By what definition of the term does Saudi Arabia qualify as an ally of the United States? The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi hit men, almost certainly acting at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a.k.a MBS, invites Americans to consider this question. The wonder is why it took so long.
The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are allies in the same sense that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are “friends.” Political expedience rather than affection explains why, in Trump’s estimation, “Lyin’ Ted” has suddenly become “Beautiful Ted” and why the Texas senator who once denounced Trump as a “pathological liar” and “utterly amoral” now says that he is “honored” to have the president’s backing.
So it has been with the Saudi-American relationship since the moment it was forged following a tête-à-tête between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud on board the heavy cruiser USS Quincy in February 1945. From the outset, the presumption of overlapping interests rather than shared values formed the basis of that relationship.
At the very center of that relationship is a bargain: we guarantee the security of the Kingdom (and by extension the status and prerogatives of the royal family); they facilitate the exercise of U.S. hegemony in the strategically critical Persian Gulf (thereby ensuring access to copious amounts of oil needed to sustain the American way of life). Implicit in this arrangement is this further agreement: we won’t tell the Saudis how to run their country, which happens to be an intolerant theocracy with negligible respect for human rights. In return they won’t tell us how to run our country, which happens to be a highly secularized liberal democracy with only passing regard for God’s word or will.
Sustaining this arrangement across more than seven decades has required considerable forbearance on the part of both parties, with each side working hard at not noticing what goes on in the other’s camp. While any diplomatic partnership will contain an element of hypocrisy, in this instance hypocrisy saturates the enterprise like a waterlogged sponge.
Behavior that in Riyadh will get your head chopped off will win you plaudits in Manhattan for advancing the cause of true freedom, especially in matters related to sex and gender. Practices that Saudis deem of divine provenance—abstaining from alcohol and allowing men to have multiple wives, for example—rank in American eyes as somewhere between eccentric and illegal.
Yet in Washington policy circles the tendency has been to treat such differences as incidental, an inclination fostered by Saudi largesse funneled to U.S.-based universities and think tanks and even more so by enormous Saudi purchases of American arms. Nothing quiets a conscience like money, and the Saudis have demonstrated an aptitude for spreading plenty of it around. Simply put, the U.S.-Saudi alliance has been bought and paid for many times over.