Wahhibism and the Spread of Global Extremism

On April 26, we hosted acclaimed author and Middle East cross-cultural consultant Terence Ward, who discussed the development and spread of Wahhibism, the conservative Islamic sect that provides the ideological basis for ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

In the talk, Ward also examines Saudi Arabia’s recognition of Wahhibism as the official state religion and what this means for the gulf state’s relationship with US as well as its regional neighbors.  Ward’s third book, The Wahhabi Code: How the Saudis Spread Extremism Globally is available this October.


Saudi Crown Prince’s Ascendancy Gives Hope of Reform – But it May be Premature

Written by Martin Chulov.
Read the original article on the Guardian.

Image credit: the Guardian.

On the streets of Riyadh, in its shopping malls and public spaces, Saudi Arabia’s religious police had long been a foreboding presence. They could reach into private lives at will, with powers that few could challenge, enforcing an ultra-conservative brand of Islam as a dogma for society.

For people who had lived in fear of the force, one late winter evening earlier this year came as a watershed. On the side of one of their headquarters in the city’s suburbs, a 10-metre wide emblem of the country’s reform programme – Vision 2030 – had been projected. And no one inside the building dared to block it.

“That was the government saying we are more powerful than you,” said an influential Riyadh businessman. “That was when the people knew that they [the religious police] didn’t matter any more. They had lost the powers to arrest a year earlier. And now they had lost face.”

The sudden fall from grace of one of the influential pillars of the state had taken place as a new and ambitious face of the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman, continued an ascendancy unparalleled in Saudi Arabia’s modern history.

The 31-year-old prince’s rise was consolidated on Wednesday when his father anointed him as heir to the throne, ousting his nephew in the process and giving the newcomer unfettered powers as a change agent. The new crown prince’s mandate is formidable; overhaul an ailing economy, open up a closed society, and project the influence of a usually cautious country in new and robust ways.

In announcing the move, the king has literally banked his kingdom on the world’s most powerful thirtysomething, adding to his already full list of duties a cluster of roles that are not intended to distract from the most crucial of all – a 15-year reform programme, which many in Riyadh see as the only viable solution to an existential threat.

Private enterprise is being courted, cinemas are in the pipeline, concerts have been held – though only for men – and the touchstone issue of women being allowed to drive is again on the table, senior officials say.

Though Riyadh residents who spoke to the Guardian say they will suspend judgment on the reforms until they are delivered, talk of change is starting to resonate. “Something is definitely happening here,” said Sumaya Fayad, a shop assistant in one of Riyadh’s most popular malls. “It feels different. I don’t feel as limited anymore. There has been progress in personal freedoms, because we don’t fear as much anymore.”

Two years into the process of reinvention, the country has opened a war in Yemen, tried to steer another in Syria, opened its economy to foreigners, exposed its biggest asset – the state-owned oil company Aramco – to global markets, spoken out strongly against its regional foe, Iran, and blockaded a former ally, Qatar. Mohammed bin Salman has been given a lead stake in it all, positioning him against powerful figures within the royal family and elsewhere, in a country where disgruntled citizens have been quick to oppose cutbacks in welfare spending and pensions.

The changes have exposed the limits of state authority and highlighted the will of a combustible population, much of which has yet to be convinced that change of this scale is in their interests.

“The problem for them is that the base has always been significantly more conservative than the leadership,” said one western official in Riyadh. “Some of the senior officials are describing what is taking place as cultural revolution disguised as economic reform, but there is a danger that they’ll get ahead of themselves.”

Regardless of the warnings, citadels that had long been seen as too difficult are now being targeted. The accommodation between the hardline clergy, which has defined the national character, and the House of Saud, which has run affairs of state, has been central to the modern kingdom, with both sides relying on the other to retain power.

Mohammed bin Salman has told several global leaders that the arrangement needs to change for the modern state to survive.

Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics’ Middle East centre, says: “This has been going on since King Abdullah became king in 2005. Since Salman came to power, we see signs that they are trying to redefine Wahhabism [an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam] as a limited religious tradition responsible for personal piety, but having no business whatsoever on the way the kingdom is run.

“But the problem for them [the ruling family] is that it is an accurate assessment to say that Wahhabism is a doctrine that has underpinned the actions of the Islamic State. Saudi religious fatwas and opinions have been used to encourage people to join terror groups.

“What we are seeing is not a reform programme at all. It is cosmopolitan liberalisation. The Wahhabi traditions are deeply embedded in a system that is repressing its own people. They are doing what other dictators do, in allowing certain personal freedoms to make people forget about the big picture.”

Senior Saudi officials acknowledge the need to sideline, even disavow, traditions and practices that gravely limit personal freedoms and human rights, especially among women and minorities.

“We are no longer averse to change,” said one ministerial aide. “We embrace it and we know that we can no longer rely on the developed world to lead the way.”

Some Saudis say small measures are already signalling a new openness to other interpretations of the faith.

