Saudi Arabia Is Running Out of Friends

Yemenis digging graves last year for children who were killed by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a market in the province of Saada. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Yemenis digging graves last year for children who were killed by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a market in the province of Saada. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last week was especially bad for the monarchy of Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, a United Nations expert released a report calling for an investigation into the role of Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The next day in Washington, the Senate voted to block arms sales worth billions of dollars, the latest in a string of congressional efforts to halt American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. And in London — on the same day — a court ruled that Britain had acted unlawfully in approving arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

These were major rebukes, emblematic of a growing political crisis whose outcome is far from certain. The Saudi kingdom has enjoyed the protection of the Atlantic powers throughout the near century of its existence. But Anglo-American ties with the House of Saud might now be entering a perfect storm, where the relationship becomes politically unsustainable just as its underlying strategic rationale begins to fall away.

How did it come to this? Two events have combined to profoundly undermine Saudi Arabia’s international reputation — and the trans-Atlantic support on which it relies.

The first is the disastrous war in Yemen. The facts are well known but bear repeating. A Saudi-led coalition is responsible for the majority of the war’s tens of thousands of deaths and has perpetrated “widespread and systematic” targeting of civilians, according to experts reporting to the U.N. Security Council. The coalition’s blockade is the leading cause of what is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 85,000 infant children thought to have died from starvation since 2015.

Washington and London have been the facilitators of the carnage, providing vital assistance that the Saudi-led bombing campaign simply could not function without. As the chorus of condemnation grows louder, defending the arms supplies that have always been a core feature of the West’s ties to Riyadh has become a near impossible task.

The other key event is the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, with the order widely thought to have come from the very top of the Saudi government. In the months leading up to the killing, Prince Mohammed had been busy presenting himself as an enlightened reformer, a portrayal that, however implausible, many in Washington and London were happy to lend credence to. The murder in Istanbul (coupled with an intensified crackdown on dissent in the Saudi kingdom) left the “reform” narrative in tatters and came to symbolize the cruelty, immaturity and bad judgment of the crown prince.

In the United States, we can discern two broad strands of congressional opposition to the current state of the alliance with Saudi Arabia. The first contains establishment Democrats and some Republicans, committed to the underlying relationship but concerned that its mismanagement by President Trump and Prince Mohammed is making it difficult to sustain politically. They want the sources of the present crisis to be resolved, not left to fester, which means a swift conclusion to the Yemen war and a satisfactory accounting for the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.

A second camp, representing the emerging left within the Democratic Party and including the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar, is articulating more fundamental concerns about American support for the Saudi kingdom. Their goal is a substantial change in policy, not preservation of the underlying relationship. As a younger, more diverse generation of voters emerges to challenge conventional politics, such a prospect cannot be ruled out.

Though the strands weave together into impressive dissent — the Trump White House has been forced to rely on executive orders to override it — overall support for the kingdom in Washington endures for now. But that cannot be taken for granted.

If the world finally gets serious about tackling the climate emergency, a large proportion of existing oil reserves will have to remain in the ground, leaving the Saudis sitting on stranded assets. So long as oil is the lifeblood of the world economy, strategic control over the key reserves of the Gulf is a major source of power in the global system. The petrodollar wealth generated by oil sales also constitutes a lucrative source of investments and arms deals. But if the world decarbonizes, it is difficult to see why continued support for an authoritarian state of diminishing wealth and relevance would be regarded in Washington as worth the political cost. As with much else, climate change could upend foreign policy.

Similar dynamics are unfolding in Britain, Riyadh’s other major Western ally. Last week’s court judgment did not cut off all arms transfers and is subject to government appeal. But it has materially impeded those exports for now, which is significant given the importance of British-built aircraft in the coalition’s bombing campaign and the centrality of arms sales to Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

More significantly still, the British Labour Party is undergoing a painful but definite process of change, mirroring that working its way through the Democratic Party. The leadership is consistently critical of the regime’s human rights record and its conduct in Yemen, and has sidelined pro-Saudi Labour legislators. That leadership is buttressed by an empowered and expanded party membership, also committed to a new direction in British foreign policy.

The strategic bonds between the Atlantic powers and the House of Saud have survived many crises over the years, and for all we know they may survive for a second century. But the existential threats are now plain to see, and if anyone in Riyadh, Washington or London has a serious plan to preserve the status quo, they are keeping it a closely guarded secret.

Recent Saudi efforts to stay close to Mr. Trump’s White House have been undeniably successful. However, the kingdom may come to regret betting everything on a presidency that appears more representative of the uglier aspects of America’s past than its future. In the coming years, the regime risks finding itself running out of cash, out of friends and out of time.

David Wearing is a specialist on British-Gulf relations and the author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain.

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