The Hypocrisy of the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

Jordanian diplomat Saleh al-Kallab once famously likened the U.S.-Saudi relationship to “a Catholic marriage where you can have no divorce.” The U.S.-Saudi relationship is the epitome of hypocrisy in American foreign policy. While the Saudi government commits heinous crimes against its people and institutes unfair policies, the U.S. is unable to take productive action due to our need for Saudi oil, reliance on our military bases inside their country, and desire for an ally in the region. In President Obama’s official statement regarding King Abdullah’s recent death, he alluded to this alliance, remarking that one of King Abdullah’s greatest beliefs was in “the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security.”

The relationship between the U.S. and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spans back to 1938 when oil was first discovered in the country and the U.S. began production under the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). As Saudi Arabia has historically been the largest producer of oil in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and, until recently, the U.S. has been the biggest oil importer in the world, the U.S. has partnered with Saudi Arabia because of its dependence on Saudi Arabia’s oil. While the U.S. was given access to oil through its partnership with Saudi Arabia, the Saudis relied on the U.S. for military equipment and developmental assistance. However, the relationship in the modern era has become increasingly complicated, in large part due to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and growing concerns about Saudi connections to terrorist groups.

With the death of King Abdullah on January 23, ongoing diplomatic relations between Western countries (especially the U.S.) and the Middle Eastern monarchy of Saudi Arabia have come under renewed examination. With King Abdullah’s brother and successor King Salman, promising to uphold his brother’s policies, there seems to be little to no hope of a more secular or moderate Saudi Arabia in the near future.

While ISIS and other terrorist organizations have gained Western media coverage in recent months for their brutality against innocent civilians, Saudi Arabia’s cruelty against its own people often goes unchallenged by Western governments. Human Rights Watch issued a report on the executions of at least 19 people between August 4 and August 21 of this past year. Even reports within the country have confirmed that eight of those executed were convicted for nonviolent offenses, including one for “sorcery.” This statistic is, unfortunately, representative of a larger problem within the country.

The Death Penalty Worldwide Database names Saudi Arabia as having one of the highest execution rates in the world. Despite the fact that international standards allow for the death penalty in only the “most serious crimes,” Saudi Arabia has historically executed people for a wide variety of nonviolent crimes. As of February 6 of this year, there have been 26 executions in 2015. Last year, there were at least 86 executions, which is fairly consistent with the number of executed persons per year for the past five years in Saudi Arabia. In contrast, the per capita execution rate in Saudi Arabia was one per every 321,839 persons in 2014, whereas the U.S.’s rate was one per 9,028,571 persons.

However, the country’s disgraceful human rights record is not limited to its liberal use of the death penalty. Saudi Arabia also employs brutal punishments that limit free speech. In the case of activist Raif Badawi: 1,000 lashes and prison time for statements supporting the rights of atheists and “insulting Islam.”

In a country where sixty percent of college graduates are women, there is a shocking lack of equal rights for Saudi women, including the now infamous anti-driving law. In fact, King Abdullah placed four of his 15 daughters under house arrest for 13 years after they spoke out against the King’s policies towards women.

Many news outlets in the United States praised Michelle Obama for forgoing a headscarf while visiting Saudi Arabia after King Abdullah’s death. This choice does resemble a bold move in a country where all women, including foreigners, are required to wear an abaya, or full-length covering over their clothes. However, some argue that the First Lady’s choice was not all that controversial and was not so much a stand for women’s rights as an upholding of a precedent. In fact, the laws on whether or not women need to cover their heads have loosened in Saudi Arabia in the past 10 years. As one reporter for Time commented: “While Americans saw [Michelle Obama’s choice] as an act of defiance, to the vast majority of Saudi women it wasn’t anything shocking.” Thus, one of the most overt and widely publicized U.S. statements against Saudi Arabia’s oppressive policies this year made little to no impact on the regime or people within the country.

Unwarranted use of the death penalty, cruel and unusual punishments, and denial of equal human rights—these domestic human rights violations are only the beginning of the grievances against the monarchy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Aside from domestic human rights violations, Saudi Arabian citizens and members of the government have been repeatedly linked to international terrorist organizations. This connection became particularly controversial after the September 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.

Not only were these individuals involved, but also lawyers hired by the families of 9/11 victims produced documentation in 2009 that connected the Saudi royal family to Al Qaeda. Testimony from Al Qaeda and Taliban militants directly implicates many Saudi charities and Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal in financially supporting terrorist organizations. In the prince’s case, his emissary directly handed a Taliban leader a check for 267 million U.S. dollars. In fact, information obtained through German intelligence revealed that King Salman, then a prince, financially supported a charity that was suspected of aiding terrorist activity in Pakistan and Bosnia.

Despite this information, the U.S. repeatedly refused to allow 9/11 victims and their families to press charges against Saudi Arabia, saying that families in the United States cannot bring legal action against the leaders of other nations.

However, the problem of Saudi Arabian citizens and royal family members financing terrorism is not limited to the September 11 attacks. In 2010, WikiLeaks revealed a memo in which then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Saudi Arabian donors “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” In the memo, Clinton also explained that it had been difficult for U.S. officials to convince the Saudi government to treat terrorist funding as a priority.

The number of human rights violations and alleged terrorist affiliations begs the question: Why is the United States, the global champion of democracy, allied with the most oppressive of Middle Eastern countries? Our close relationship with Saudi Arabia delegitimizes our policies in the rest of the Middle East and Northern Africa at a time when U.S. support for democracy is most important. The U.S. cannot continue to choose which dictatorial regimes to support and which to fight against. It is time for the United States to examine more closely its relationships with its allies in the Middle East and evaluate whether the benefits of having allies like Saudi Arabia outweigh the cost of a hypocritical foreign policy.