POMED Event Notes – Saudi Arabia’s Regional Role and the Future of U.S.-Saudi Relations

On Wednesday, April 6, POMED hosted an event titled “Saudi Arabia’s Regional Role and the Future of U.S.-Saudi Relations.” The discussion was moderated by Amy Hawthorne, Deputy Director for Research at POMED, and included remarks bu Andrea Prasow, Deputy Washington Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW); Ambassador Stephen Seche, the Executive Vice President of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW); and Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of POMED.

Ms. Hawthorne opened the discussion with a reference to President Obama’s first visit to Saudi Arabia, which preceded his visits to all other regional countries including Egypt, and which was representative of how U.S.-Saudi relations would then progress during the Obama Administration’s tenure. Relations have become strained in recent years, exacerbated by uprisings in Egypt and and  the Iran Deal, both which have contributed to a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. According to Hawthorne, two of the major issues that the administration sees in Saudi Arabia are the marginalized youth, which has become a larger threat to both the Saudi government and the region, as well as the how the U.S.-Saudi relationship might impact the fight against terrorism.

Ms. Prasow spoke on human rights in Saudi Arabia and outlined five major points of discussion: Saudi Arabia’s death penalty and lack of due process, exhibited by the mass executions in January; disaffected youth and its correlation with violent extremism; freedom of expression and religion, both of which are severely limited and criminalized; Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni civil war, including strong U.S. support and the use of cluster munitions ; and lastly, potential “glimmers of hope” in the country’s political realm. Despite an  “opaque” government that makes evaluation extremely difficult, Ms. Prasow indicated that there has been some progress made related to women’s rights and an associations law in the Kingdom which provide “hope within severe restrictions.” Prasow concluded by referencing HRW’s call for an arms embargo in Saudi Arabia and calling on the United States to use itsany leverage possible to affect reform.

Ambassador Seche described a maturation process that the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship is currently undergoing. According to Seche, there continues to be a “fundamental redefinition” of relations. “A lot of daylight between the world’s most progressive democracy and the strongest, conservative monarchy” forces pause for reflection and re-evaluation, however is not necessarily cause for conflict. As the United States no longer relies predominantly on Saudi oil, and as Saudi leadership is “waking up to the fact” that the U.S. will no longer address every problem in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia will be forced to “pick up some slack” in securing its interests. These changes in the relationship have been made starker in the wake of the Iran nuclear accord, of which Saudi leadership remains deeply skeptical.

Furthermore, despite some points of tension, U.S.-Saudi relations are “layered and layered” and will likely withstand these issues. Seche likened these tensions to “growing pains” that are simply part of the maturation process of any relationship,and he concluded by reiterating how important a stable Saudi Arabia is to the United States. He explained that despite fundamental differences, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia share enormously common interests: Saudi Arabia must change “dramatically,” but there needs to be a positive and effective relationship.

Mr. McInerney then emphasized “just how thoroughly repressive the authoritarian regime truly is,” as it has consistently ranked among the lowest-rated  countries on Freedom House’s freedom barometer. He explained that Saudi Arabia spends the highest percentage of its GDP (25 percent) on military expenditures–including on internal security forces–of any country in the world, and most of that weaponry is supplied by the United States. In approving more than $110 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia since 2010, the United States has contributed to the alarming militarization of the region, the results of which can be seen in Saudi Arabia’s disastrous campaign in Yemen, he said.

The Obama administration is also increasingly concerned over the role of Saudi Arabia in contributing to the export of violent extremism, which has raised “suspicion” and a “lack of trust” between the parties. McInerney warned against the United States celebrating Saudi economic reforms that do not also increase government transparency and bring about genuine political reform as well; mere economic reforms will not be sufficient to guarantee the stability that both the United States and the Saudi royal family would like to see in the country.

Hawthorne opened the question-and-answer period with a question for Ms. Prasow regarding HRW’s methods of information gathering in Saudi Arabia, given the closed nature of the regime. Prasow said that HRW does indeed have little physical access: the Saudi government is not responsive, particularly on the conflict in Yemen, to HRW’s inquiries and investigations. They therefore rely on a network of activists within the country to provide reporting and help expose many of the troubling human rights trends.

Seche responded to a question about dramatic change in Saudi Arabia by reemphasizing the need for “across-the-board reforms.” Given the drastic drop in oil prices and Saudi Arabia’s increasing challenges to provide for its citizens, the “social contract” that has governed the country in recent history needs to be re-calibrated. Citizens will begin to expect more of their rulers, and the Saudi monarchy will be in a position to undertake genuine reform. Prasow added that this adjustment of the social contract will also impact women’s rights positively, as falling incomes may allow for greater openness for women to join the workforce to sustain household budgets.

Commenting on Saudi Arabia’s role in the region, McInerney remarked that while Saudi Arabia may not occupy the same leadership role it has in the past, there is no state in the region strong enough to assume the role Saudi Arabia plays now. With regards to President Obama’s upcoming trip to the Gulf,  Seche agreed that the president should meet with human rights activists in Saudi Arabia because it sends a positive signal about U.S. values to the government. He also agreed there should be pressure for a temporary hold and greater scrtunity on arms sales, though a permanent hold is unlikely.

In offering advice for the next U.S. administration, Prasow emphasized that the next president must not be hesitant to “speaks up” and support rights and freedom in the country. Seche said the president must persistently be candid and honest as the “old days of quiet diplomacy” are over. McInerney added that there must be a clear commitment to consistently deliver the message that political sustainability can only come from broad and genuine democratic reform.