US-Saudi relations have long been grounded in an oil-for-security exchange. But with U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil diminishing and Saudi power rising, is there a growing gulf in the Gulf? Has the US spat with Russia affected this relationship, and could it lead to a change in the Syrian deadlock? Oksana is joined by Dr David Weinberg, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, to drill into these issues.
Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. President Obama spoke a lot about the good and bad ways of doing geopolitics this week - a rhetoric intended for European and possibly Russian ears that was all but brushed aside when he landed in Saudi Arabia. How is it that American values seem to depreciate every time the Saudis are involved? To discuss that, I'm now joined by David Weinberg, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Dr Weinberg, thank you very much for taking time to talk to us.
David Weinberg: Thank you for having me.
OB: Now, the organisation you work for was set up after 9/11 to “promote pluralism, defend democratic values, and fight the ideologies that drive terrorism.” Is there any country that is more antithetic to all those objectives than Saudi Arabia?
DW: Sure, Syria, Iran, lots of countries. But certainly there's a big gap between the values of the US and the values of the Saudis. It's a relationship that's been strained by the conflicting values of the two sides.
OB: But my question was whether Saudi Arabia really takes the cake for essentially lacking all the three elements that are mentioned in the purposes of the organisation that you work for. Again, there is not much in the way of pluralism, they don't value democracy at all, and when it comes to the ideology espoused by Saudi Arabia – not only it condones terrorism, it actually supports it.
DW: Yeah, I mean look, dictatorship is not a contest, but if it were, the Saudis would be doing great. My organisation has actually been quite active on this issue. For instance, this week we put out a report highlighting the hate that is continually, still being taught in Saudi Arabia's public schools through their textbook system. So, we certainly are no friends of the Saudis on this issue, and we certainly hope that the President had some very serious conversations about human rights behind closed doors, while he was in Saudi Arabia.
OB: Well this is a very mild way of putting it. But Saudi Arabia is not officially designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. And yet it is well known that it is the largest source of financing when it comes to militant jihadi groups such as the Taliban or Al Qaeda. And I hardly need to mention that it is Americans who suffered a great deal from the terror plots hatched, and sometimes executed with the help of Saudi money. Fifteen out of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. And when you think about it, had they been Russians, I think we could have had an outbreak of World War III by now. But with the Saudis, again, it's always “let's be patient with them”. And it may be a personal question, but for a country like Russia, which often finds itself on the receiving end of US condemnation without hurting a single American, it's very difficult to understand why would Americans let the Saudis off the hook so easily, given how many Americans were hurt in 9/11?
DW: Absolutely. Well, you know, I think it's reflected, first of all, in public opinion numbers. Saudi Arabia has absolutely dreadful numbers when you as the American public what they think of the other country. But when you say Saudi money going to sponsor terrorism, I'm curious whether you mean state money going to sponsor terrorism, or whether you mean private money going to sponsor terrorism? Which do you mean?
OB: Well Dr Weinberg, I mean both. Because obviously, there are some private sponsors of terror groups in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon. They used to sponsor insurgency in Chechnya as well. But official government structures in Saudi Arabia are not the most transparent, so you can never be sure that official money is not being used for the same purpose.
DW: But is there evidence of official money? I don't think so.
OB: Well, I think Prince Bandar, for one, is quite involved in sponsoring various rebel groups in Syria. And I guess we can argue about the definition of terrorism and freedom fighting, but I think it is pretty clear that Saudi Arabia is supporting groups that use terror as a tactic in Syria. So, that would be, sort of, evidence, wouldn't it?
DW: Sure, I mean I think that some of Saudi Arabia's identified clients in Syria are extremely unappealing. For instance, the extremist group most convincingly tied to Saudi governmental assistance is called Jaysh al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, which is led by a man called Zahran Alloush, whose father is a preacher in Saudi Arabia, and who advocates ethnic cleansing of Shiites and opposes democracy. This is an organisation that by and large is repulsive and antithetical to western values, and it's an organisation that the US has been, to my understanding, pushing the Saudis behind the scenes to reduce their support for.
OB: You just mentioned how little support there is for the Saudis and their tactics among the American public. And yet American politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, seem to be sort of welcoming, or at least tight-lipped, when it comes to criticism of the Saudi officials. Why do you think that is?
