Best Friends For Now

It’s been a rough year for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s most powerful ally, the United States, struck high-profile diplomatic deals first with Syria and then with Iran, their most hated foes. The threat of U.S. military intervention in both countries is now receding, and relations with Iran might even be reaching something less than outright hostility. And the House of Saud is voicing its long-simmering displeasure in public:

[…] And yet rather than challenging the Syrian and Iranian governments, some of our Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them. The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.

This year’s talks with Iran may dilute the West’s determination to deal with both governments. What price is “peace” though, when it is made with such regimes?

The foreign policy choices being made in some Western capitals risk the stability of the region and, potentially, the security of the whole Arab world. This means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs: more determined than ever to stand up for the genuine stability our region so desperately needs.

The anger behind this statement is almost as transparent as the insecurity it reveals. Saudi Arabia and its fellow Sunni Gulf monarchies in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are strong American allies, but they’re not durable ones. What happens when — not if — the United States abandons them?

America’s relationships with these countries, especially with Saudi Arabia, have always been anomalous. Major U.S. allies are generally stable liberal democracies who share similar political and socio-cultural values. (This wasn’t always the case, especially during the Cold War, but it’s getting better.) Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom share a language, a common heritage, and deep cultural ties. France, Germany, the other European democracies in NATO, and Israel are bound to the United States by the turbulence of history and a shared worldview. Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines were practically rebuilt in the American image in the second half of the 20th century. More often than not, America prefers allies who resemble America.

So what does the United States share with the Gulf monarchies beyond a common Persian foe? Certainly not America’s republican ethos. All six GCC members are either absolute monarchies or cosmetically-constitutional ones. Bahrain, with their neighbors’ armed support, violently cracked down on Arab Spring protesters in 2011 while the United States looked the other way. A Saudi political activist had the temerity to argue earlier this month that the Kingdom should embrace constitutional monarchy; for this, a secret court sentenced him to 300 lashes.

Nor do the Gulf monarchs share the deep American respect for human rights. Legal protections for women’s rights, LGBT rights, and religious and ethnic minority rights are limited or non-existent. For those not fortunate enough to be born male, straight, or Muslim in most of these countries, persecution is the norm, not the exception. Five of the six are rated “Not Free” on Freedom House’s Democracy Index; Kuwait alone stands at “Partly Free.” Saudi Arabia still hasn’t even signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It’s hard to see the Saudi-American alliance continue, especially at this level of mutual commitment, once transitory geopolitical crises abate and current economic priorities shift elsewhere. (Those oceans of oil may be vast, but they’re not infinite.) It’s a familiar pattern in U.S. foreign policy since World War II. The world is littered with the ruins of American-backed dictatorships who suddenly found themselves without weaponers once the Soviet Union fell and their utility passed.

The Saudis and their neighbors understand this. You can see this fear manifest itself in the Kingdom’s own words, pledging to “go at it alone” and to bring “stability” (read: Sunni regional hegemony) to the Middle East by themselves — as if this didn’t mask their fundamental insecurity about the regime’s future.

And you can see it in the United States’ attempts to placate the restless ruling houses that ring the Persian Gulf. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced on December 7 that the United States will start selling weapons directly to the Gulf Cooperation Council:

Speaking at the Manama Dialouge international security conference here, Hagel encouraged GCC members to create a military alliance and said he’d like to better integrate the US missile defense systems with those of the GCC to enhance collective capabilities.

“We would like to expand our security cooperation with partners in the region by working in a coordinated way with the GCC, including through the sales of U.S. defense articles through the GCC as an organization,” he said. “This is a natural next step in improving U.S.-GCC collaboration, and it will enable the GCC to acquire critical military capabilities, including items for ballistic missile defense, maritime security, and counterterrorism.”

Hagel said the Pentagon “will better integrate with GCC members to enhance missile defense capabilities in the region,” adding “the United States continues to believe that a multilateral approach is the best answer for missile defense.”

The GCC’s purpose is — with apologies to Lord Ismay — to keep the Americans in, the Iranians out, and the reformers down. Successive American governments have sold weapons to the individual GCC member states, first to deter Iraq (to whom Washington once sold weapons) and now to deter Iran (to whom Washington also once sold weapons). Selling weapons to the GCC as a whole is a natural step for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

But, if past is prologue, it’s also a step that could haunt unborn generations of Americans to come.