The bizarre alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia is finally fraying

The bizarre alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia is finally fraying
Sun Nov 26, 2017 13:58:35

As the conflict in Yemen rages, there are plenty of signs that times are changing.

How would you explain the long-standing and bizarre alliance between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the proverbial Martian who had landed on Earth for the first time? The close friendship between the secular republic and the Salafist theocracy? The unbreakable bond between the liberal democracy and the absolute monarchy? You would probably have to begin by going back to February 1945. That’s when Franklin D Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Abdulaziz, on-board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, to strike a Faustian bargain: Washington would provide the security while Riyadh would provide the oil.

These days, the conventional wisdom is that the Trump administration has revitalised the US-Saudi special relationship. The president – who once suggested the Saudi government was behind 9/11! – made the kingdom the first stop on his inaugural foreign trip in May and then threw his full support behind Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s controversial purge of his royal rivals on 4 November.

Yet the conventional wisdom may be wrong. There are plenty of signs that times are changing. Consider events on Capitol Hill. In September 2016, a bipartisan bill in the Senate to stop the sale of more than $1bn worth of American-made tanks and other weapons to Saudi Arabia was defeated 71 to 27. Yet, in June this year, a similar bipartisan bill to block the $510m sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia was defeated by a much narrower margin: 53 to 47. “Regardless of whether the number is 48 or 51 or 45, this is an important message to the Saudis that we are all watching,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a co-sponsor of the bill, told reporters ahead of the vote. Other senators have gone further. “I consider [Saudi Arabia] to be an undemocratic country that has supported terrorism around the world… they are not an ally of the United States,” Bernie Sanders, a supporter of the Murphy bill and perhaps the single most influential political figure in America right now, told me in a recent interview.

On 13 November, for the first time since the Saudi-led, US-backed bombing campaign in Yemen began in March 2015, the House of Representatives voted 366 to 30 in favour of a controversial resolution. It noted how “Congress has not enacted specific legislation authorising the use of military force against parties participating in the Yemeni civil war” and denounced the “deliberate targeting” of civilians. The (non-binding) resolution also pointed out that the US has “provided midair refuelling services to Saudi-led Arab Coalition warplanes” and that “at least 10,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed in this conflict since 2015”.

Co-sponsor Congressman Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, tells me he is outraged by the Saudi-induced “humanitarian catastrophe” in Yemen. “Why in the world is the United States aiding the bombing of a civilian population which is leading to outbreaks of cholera and famine?”

Khanna does not advocate any sort of confrontation with Riyadh but thinks the US “certainly should not be doing their bidding”. Such increased hostility from legislators, combined with the growing number of anti-Saudi op-eds in the American press, is perhaps part of the reason why Riyadh, as reported by the Financial Times, plans to set up new public relations “hubs” to “improve international perception of the kingdom”. It may also help explain the rather cynical timing of the Saudi king’s recent decision to lift the ban on women drivers.

 

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