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Where the Rubber Meets the Road in Saudi Arabia

It’s now or (probably) never for a fundamental pivot in the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Words: Kate Kizer
Pictures: Ammar Sabaa

Accountability should be a centerpiece of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia moving forward. Of course, the writing is already on the wall. The administration is unlikely to prioritize accountability, despite discussing why a different US foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia fits into the larger picture of the more just world we must build.

It’s time to internalize two things. First, the long-term prosperity and security of the Saudi and American people — like all people around the world — are shared. And second, the security and dignity of both the Saudi and American people are fundamentally at odds with the predatory corporate and royal interests in power, which are primarily focused on extracting profits.

That’s why the challenge posed by the current relationship with Saudi Arabia is exemplative of a larger fundamental pivot point for the US government in the 21st century: Does it seek human security for the working class globally, understanding that when all ships rise, ours does too? Or does it continue to support and stand by authoritarians who are not only interested in maintaining their rule but also repressing voices critical of their unjust power?


National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, among other Biden officials, once signed a letter calling on the Trump administration to end support for the Saudi and Emirati government-led military intervention in Yemen, claiming mea culpa for their role in the Obama administration’s decision to go along with it in the first place.

Policymakers must stop seeing the Saudi monarchy — and other unelected authoritarians — as stable, legitimate security partners when, in fact, these regimes are inherently more unpredictable and insecure.

At the time, Sarah Leah Whitson rightly noted these officials had only learned a half lesson in this “failed reckoning” — underestimating the necessity of principled engagement instead of appeasement, missing how their decision to go along with the intervention into Yemen’s civil war parallelled their failure to re-align US interests with that of the people protesting for fundamental freedoms and human needs during the Arab Spring. Those dynamics are still apparent today, but the OPEC+ decision to deeply cut oil production — reportedly driven by corrupt Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) — provides a unique opportunity for these officials to learn more fully from their mistakes. And they aren’t alone.

Defenders of the US-Saudi relationship affirm that this approach represents the original tradeoff of the alliance on the basis of “oil for security,” wherein the United States ensures the Kingdom’s external security (and ignores what the monarchy does internally) in exchange for cheap oil. As the US military focused on its forward-deployed posture after the Cold and First Gulf Wars in order to more effectively police the world in the name of primacy, cheap oil remained a key concern. This extractive mindset remained throughout the Obama administration and appears to have guided the Biden administration despite its incompatibility with President Joe Biden’s “democracy vs. autocracy” rhetoric. Biden fist-bumping the Crown Prince, who ordered the brutal abduction and murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — after failing to sanction him — is merely the subtler version of Donald Trump’s absurd defense of the Crown Prince in 2018.


Policymakers must stop seeing the Saudi monarchy — as well as other unelected authoritarian rulers — as stable, legitimate security partners when, in fact, these regimes are inherently more unpredictable and insecure. This is not to say that the United States shouldn’t have diplomatic relations with these countries. But it is fundamentally illogical to tie our collective security futures to the whims and fortunes of mercurial human rights abusers. And that’s nothing to say of the risks of transferring and basing sensitive military technology to countries credibly documented as diverting or losing US-provided weapons to US adversaries in the past.

Ultimately, the logic of these regimes, no matter their institutional form (though that can impact regime sustainability), comes down to regime survival, and that is exactly what Saudi Arabia has done in acting to protect its bottom line and pushing for its preferred political outcome in the United States.

Part of what makes it so challenging to imagine a less militarized world is that the entirety of US security infrastructure relies on it.

The Saudi Arabian monarchy, led by MBS, has made it abundantly clear that it is not concerned with the survival of democracy globally, upholding the rule of law internationally, or respecting human rights — except as it relates to bolstering its own authority. Ultimately, MBS, like so many other authoritarian leaders, will act in his own self-interest time and again. And legal bribes of more US security assistance actively make things worse. After all, research shows that US military aid has an inverse impact on regime cooperation with donor-state policies. Therefore, tying US national security strategy to such abusive regimes is inherently short-sighted.

While US material support to these regimes no doubt contributes to regime durability, the unequivocal nature of US military support over the last three decades has also reinforced the entitled attitude with which the Saudi Arabian government has long approached its relationship with the United States — and the increasingly risky foreign policy the murderous Crown Prince has pursued. It also misunderstands the role of the Saudi Arabian government and MBS as an ally with aligned core interests, when in fact, it is actually an authoritarian client state the US government has given blank checks to over the years in the name of militarized security and energy dependence.


Part of what makes it so challenging to imagine a less militarized world is that the entirety of US security infrastructure relies on it. Most obviously, in the case of Saudi Arabia, ending security cooperation and other measures, such as a phased drawdown of US troops and offers of relocation assistance for Americans living in Saudi Arabia, should be on the table. More broadly, the US government needs to disentangle itself from repressive states like Saudi Arabia in the long run. And it can do so on two primary tracks.

First, it must end its reliance on preventative war that makes states like Saudi Arabia appear to be vital allies, given its willingness to host US troops. Yet, that transaction is primarily required because the US government maintains overseas military bases for its forward-deployed posture, which is core to primacy — or the projection of military and economic dominance around the world to “keep the peace.” Given Biden’s recent claim to the UN General Assembly that the United States is no longer at war, it’d be easy to forget the United States continues to be at war around the world in the name of countering terrorism. And it continues to do immense harm, whether in bombing civilians and ignoring them or supplying advisors, weapons, and other military aid to abusive foreign security forces.

To be clear, I’m not proposing a strategy of isolation. Instead, the United States should pivot to a conflict prevention and peacebuilding strategy rather than outsourcing its own people’s security to repressive dictators. Proposing to end militarized support in favor of a generational project of investing in prevention and repair to de-escalate conflict and resolve long-standing challenges to human security may seem naive. Yet, it truly is the only proven (and the most cost-effective!) way to build long-term sustainable peace —  essential to American and global security.

Second, investing in a green transition domestically and globally would help end the domestic demand for fossil fuels from trumping most other considerations in the US relationships with states like Saudi Arabia. The investments made by the Inflation Reduction Act can be a first step in this regard. To be successful, Congress has a duty to set about scaling back the mission set and size of the US military, not greenwashing its substantial contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions. Internationally, the United States should also pivot from focus of government-to-government assistance to localized, sustainable development initiatives designed and implemented by, with, and through local actors, through institutions like the Development Finance Corporation and UN Development Program.

Calls to ignore the OPEC+ decision to “buy down risk” in the region by maintaining the security relationship are misguided. One advocate working with Congress to rethink the alliance with Saudi Arabia described that strategy as “a self-fulfilling prophecy” because as “illegitimate authoritarian regimes,” the Gulf states “will never be secure.” Allowing business interests, or perceived threats to outdated military interests, trump human dignity in Saudi Arabia and the wider region is what got us into this hypocritical bilateral relationship in the first place. It’s beyond time to start thinking creatively about how we actually build a US government and international engagement that prioritizes human, not corporate security.

Kate Kizer is a senior non-resident fellow for security policy at the Center for International Policy, and a columnist at Inkstick.

Kate Kizer


Kate Kizer is a leading progressive foreign policy strategist and legislative advocate. Kate was most recently the Policy Director at Win Without War, where she was a key leader in the fights to stop Trump's worst national security impulses, and to push Democrats to adopt bold alternatives. At the forefront of the legislative strategy and grassroots organizing of the recent war powers and weapons sales fights in Congress, Kate's work has helped lay the foundation for future transformational change in U.S. foreign policy. Follow her work on Twitter @KateKizer.


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