DW: Well, I think we need to differentiate between the executive branch and the legislative branch on this issue. Because, I think the legislative branch has been quite comfortable raising concerns about Saudi policies that conflict with universal human rights and democratic values. So for instance, members of Congress for both parties, in the last week and a half, have issued letters to the President, calling on him to make human rights part of the discussion, and to make religious freedom part of the discussion when he went to Saudi Arabia. So I do think that American politicians of both stripes, be it Democratic or Republican, are not reluctant to speak out about this issue. But I do think that when either party is in power at the White House, they certainly have incentives to try elicit regional cooperation from the Saudis, and unfortunately sometimes that means human rights reform issues get kicked a little bit lower on the priority list. Just as that sometimes is the case in US relations with Russia. American officials would actually like to be raising these issues even more often than they do with Russia, but because of Russia's important role as a geopolitical power, don't even raise it as much as they actually would, as surprising as that may be for some of your viewers to hear.
OB: But Dr Weinberg, I wonder how much more often those issues could be raised? Because I think human rights in Russia is one of the most popular issues for American politicians, whether of the executive or legislative branch. But going back to Saudi Arabia, President Obama has just visited Riyadh. What do you think he was hoping to achieve there?
DW: Well I think the messaging coming out of the White House really focused on trying to dispel the image that there's a rift between Saudi Arabia and the United States. So even as the President's plane was pulling into Saudi Arabia, his deputy national security advisor was giving a briefing to the press corps, and he was trying to emphasise that things have gotten better in the US-Saudi relationship since the fall, when the Saudis were upset. So, not denying that the Saudis have been upset with the US, but trying to argue that that dispute over Iran, over Syria, over other issues, has been resolved or at least significantly reduced. As to whether that narrative is going to be seen as persuasive, either by the media or the general public, we still have yet to see.
OB: Now the biggest strain, as many analysts have identified, in this bilateral relationship is Americas reluctance to fully back the Saudis in their existential fight against the Shia forces of Iran, Syria, Lebanon, possibly Iraq. And this fight that the Saudis are in is not driven by money, it is not driven by political calculations. It is driven by genuine values, however archaic and bigoted they may be. And I wonder, given the existential nature of this fight, whether Americans can really reason with the Saudis at this point, or is it increasingly a case of the tail wagging the dog here
DW: Well, I certainly would agree with you with regard to your argument that this is an area where the US really has some difficulties satisfying the Saudis fully. You know, the Saudi public sees what's going on in Syria as the greatest humanitarian calamity of our age. And that's not my words, that's the Saudi Foreign Minister's words. And so what they see are Shiites, whom they already have dehumanised in their education and religious system as heretics, slaughtering Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, slaughtering Sunni civilians as well as rebels. And so, in that regard, the Saudis want the US to decapitate the regime in Syria, at the very least by toppling it. And so the Saudis are not going to be satisfied when they see the US pursuing an approach that actually, in some regards on the battlefield, is quite similar to Russia's strategy, which is to have this conflict turn into a stalemate. The Russians want to enable Assad to not be toppled, to outlast the conflict. And the US wants to ensure, like Russia purportedly, a political solution to this conflict, by ensuring that the rebels are not fully marginalised on the battlefield. But when it comes to actually toppling the Assad regime militarily, the US administration has held back to some extent until now. And we'll just have to see whether the Saudis can convince them to take a harder line on this. It certainly could happen, especially if there's no progress at Geneva.
OB: Since you mentioned Russia's intentions in Syria, I think Russia would much have preferred not having this conflict to begin with. I think this conflict was initiated and aided by Saudi Arabia and the US to begin with. So it is those two countries that actually opted for changing the status quo. But rather than going in depth into Syria, I would like to ask you very quickly – this relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US was founded on a quite explicit agreement that Washington would defend the Gulf state in exchange for oil contracts. And the US no longer needs that much Saudi oil, and the nature of security threats has also changed. So I wonder if it's possible that, sooner or later, the US and Saudi Arabia will have to part ways?
DW: Well, first of all, I'd like to address something that you said right before your question, which is how this conflict started. As Americans see it, the way this conflict started was a Russian supported dictator, Bashar al-Assad, slaughtered his people when they went out on the street and peaceably demonstrated. As well as arresting and torturing teenagers. So that is how we see how this conflict started. As to whether the US and the Saudis -
OB: Well, you see this conflict this way because you are told that this conflict started this way. As somebody who was on the ground in Syria, all those three years ago, I can tell you that there were snipers, there were provocation, there were Saudi agents there on the scene. So obviously the tactics of Bashar al-Assad are not to be defended, and his indiscriminate use of force. But I wonder if the US would react in any different way if the constitutional law and order were threatened? For once, if I can remind you of the search operation for the Boston bombers, if you remember a couple of years ago. The whole city of Boston was blocked to find two men, police was used and he was shot dead. So, I think Americans use force quite extensively when their own security is compromised, but they for some reason deny that right to other countries. But I would still like you to answer that question about whether you see any chance for the US and Saudi Arabia parting ways geopolitically, given how different their value systems really are?