“During the recent Riyadh summit, two of the world’s most influential Islamic scholars addressed a social media conference comprised of largely Saudi young men and women,” said Talal Malik, the Saudi-based CEO of conglomerate Alpha1Corp. “The new crown prince … was effectively patronising a global and dynamic vision of Sunni Islam in the kingdom, and showcasing it for Saudi youth as representing their future.

“He has made significant inroads in winning the support of one, if not the, key demographic in the kingdom – its youth, who wish to contribute to building a modern and dynamic G20 country.”

Not all Riyadh youth agree. “You know that the top 11 Twitter handles here are Salafi clerics, right?”, asked a 24-year-old student speaking perfect American English. “We are talking more than 20 million people who hang on their every words. They will not accept this sort of change. Never.”

The Enormous Political Risk of Saudi Arabia’s Oil Reform

Sagatom Saha


On June 7, Saudi Arabia laid out its National Transformation Plan to shift away from an oil-based economy. To do so, the plan’s architect, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, intends to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, to float an IPO of the world’s most valuable oil company and to cut welfare for some of the world’s most heavily subsidized people. Given all of the superlatives, it’s hard not to speculate about the plan’s ambition and viability. And many have. GE has already made an enormous bet, promising to invest at least $1.4 billion in the country.

But even if he can check off all the items on his wish list, the deputy crown prince may not guarantee a prosperous future for his kingdom. By cutting subsidies and ceding some control over its oil industry, Saudi Arabia might surrender an asset rivaling oil in value: political order in a region engulfed in conflict.

The primary cause of difficulty will be the belatedness of the post-oil push. Large economic transitions are most attainable when coffers are full and revenues are high. Saudi Arabia is setting out on a path for diversification under a chronic deficit and persistently low crude prices.

To realize a diversified economy, Saudi Arabia would need to create an unprecedented private sector with six million new jobs by 2030—more if women enter the workforce in larger numbers. The oil boom between 2003 and 2013 created only one-third as many. Saudi Arabia hopes to create 450,000 non-oil jobs before 2020. However, the country needs to create 226,000 jobs a year just to accommodate new entrants.

The prospect of a smooth transition has already passed by. In past years, the kingdom could have invested its massive foreign exchange reserves into the same schemes it now hopes to realize. Instead, Saudi Arabia is using that money to plug deficits nearing $100 billion a year.

Compare that to reserves of $593 billion in February declining by $10 billion a month. Graver still, domestic fuel consumption threatens to squeeze Saudi Arabia’s only significant revenue stream: oil.

The Saudi populace relies almost entirely on domestic diesel and associated natural gas for power. Demand is growing so fast it will shave two million barrels a day from exports by 2020 at current rates. Ironically, Saudi Arabia needs these exports to finance the post-oil future.

The country has long benefited from commanding international oil markets and deriving vast revenues from its oil wealth. Now that boon is a burden.

Without a glide path, Saudi Arabia must find the investment—$4 trillion, by McKinsey’s estimate—to push Saudi Arabia toward a new economic future. Doing so could destabilize the kingdom, the world’s biggest oil exporter and a U.S. ally.

The tough timetable has already prompted several unprecedented decisions, most notably the move to float an IPO of Saudi Aramco. Even if only 5 percent of the company were sold as per current plans, it would be the largest offering in history, estimated at $100 billion.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman framed the IPO in “the interest of more transparency, and to counter corruption.” Certainly, going public with even part of the company would nudge the kingdom’s finances toward transparency. This may be the problem.

Saudi Arabia, far more so than many of the region’s monarchies and autocracies, maintains an expansive, intricate patronage network of royal family members. While impossible to calculate the exact sum of “family allowances” sustaining the network, it was estimated at $37 billion in 1996 with revenues from one million barrels of oil going entirely to “five or six princes.” This figure has likely grown since.

Family stipends offer political stability in a country without direct hereditary succession and where opposing factions within the family loom large. Going public with their stipends endangers the long-standing bargain of cash for compliance.

Extraordinary letters from senior princes reveal family members have called for regime change, expressing extreme distaste for the current oil policy and the deputy crown prince himself. Opening Saudi Aramco’s books could right the country’s burgeoning fiscal deficit, but it gambles with insurrection from within the ranks.

The risk from the country’s elite is matched with risk from the general populace. Saudi Arabia has already started removing subsidies and cutting public spending. Although many of these expenditures are economic inefficiencies, they also form the basis of a payment-based social contract.

These cuts portend unrest at best, and Arab Spring turmoil at worst.

Earlier this year, Saudi construction workers torched buses in Mecca because they had not received wages in months. One former White House foreign-policy advisor said, “The conditions that produced the Arab Spring five years ago haven’t gone away, and they seem to be even more of a concern in Saudi now.”

Saudi Arabia sidestepped the wave of unrest in 2011 owing to its generous oil-financed welfare system.

Naturally, the Saudi government is introducing reform gradually, to avoid such a situation. However, cuts will need to be deeper and quicker to put the country’s finances back in order. In January, Saudi Arabia more than doubledgasoline prices. That increase only brought gasoline to only twenty-four cents a liter or about ninety cents per gallon, only a tiny step toward the goal of prices in line with the international market.

