President Barack Obama is headed to Riyadh this week as the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia approaches one of its lowest points since World War II.
The Saudis regard current American policies in the region as disengaged, erratic and overly solicitous of Iran. On the other hand, the Obama administration sees Riyadh as backward, parochial and unhelpfully opposed to the Iran nuclear deal.
The halcyon days of the U.S.-Saudi alliance in the Cold War fighting Soviet communism, or in more recent decades maintaining regional order in the Middle East, seem long ago.
As a U.S. State Department official, I was scheduled to travel to Saudi Arabia in 2003 on a diplomatic mission. Just before our departure, we received an intelligence warning that we should not travel due to an escalated terrorist threat. We were relieved we heeded that warning when days later on May 12, 2003 al-Qaida cells attacked three Western residential and business compounds in Riyadh, killing 27 civilians and wounding 160 more.
This attack shocked the House of Saud, and forced the Saudis to realize that in its their promulgation of Islamist intolerance, they had been feeding a dragon in their own backyard. Since those attacks, the Saudis have become much more aggressive in fighting terrorism, and much more steadfast partners for the United States.
Some of the Obama administration’s frustrations are warranted. There are few nations in the world more repressive than Saudi Arabia. Women are denied the most basic human rights and not permitted to drive. Non-Muslims are not permitted to publicly worship, and Muslims such as Shi’a or Sunnis who dissent from the Kingdom’s strict Wahhabi Islam doctrines face discrimination and persecution.
I have seen this firsthand. During my official State Department visits to Saudi Arabia, I worshipped with Filipino Christians at their underground church service in the middle of the night in a hidden basement; met with a Saudi woman arrested for attempting to drive; visited a Sunni cleric under house arrest for questioning Wahhabi doctrine; and dined with Saudi Shi’a dissidents, who were interrogated by the police after our meeting.
Given these appalling conditions, it should not have been a surprise that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi citizens who had grown up being indoctrinated in the most intolerant form of Sunni Islam.
Despite all this, it is still in our nation’s interest to maintain a close partnership with Saudi Arabia.
First, Riyadh plays an essential role in preserving any semblance of regional stability, and in the future that stability will be even more essential in helping restore the region to some sort of peaceful equilibrium.
Second, while the shale boom has liberated America from direct dependence on Middle Eastern oil, our economy remains intertwined with global markets, and our economic partners in Europe and Asia still need a reliable supply of petroleum, of which Saudi Arabia remains the global swing producer.
And finally, Saudi Arabia stands as one of our most valuable allies in fighting jihadi terrorism.
In one of the few examples that has been publicly revealed, Saudi intelligence detected and disclosed to U.S. intelligence the 2010 package bomb plot by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which if not foiled could have killed hundreds of Americans. Saudi Arabia has also pioneered successes in counter-radicalization by “deprogramming” violent jihadis and firing imams who preach violence.
These strategic equities do not mean we should disregard Riyadh’s oppression and intolerance. Former President George W. Bush’s approach offers a constructive model. While in office, he maintained a close U.S.-Saudi partnership on counterterrorism, regional security and energy.
Yet he also took the unprecedented step of officially designating Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom and applied significant, and somewhat successful, diplomatic pressure on Riyadh to improve conditions of religious toleration.
America needs to recover this type of sophisticated diplomacy. Maintaining our support for Saudi Arabia’s security needs, and cooperating to fight jihadi terrorism and counter Iranian malignance, can also give us the leverage and credibility to push firmly for political and religious reform.
If Saudi Arabia knows America remains committed to its survival and protection from external threats, its rulers will be more willing to take the needful steps for internal reform.
William Inboden is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He previously served at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.
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