Saudi Arabia and the United States: Navigating a difficult relationship

November 21st, 2018

Saudi Arabia and the United States: The current crisis

In early October, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia was thrown into turmoil after the suspicious death of a Saudi journalist. According to an October 22 article on CBC News, it appears that Jamal Khashoggi, a resident of the United States and a Washington Post columnist, was murdered after he entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2 to obtain paperwork for his upcoming marriage. Khashoggi was known internationally for his criticism of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman regarding issues of extremism, women’s rights and freedom of expression. Khashoggi’s criticism provided a sharp contrast to the more moderate image that bin Salman has attempted to hone abroad.

While contrasting narratives have been put forward, an October 17 New York Times article says that the Turkish government claims to have audio recordings of the incident, proving several Saudi agents attacked Khashoggi shortly after his arrival at the consulate, with his gruesome death coming only a few minutes later. Turkish officials also assert that the killing of Khashoggi was ordered by senior officials in the Saudi royal court. For their part, President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have shifted from initially expressing skepticism about the Turkish account to more recently condemning Saudi Arabia’s response as “the worst coverup” in history and placing sanctions on those implicated in Khashoggi’s murder.

This particular incident has triggered international backlash due to the sheer brutality of the killing, which seems designed to send a message to similar critics and dissidents, along with Khashoggi’s connection to the United States. It also highlights the tensions that exist within the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States, an alliance based more on economic and strategic interests than shared values.

Saudi Arabia and the United States: A tentative alliance

In a recent Vox article, Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute, speaks about the history of U.S.–Saudi relations. In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud met onboard a U.S. naval ship in the Suez Canal to cement a relationship between the two countries based primarily on the oil resources possessed by Saudi Arabia. Following this agreement, Saudi Arabian wealth began to flow into the U.S. economy in the form of investments and arms purchases. With the start of the Cold War, the religious conservatism of Saudi Arabia prompted them to side with the United States against the atheism and communism of the Soviet Union, a rare instance where the United States and Saudi Arabia aligned on values, not just economics.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States and Saudi Arabia worked together to arm the Islamic and jihadist opposition. Though this opposition succeeded in driving out the Soviet army, it created other terrorism-related issues in the long term with which we’re still coping. After the United States lost Iran as an ally in the Islamic Revolution that same year, Saudi Arabia began to side with the United States in its ensuing confrontations with Iran.

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia faced its first major crisis following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, which were perpetrated predominantly by Saudi citizens. Even though one of the expressed goals of the terrorists was to take down the Saudi government as well, the citizenship of the terrorists created a mistrust of Saudi Arabia in the hearts of many Americans. Saudi Arabia is much more conservative socially than the United States, and the economic benefits of a relationship with Saudi Arabia have often required politicians and business leaders to turn a blind eye to the ways in which our beliefs about gender equality and the role of religion diverge.

The relationship took another turn in June 2017 when Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, was named crown prince and heir apparent to the throne. MBS has been widely lauded in the international community for his attempts to move toward economic and social liberalization in Saudi Arabia. While MBS has made strides by removing the prohibition against women driving and working to diversify the economy beyond its reliance on oil, commentators like Khashoggi and others have been critical of other aspects of bin Salman’s leadership, particularly his aggressive behavior in Yemen and throughout the Middle East. These critics have given him the title “prince of chaos.” Though it remains to be seen what, if any, fallout will come from Khashoggi’s death, the tenuous alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been thrust once again into the headlines, prompting questions about how sustainable an alliance is between the two countries.

You can pick your friends . . . or can you?

As we reflect on the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, it may bring to mind difficult or complicated relationships in our own lives. The most comfortable relationships are built on shared values and shared interests, but often, whether in personal or professional contexts, we’re required to interact and be friendly with people who bother us. The popularity of the word frenemy, a portmanteau of friend and enemy that describes someone we’re friendly with despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry, speaks to the prevalence of these kinds of relationships.

There are absolutely circumstances in which protecting our physical and emotional safety justifies cutting off a relationship with someone; but other times, situations can be more complex. Power dynamics and mutual benefits might keep us in a relationship with someone whose actions or professed values go against our own. Alternatively, we might stay in a relationship with the hope of exercising a positive influence on our counterpart.

Whether it’s the global community or our local faith community, we’re called into relationship with one another, and this isn’t always easy. When others take actions that we don’t approve or when our values come into conflict, it can be tempting to cut off our connection; but we can also learn from others, even in disagreement.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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