Should the U.S. Balance Saudi Arabia Against Iran?

A humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Sanctions against Qatar. Consolidation of power in Riyadh. And yet another possible proxy conflict in Lebanon between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is what you get when states—Saudi Arabia in particular—get blank checks from the United States of America. This is why the world’s last absolutist monarchy must be brought to heel, even if they continue to aid us in the containment one of America’s greatest enemies, Iran.

The world’s last absolutist monarchy must be brought to heel, even if they aid us in the containment of one of our greatest enemies, Iran.

This is the opposite of what the U.S. has been doing since President Trump’s inauguration. Contrary to President Obama’s lukewarm policy toward the Arabian kingdom, President Trump has embraced the Saudis with open arms. This has likely emboldened Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to continue his reckless foreign policy, which began with the intervention against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen back in March 2015 and continues to this day. It has now escalated to sanctioning Qatar, the nation in which the U.S. al-Udeid airbase is housed, and possibly keeping former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri prisoner, likely to prepare for a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The positive U.S.-Saudi relationship is not without reason. Iran, one of the United States’ greatest adversaries, has been exploiting instability in the Middle East ever since its 1979 revolution. It has fostered anti-Sunni sentiment in Syria and Iraq, facilitating the rise of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda frequently praises Tehran as one of the main backers of its machinations. And they threaten several allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel; this threat would increase tenfold if the Iranians were to acquire nuclear weapons.

Fighting fire with fire, however, hurts more than it helps. To quote Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, Vice President of the Woodrow Wilson Center and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment respectively, “Both of us are feeling nostalgic for the good old days when the Saudis were scared of their own shadow.” These times are long gone with the rise of Prince and soon-to-be-king Salman, who has been outmaneuvering other members of the royal family to clinch the top position since 2015. In June, he put a prominent member of his family and contender for the throne, Mohammed bin Nayef, under house arrest. Just a month ago he created an anti-corruption commission to oust other powerful figures in Saudi politics, among them being Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, the richest man in Saudi Arabia. In total, Prince Salman seized moguls worth $800 billion, cementing his claim to power.

‘Both of us are feeling nostalgic for the good old days when the Saudis were scared of their own shadow.’ -Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky

Had this “anti-corruption commission” been in good faith, investors would be quite pleased, especially since Prince Salman is implementing Vision 2030. This development project, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, is set to ween Saudi Arabia off oil and potentially modernize its civil society, with attributes like women being allowed to drive by June 2018 and a space-age city, Neom, being constructed.

But because analysts the world over have declared that this commission was just a mere power-grab by the Crown Prince, many remain skeptical. It doesn’t help that on the scale of “Anti-Corruption and Transparency” created by the NGO Freedom House, Saudi Arabia clocks in at a lowly 1.44, with 0 being the worst and 7 being the best. It helps even less that Saudi Arabia has promised large reforms like these in the past, only to deliver meager results.

Even if Vision 2030 succeeds, however, that won’t necessarily bode well for Middle Eastern geopolitics. Such an ambitious expansion, even if half-successful, would further inaugurate Saudi Arabia as the regional hegemon of the Middle East. As an illiberal monarchy whose only real pulls are their pro-Americanism and stance against Iran, should Saudi Arabia really be given more keys to the region?

As an illiberal monarchy whose only real pulls are their pro-Americanism and stance against Iran, should Saudi Arabia really be given more keys to the region?

This is the point at which multilateralism is needed more than ever. The Middle East belongs to all its constituents, not just the kings and princes of Riyadh. U.S. foreign policy in the region can and will function with or without the acquiescence of the Saudis because they know that without us, Iran will be calling the shots. Iranian expansionism can be stopped, but only through local empowerment, not Saudi Arabian intimidation.

The U.S. can and should pride itself on the maintenance of its global alliance network. It can do this by coordinating where it can and holding back where it should. Blank checks, especially for illiberal states, will always end in disaster.

Nicholas Kinberg ’20 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at nicholaskinberg@wustl.edu.

Nicholas Kinberg

Nicholas Kinberg '20 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at nicholaskinberg@wustl.edu.

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