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A look at the relationship from the other side

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.

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:

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:

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.


Photo: White House National Security, Link to Tweet