The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the conflict in Yemen have many questioning the United States’ relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A large plurality of Americans view Saudi Arabia as an unfriendly nation or an outright enemy, according to a YouGov poll, yet a long succession of administrations have treated the Kingdom as a close ally. Why the disconnect?
On the surface it may seem an odd choice. That the American government actively supports an absolute monarchy wedded to Wahhabism with a human rights record similar to that of international pariahs like North Korea is certainly hypocritical.
While Trump’s messaging style and diplomatic posture towards the country’s leaders is undoubtedly unique, his support for them is hardly novel. After all, it was Barack Obama who initiated U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Only after the Khashoggi murder focused media attention on our relationship with Saudi Arabia has Congress attempted to reign in the executive branch.
Most media commentary on our relationship with Saudi Arabia rightly addresses the importance of oil, but fails to address the core motivations at work. The prime directive of the president and our elected representatives isn’t grand strategy or security in the Middle East — it’s getting reelected. At the heart of that calculation is us, the American voter.
We should be wary of over-simplifying the gap between our government’s actions and the wishes of the people. An NPR article that ran last year had the title “Saudi Arabia: The White House Loves it. Most Americans? Not So Much.” True, but misleading.
A little thought experiment may be in order. Which is more likely to get an American president voted out of office: Revelations that military aid to a dictatorship was used to kill civilians? Or a steep increase in gas prices? If the modern history of U.S. presidential elections is anything to go by, it’s the latter. No administration is eager to relive the oil embargoes of the 1970s.
Voters may not like Saudi Arabia, but they appreciate affordable gas or at the very least won’t punish their elected officials for it. Oil markets are complicated, and Saudi Arabia is far from the only player, but centralized control of its oil production and a commanding position as OPEC’s largest producer give it powerful influence. Maintaining the importance of our relationship makes sense, as does boosting the Kingdom’s prospects in a region full of countries that we’d rather not want to be so influential over oil prices.
American presidents support Saudi Arabia neither out of any love for the country, nor because of a dearth of democratic ideals. They do so because this is the real-world implication of the public’s desire for affordable oil. A change in administration won’t necessarily alter this calculation.
American voters certainly don’t approve of dictatorships and human rights abuses. However, for this to strongly influence foreign policy, the media will have to increase focus on these issues or economic realities which spur support for dictators, like our reliance on oil, will have to change.