DW: Well, having lived in Boston, having actually lived on the same block as the Boston bomber, having been a graduate student at MIT in the past where a police officer was slaughtered by the bombers – no doubt Americans take terrorism seriously. As to whether the Saudis and the US are going to part ways, the triumphalism of the shale energy boom to some extent is overwrought. Because the US, just as Russia, just as other countries are in the global economy, are dependant on stability in the global price of oil. And in that regard, until industrialised countries such as the US, such as Russia, such as the countries of east and south Asia, have fuel choice about the fuel they put in their automobiles, we're going to be continually dependant on the security in the Gulf.
OB: I see. Dr Weinberg, we have to take a short break now, but when we come back - the United States has rediscovered its good old enemy in Russia. What does this mean for the future of US-Saudi relations? That's coming up in a few moments on Worlds Apart.
OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing the love-hate relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia with David Weinberg, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
DW: That's a great way of putting it.
OB: Dr Weinberg, you just heard, I turned it in terms of love and hate, and I'm not sure about the love, but to see the examples of hatred, all you need to do is to open the Saudi school textbooks, which you alluded to earlier, that for decades have been spewing vitriol at everything Western. And as you mentioned, you wrote a very interesting report recently on how lenient the US has been recently with Saudi Arabia on this issue. But I wonder, what is the real reason for Saudi procrastination in removing all those vitriolic passages from their textbooks?
DW: Well, first of all, I'd like to say that I don't think that the US has been uniquely lax when it comes to raising Saudi textbooks. In fact, I think it's done more than any other government in its exchanges with the Saudi authorities on this issue. For instance, I saw no indication that this was part of the conversation when Prince Bandar and Vladimir Putin met last year in Moscow. So I think there are things that other countries could do. That having been said, the US has more leverage that it could potentially use with Saudi Arabia on this issue. And in that regard, I really do with the US would do more.
OB: Well Dr Weinberg, the reason why President Putin may not raise this issue, or other issues, with foreign visitors is because Russia doesn't make the promotion of democracy the pillar of its foreign policy. It's the US that does. And if I'm not mistaken, the State Department first noted a problem with the Saudi textbooks all the way back in 2003. And ever since then, the Saudis have assumed this very typical approach for them of not saying no outright, but not delivering either. And my question to you is whether they see any practical gain in essentially indoctrinating their youth in this mindset, whether they do it on purpose as a part of state ideology?
DW: Well, I think Saudi Arabia, like any country, does have some internal debates, even as an absolute monarchy. But that having been said, I do think that the Saudi authorities bear responsibility for what's in these books, especially because these books are printed on an annual basis by their Ministry of Education. So they are to blame for what's published in their texts. The Saudi monarch, and the Saudi royal family, and the government say that these books have been reformed, that they're being improved. But when they say that, they only take the lowest hanging fruit. They take some of the hatred out of elementary school books. They say that they spent money on teacher training, to moderate teachers. They say that they're increasing the number of women in universities. But the reason that they don't take this on more seriously, I think, is because they see more benefit in not upsetting their conservative, reactionary preachers, than they see in telling their children a more tolerant view of the world and keeping their children from being indoctrinated. So I do think that it really will take diplomatic consequences in Saudi Arabia's foreign relations with the international community for this to change.
OB: Now, this violent extremism that children are being taught in Saudi public schools is bad when it is targeted at you, but when it targets some of your rivals, it may come in handy. And here I would like to shift gears a little bit and discuss the Saudi-US relations vis-a-vis Russia, because there are quite a few historic examples when this partnership was very successful in undermining Moscow. I wonder whether these recent tensions that we saw between Russia and the West, and the US in particular, could lead President Obama to re-evaluate or rethink his relationship with Saudi Arabia.
DW: Actually, I think US-Russian relations in the last month have added an extra strain to to the US-Saudi relationship. Because the Saudis wish that the US had been firmer with Russia over the Crimea. Just as they saw the US choosing to pursue a negotiated deal with Russia over Syria's chemical weapons in the fall, this was an area where US, Russia – I'd like to say at least averting away from more direct conflict – actually came at some cost to the US in its relationship with the Saudis. Similarly, the US helped turned the tide of the battle in Afghanistan in the '80s, against the Soviet Union, by introducing a large number of MANPADS – man-portable air defence systems – that the Mujahiddeen used against the Soviet air force. The US hasn't gotten much credit from the Russians for something that they've done, which is showing some restraint when it comes to MANPADS in Syria today. The Saudis have been itching to introduce those in massive numbers, unsupervised, without any sort of permissive action links, without any sort of way for the US, for instance, to disable them if they fall in the hands of Al Qaeda. But the US has actually held relatively firm on that to date, and that's an area in which the US hasn't gotten much credit.
