being primarily motivated by economics.

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However, oil alone is not just the reason for the U.S.’s alliance with Saudi Arabia. In a region that is so traditionally hostile to the U.S. and the Western world, a country that is such a big power in the Middle East willing to cooperate with a Western nation is always a great opportunity to maintain American influence abroad. Saudi Arabia’s population is 75-90% Sunni Islam and this sect of Islam, which is followed by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil/Isis) and Al-Qaeda, is dominated by Wahhabism, a religious movement within the sect. Many Saudi leaders are Wahhabis and fund Salafism, a fundamentalist form radical Islam, globally. Naturally the U.S. would be against this promotion of Islamism, especially after attacks on American soil such as 9/11, however, diplomacy sometimes requires pragmatism over moral conviction. The idiom “better the devil you know” is essential to this realpolitik approach to U.S. foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia. Had the George W. Bush administration refrained from invading Iraq in 2003 and allowed Saddam Hussein to remain leader then groups such as Isil would not be in existence today, at least not in the same capacity that they are at the moment. This is the same fear the U.S. State Department has right now. If the U.S. acted on a moral basis to stop the oppression in Saudi Arabia then the result could be as catastrophic as the aftermath of the Iraq War. More extremist groups could rise to power and Isil could seize more territory, cementing their caliphate, posing a greater threat to the West. By the U.S. remaining allies with Saudi Arabia they know what they are dealing with, and although the abuses of human rights, such as torturing detainees and corporal punishment, in Saudi Arabia is abhorrent another Iraq-esque scenario could occur where a far worse group takes charge. However, military intervention in Saudi Arabia is highly unlikely in any scenario. The main risk is though, that if the U.S. lost Saudi Arabia as an ally then the Saudis could form an alliance with Iran, posing a greater threat to the U.S. than just Isil. The Iranians alleged development of nuclear weapons, mixed with the rumours of Saudi Arabia’s deal with Pakistan for nuclear weapons would make the two nations nuclear states and be a huge threat to the U.S. The U.S. tolerates Saudi Arabia for both security from more extreme groups and security from a potential Iranian-Saudi Arabian nuclear partnership.

Security, of both its citizens and its economy, seems to be the underlying reason for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia being allies and yet again security plays a role in the third factor for their alliance; no other Middle Eastern country would make for a suitable ally. The other Middle Eastern nations, aside from Israel, are simply too weak, small, or corrupt to be a formidable ally for the U.S. in the region. Saudi Arabia is a large nation with a huge military budget (it rose 17% to $80bn in 2014) and great influence in the Middle East. No other Middle Eastern countries offer such a good opportunity for the U.S.; Iraq is fractured by Isil, Turkey is a quasi-authoritarian regime under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt are with similar issues to Saudi Arabia though their willingness to confront radical Islam would be a benefit, and Jordan is simply too small to make a difference despite their royal family being open to business with the West. With all these other nations’ negatives it becomes apparent why the U.S. remains such a good friend with Saudi Arabia. They are the U.S.’s second most important ally after Israel and provide an alternative location for U.S. to launch its foreign policy.

Finally, another good reason to keep Saudi Arabia as an ally is that the U.S. does not need any more enemies. They have plenty of enemies worldwide, especially in the Middle East and to make one in Saudi Arabia would be both stupid and detrimental to the future of the U.S. economy and the nation’s security. Saudi Arabia’s issues may be ample, often superfluous, but most of them only effect those living in the nation, which is a shame, however, from a realpolitik foreign policy standpoint the U.S. comes first and making enemies with Saudi Arabia based on moral convictions would not be worth the decades of fallout that would follow.

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