The Saudi Kingdom is openly threatening America and its allies, yet Washington seems to be taking this all lying down. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2011, Americans awoke to an article in The New York Times penned by the one-time head of the Saudi intelligence agency and a former ambassador to the United States, Turki al Faisal. In the run-up to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N., he said, if the U.S. vetoed the effort, “Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has.” The kingdom would “pursue other policies at odds with those of the United States” and “might part ways with Washington in Afghanistan and Yemen as well.”
The basic contours of the U.S.-Saudi relationship are easy to understand: they have oil, we need it; they loath the Iranian regime, we loath the Iranian regime; they know al Qaeda better than anyone, we’d like to know more. To most foreign policy “realists,” that seems like a pretty good deal. Next to wild-cards like former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and soon-to-be-former Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, King Abdullah seems positively stable and moderate. He is anything but.
One great lesson from the Arab Spring is that the “stability” of dictators is illusory at best. One never knows where or when or how they will fracture, but they invariably do. Corruption, repression, and alienation take their toll and even small events—like a vendor immolating himself—can spread rapidly into regional chaos. Some believe the answer is even more support for dictators who keep the lid on this tinderbox. But openness, accountability, and freedom are the only long-term answers to the Middle East.
The Saudis rightly fear a human-rights focus on their country and therefore are deflecting attention to other nations, like Israel. Turki al Faisal says his country earmarked over $2.5 billion to the Palestinians but that “this money will not do much good until Palestinians are granted their fundamental rights.” Saudi officials should not be allowed to speak of other nation’s “fundamental rights,” so long as women in the kingdom are forbidden from voting and driving. A good place to start caring about “fundamental rights” would be the rights of Saudis to elect their leader or form political parties. Or the rights of non-Muslims to build houses of worship. Or the rights of gays to live. Or the rights of rape victims not to be lashed. Or the rights of women to travel without a man’s permission.
Perhaps Faisal realizes the irony of his threat, or maybe he is simply vying to win the al Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights (an actual prize) or the Jefferson Davis Award for African-American Freedom (a made-up prize).
If Saudi Arabia hopes to advance Arab-Israeli peace, a good start would be putting an end to the printing of millions of Saudi textbooks inciting hatred of other faiths. An eighth-grade Saudi textbook reads, “The apes are the people of the Sabbath, the Jews; and the swine are the infidels of the communion of Jesus, the Christians.” A ninth-grade textbook says, “The Jews and Christians are enemies of the believers.” Good luck with peaceful co-existence.
Meanwhile, America should not take al Faisal’s threat lying down. It should immediately issue a counter threat—perhaps re-examining the recent $60 billion arms deal (the largest in history) with the Saudis. Policymakers should start every bilateral meeting by raising the names of imprisoned Saudi dissidents. Activists in the U.S., who can be more creative than politicians, also have a role to play. Consider, for example, a grass-roots movement calling for the Saudi ambassador in Washington to be treated exactly as the Saudi government treats their own women. He will be forbidden from driving and will need a woman’s permission to travel.
Saudi Arabia would do well to threaten America less, and get its own repressive, theocratic dictatorship in order first. With allies like these, who needs enemies?