The editorial boards of newspapers rarely employ strategists, so it should be no surprise when we see both the New York Times and the Washington Post openly wondering what America needs with Saudi Arabia. They have a handle on some of the facts – America is increasingly energy independent, and soon to be an exporter rather than an importer of energy; the Kingdom relies on the United States’ security guarantees for its stability and possibly for its survival. The question they ask is why, then, the United States needs Saudi Arabia (KSA) at all. It is important that the answer to that question be understood.
KSA plays four critical roles in the American-led world order.
Resisting Iranian Domination of Oil Routes. While it is true that the United States is increasingly independent, the market for oil is worldwide. Major trading partners in Asia depend on oil that comes from the gulf that is variously called “Persian” or “Arabian.” The contest of the name is symbolic of a very real contest for control. The outcome of that contest could leave Iran, and their allies Russia and China, in a position to use oil as a weapon against American allies in Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and South Korea. Just as Russia already uses energy as a weapon to dominate much of Eastern Europe, and to influence even the heart of Europe, American allies in Asia are at risk if Iran succeeds in gaining control of oil routes.
How likely is it that this will occur? Let’s look at the map.
Notice the two straits that have red ovals around them, and the arrows that indicate flows of oil towards Asia. Iran directly borders one of these, the Strait of Hormuz. Notice how the pipelines of many nations all can be cut off from Asia if that strait is closed to shipping. This can be done with missiles, not only with ships. Contesting Iran’s control of that strait is thus a geostrategic interest of the United States.
The second, southern oval is bordered by Yemen. That is where the war between Iranian proxies and the Saudis is being fought. If the Strait of Hormuz is closed, at least some oil could be re-routed via pipelines to ship through that strait instead. Indeed, a certain amount of oil ships from there already. Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen have already succeeded in using missiles to close this strait to Saudi shipping. Re-opening and maintaining control of this shipping lane is, again, a crucial American interest in defense of our allies in Asia. It is how we keep the Russian/Chinese/Iranian axis from using oil as a weapon against the free nations in Asia.
KSA plays several important roles in this contest. It is the leader of the Gulf States’ naval contributions to keeping the straits open, and is leading the effort in Yemen as well. The conflict in Yemen has been ugly, but neither America nor the free nations of the world can afford to walk away from it. KSA is also central to American efforts to build a kind of NATO in the region, one that unifies allied states such as Jordan and Egypt with the Gulf states. The aim is to establish forces that are trained and equipped alike, and that have compatible systems of command and control. Such a force would be stabilizing to the region, and an effective counter to Iran.
Even if America’s cutting off of KSA merely caused Saudi Arabia withdraw within itself, there would cease to be an effective counter to Iran’s efforts to dominate the region. If KSA were to collapse, Iran’s domination of the region would be the first step in the authoritarian domination of the Middle East and Asia by Russian and Chinese interests.
Those are the stakes of that ugly little war in Yemen, and the mostly invisible contest in the Straits of Hormuz.
Influence Over a Key Faction of Islam. For more than a century, the Saudi kingdom has nurtured the Wahabi faction of Islam as a means of self-defense and power projection. Schools of this faction exist widespread throughout the world. This is the school that gave rise to Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, conducted as they were from caves in Afghanistan. It is a crucial interest of the United States and indeed of the whole world that KSA exert its leadership here in ways that lead this school of thought towards reform and co-existence rather than to a sense that war with non-Muslims is desirable.
The Security Studies Group (SSG) believes that reform is possible, and to be encouraged. We aspire to friendship rather than enmity. Even for those who believe otherwise, however, it matters whether a stabilizing authority is working to discourage violence. It matters that the Saudi security apparatus has the ties necessary to keep an eye on this network. In the absence of that leadership, we have already seen what groups like Al Qaeda do. It would be reckless of the United States to disregard the opportunity to use our influence toward the reform of the Wahabi faction by cutting off the KSA leadership.
Restraint of Refugee Flows into Europe. The civil war in Syria has produced massive refugee flows into Europe, as has the ongoing war in Afghanistan. These refugee flows have been large enough to be destabilizing even to core European powers; they may yet bring down the German government. American allies are very much feeling political and social pressure from the instability already existing in the Middle East.
Syria’s population is on the order of half of that of Saudi Arabia. Should KSA collapse into civil war due to an absence of security guarantees from the United States, Europe will see more massive waves of refugees swarming its borders.
Alternatively, should the Trump administration succeed in establishing a kind of Middle Eastern NATO built around KSA, Egypt, and Jordan, the effect will be stabilizing to the region. Many pressures on American allies in Europe will be lessened if the refugee flows decrease, or if the region is stabilized sufficiently that people can consider returning home.
Defense of Israel. There is some debate about whether or not defending Israel is a US interest, but it has been taken to be by successive administrations. Israel is, at least, a regional power that offers significant intelligence assets in support of American goals.
KSA is making moves towards the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world, which is likely a precondition for success in any hope for peace talks to which Israel is a party. Insofar as the attainment of peace is thought to have a role in reducing the incidence of global terrorism, supporting this dynamic is in America’s interests.
KSA’s status as a bulwark against Iranian domination of the region is also very much in the interest of not only America but certainly also Israel, as Iran continues to proclaim – loudly, and to anyone who will listen – that it is devoted to the outright destruction of Israel. Iranian missiles with messages promising destruction written in Hebrew are worth taking seriously as legitimate threats. If America is devoted to the defense of its allies in Israel, then KSA plays a significant role in securing that outcome.
These four strategic interests show that it is necessary for America to continue its relationship with the Saudi leadership. That does not mean that we should not continue to press for social reforms, respect for human rights, and similar improvements within KSA. We certainly should do that, as a modernizing KSA is a better and more natural ally for the United States than one mired in beheadings and the suppression of religious minorities.
It is a commonplace criticism of American foreign policy that it has been insensitive to supporting awful strongmen in the face of even worse things. Perhaps that is true, but the answer is not to give in to the worse things. A clear-eyed assessment of our strategic interests must rule our actions. Using our influence to press allies for social and political reform is proper and wise. Abandoning our allies, and allowing authoritarian powers to dominate the world’s flows of energy, is neither proper nor wise. We must act in wisdom.