OB: Well, Dr Weinberg, I think this is a very novel interpretation of both recent events in history. Because if it wasn't for the US and Saudi Arabia, those weapons wouldn't be in Syria in the first place. So I don't see how we can credit the US for not restraining Saudi Arabia well enough. Going back to Ukraine, there have been reports that Washington has already reached out to Saudi Arabia to provide some of the $15 billion promised to Ukraine. And while Saudi Arabia doesn't have any intrinsic interest in Ukraine, what it is interested in is seeing Washington toughen up on Syria. And I wonder if we could see any sort of Ukraine-for-Syria swap here – essentially Saudi Arabia giving the money for Ukraine, but Washington in return doing what Riyadh wants it to do in Syria?
DW: You know, actually the most persuasive tit-for-tat of this sort that I've seen has been a recent story in the Washington Post, suggesting that the US is finally considering doubling its training of vetted Syrian rebels, to be funded by the Qatari treasury. So if there's going to be a tit-for-tat, in this regard, that's actually where I've seen some suggestions that it might happen.
OB: Now, Russia is a natural rival for the US in Ukraine, and for Saudi Arabia in Syria – so much so that George Soros has already suggested that the two team up in driving the oil prices down. And of course, this move proved to be very effective back in the '80s, when these two countries colluded in driving the oil prices down, and that proved to be the last nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union. Do you think that could work this time around?
DW: No, I don't think there's persuasive US-Saudi collusion on the energy price that actually influences Saudi energy policy. The Saudis make their oil production decisions based on internal budgetary issues, and they do this also by looking at the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia and making outlays to keep their public quiet. So that, I think, is actually going to be the biggest driver of Saudi oil policy. But, you know, they can be hypocritical about this too, just as the US can be hypocritical about where and when it supports democracy, just as Russia can be hypocritical about where and when it supports sovereignty.
OB: I wonder if we could consider one more way of how the Saudis and Americans could exact their vengeance, or their revenge on Russia, and that would be by supporting terror groups. They used to do that in Chechnya, as I mentioned before, and they could probably do the same in Crimea, which has a somewhat sizeable population, couldn't they?
DW: Well actually, the Muslim population in Crimea is significantly smaller before Stalin ethnically cleansed the place. So actually, I think that leverage is much smaller now.
OB: But, just fore the benefit of our viewers, as far as I know, I may be mistaken but back in the 1990s and early 2000s, Crimea was a very popular destination for wounded Chechen rebels. First, because of the geographic proximity to Chechnya, and also because of the somewhat lax security policy of the Ukrainian authorities. I think it is estimated that at the moment, there are around 5,000 followers of the Wahhabi branch of Islam in the Crimea, and I guess you wouldn't need even that many to stir trouble?
DW: Well, you know, first of all it is important to distinguish between people's religious views, be they intolerant or not, and whether they're actually engaged in acts of violence. But certainly I do think that when an intolerant brand of religion is promoted in places abroad, including in elements of the Soviet Union, there are consequences for that down the road, absolutely.
OB: Well one of the natural consequences for Moscow would be to deepen its ties with Tehran, especially given the very politically-correct reaction of the Rouhani government to Crimea's joining Russia. But I wonder if that will deepen the trenches even more in this geopolitical rivalry?
DW: It's absolutely possible, but I do think it conflicts with what the Rouhani government's strategy is in Iran, which is a little bit different than what the Supreme Leader's strategy is in Iran. The Supreme Leader's strategy is direct confrontation with the US. The Rouhani government's strategy is to maintain many of the Islamic republic's policies, but to try and achieve some sort of rapprochement with the international community. They may not be ready to pay the cost of what that entails, and they've given no indication that they're ready to stop the IRGC's terrorist activities in places like the Levant and the Gulf. And that's actually what motivates the Saudis to push hard when it comes to Iran issues, and something that the US, personally I think, could be doing a little more on. Certainly Russia could do more on it as well.
OB: Well, Dr Weinberg, unfortunately we have to leave it there, I appreciate your being on the show.
DW: Thank you, Oksana.
OB: And to our viewers - keep the conversation going on our Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages and I hope to see you again - same place, same time here on Worlds Apart.