By Douglas Kohn
When America’s closest historical permanent alliances come to mind, the names that usually come up in conversation are Britain, Canada, the rest of the English speaking world, Continental Europe, Japan and Israel. We have other allies to be sure, but few of them are on as deep a level of cooperation and common values as these.
However, an alliance routinely overlooked by many in America who wish we did not need it is the Saudi monarchy. Reminiscent of the absolute monarchies of 15th Century Europe, this oil powered ally of America’s is no less significant than any other. Relations were first forged at the outset of World War II by President Roosevelt very much under the auspices of Winston Churchill. The Saudi royal family, though they have to carefully manage their behavior publicly, is currently our most important ally in the Middle East. I think it would suffice it to say that in the short term, they may even be more important than Israel.
The Saudi royal family is firmly pro American. The Saudi people are not. This is a massive disconnect. There are many threats to the Saudi family but their power does not seem to be in serious question. At any given time there are some 200 wealth wielding members of the al Sauds and another 7000 in the extended family. The state’s infrastructure and traditions are firmly still in place and the standard of living has been rising on the back of oil exports.
The world is changing. Al Qaeda has been beaten from much of the Middle East and the alliance between the al Sauds and the Wahhabist (anti American) clerics remains. Al Qaeda’s intellectual firmament remains the Wahhabist ideology. But there are many nuanced issues that deserve their own attention.
The first is that Saudi Arabia remains an ally despite being a despotic repressive regime at home. The al Sauds are experienced in the art of statecraft and need peace and security for themselves. America’s oil for security pact with Saudi Arabia may be under strain. However, it seems the internal security of the monarchy, though challenged, is not in critical danger.
Unusually for many countries around the world, the Saudi official position, while officially impartial, is known to be friendly and comfortable with George Bush, in spite of his mistake in Iraq. The al Sauds have long ties with the Bush family and with the Republican Party. The Saudis will meet with President Elect Obama this week and size him up for the first time. Among inner circles within the Saudi Court it is known that hearing his calls for hope and change ring hollow and even cause nervousness. Stability is the word of the day. The Stability of Saudi Arabia and the Greater Middle East is necessary for furthering American interests there and facing up to an increasingly belligerent Iran. Saudi Arabia will also be a key diplomatic force in pushing through any Israeli Palestinian Peace Accord.
If Obama pushes the Saudis away he will be making a colossal failure. The last monarchy that the US turned its back on was Iran, and it then became one of our fiercest enemies, blocking every move America has made to try to set up stable regimes in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan (though it originally cooperated with us in Afghanistan). The Saudis knew that in ousting Saddam from Iraq, the only check in the region on Iranian power and influence had been removed. Iran was now free to play a chess proxy game across the region to increase its influence at the expense of the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and our smaller Gulf allies. The Russian invasion of Georgia further complicated that country’s value to Western Strategic schemes in the region.
This issue has a very long history. If one goes back to read the old New York Times articles from the 70s they railed on and on about how the Shah was running the most evil and brutal regime ever created. The truth is he was running an enlightened monarchy and was favoring eventually introducing democracy. He had also built a country with a highly educated workforce and vast industrial and mining base. But the Times and eventually the Democratic Party did not let up. When finally Ayatollah Khomeini took over, there was nothing left but for America to elect Reagan to get the hostages out.
We must not make that mistake today. It seems that even on its own the Saudi Monarchy will stay in place. But President Elect Obama must not try to take a moral stand on them. They are slowly reforming. It is painful to not see it go further but the alliance must be maintained. They are now the key to holding back Iran.