Meanwhile, the Saudi adult population will more than double in the next fifteen years, offsetting cuts to the system of payments and subsidies.

Saudi Arabia intends to phase out subsidies not only for petroleum products, but also for water and electricity over the next five years. The plan includes the introduction of sales and income taxes and cuts to government wages, meaning lower salaries for more than two-thirds of Saudis.

The first price hike for gasoline had Saudis rushing to fill their tanks within hours. What comes next could be worse. There is a long, well-established history linking subsidy cuts to political instability. Neighboring Yemen and fellow oil producer Nigeria are recent examples of countries where price hikes incited violence.

The Saudi Arabia embarking on the National Transformation Plan will therefore be different political constraints than the Saudi Arabia of the oil boom. Those expecting economic change, like the deputy crown prince, should watch for political change as well.

Sagatom Saha is a research associate for energy and U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Saudi and Gulf Perspective on President Obama’s Visit

Original article can be found here:


Americans have never been particularly good at seeing the world from the viewpoint of other countries. Perhaps it is the production of distance and two oceans, or never having had modern war on U.S. soil, but it seems exceptionally hard for Americans to realize that even friends and allies can have different strategic perspectives, different priorities, and values that differ strikingly from those of a Western secular democracy.

The fact is, however, that America’s strategic ties to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states — which in practice include Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE — have been critical to U.S. strategic interests ever since Britain withdrew from the Gulf, and the loose strategic partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has been progressively more important ever since President Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud on the deck of the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal on February 14, 1945.

A Changing Saudi Arabia

There is no question that Saudis have different values than Americans. Modern Saudi Arabia emerged out of a war with Turkey during World War I, and in the face of British support for a different royal family. It was formed as a conservative and puritanical Sunni Muslim state comprised of a group of tribes under a monarchy. It was one of the poorest countries in the world for the first decades of its existence, and it was not until the first major rise in oil prices in 1973 that Saudi Arabia could afford serious modernization, public services, education, and a modern structure of government and defense.

At the same time, they have been under constant pressure or threats from at least one major neighbors ever since the rise of Nasser in the mid-1950s and British withdrawal from Yemen, and they have faced massive internal pressures for change as their population has increased from some 3.9 million in 1950 to 27.8 million in 2015 — an increase of over seven times with a projected further increase of 45% by 2050.

A once rural and nomadic society is now a hyperurbanized nation that is over 83% urbanized and becoming more urbanized at a rate of 2% per year. A young population — with a median age of 26 — is so young that 27% of the population is 14 years of age or younger, and another 19% is between the ages of 15 and 24.

A population that had virtually no schools for either sex until the early 1950s is now 94% literate, and has a school life expectancy of 16 years. Discrimination against women is all too clear in many areas, but gender bias gives men more social outlets than women, and women spend an average of a year longer in school. They now make up a larger portion of both secondary education and university education (60% are women) than men, and the gross enrollment rate for females is 36.1 percent as opposed to 24.7 percent for males.

Women also have the advantage that they tend to take modern courses while men must often devote significant time to religious instruction. At the same time, the Saudi government has created private universities that do not require religious training, has slowly reformed parts of the overall curriculum, and has tightened restrictions on its religious police. Change is carefully managed, and the rate is limited, but the net cumulative effect is both massive and deliberate. Moreover, it did not react to the tragedy of 9/11 by keeping its best students away from the United States. Instead, it not only created U.S.-managed universities in Saudi Arabia, it raised the number of Saudi students studying in the United States to well over 125,000 in 2015.

These forces combine to create massive pressures for better education, social change, and job creation, and for government efforts to create development, jobs, housing, new schools, medical services, and infrastructure. Unlike most of its neighbors, however, Saudi Arabia has made massive investments ever since oil wealth became real in the mid-1970s. Moreover, former King Abdullah succeeded in creating one of the only serious programs that dealt with the challenges destabilizing the Arab world after political uprisings began in 2011.

The net effect is that Saudi income per capita was $54,400 in 2015, and if one compares this to other large high-populated states in the Middle East with far longer modern economic histories, Algeria was $14,400, Egypt was $11,500, Iran was $17,500, Iraq was $15,000, and Syria was only $5,100 — even in 2010. In fact, one of the key aspects of modern Saudi history is that its royal family, technocrats, and business elite have led a conservative population towards change rather than having been pushed towards reform from below.

The Saudi royal family and government may not meet U.S. ideals in moving towards democracy and Western concepts of human rights, but if one looks at decades of Saudi budgets and five year plans, Saudi Arabia has reacted by consistently investing a larger share of the nation’s wealth in modernization and meeting popular needs than any other highly populated Middle Eastern state.

Saudi Arabia has invested major amounts in mosques and religious schools, but some of the commentary on Saudi Arabia’s religious practices and funding programs ignore realities that the United States cannot safely continue to ignore.

  • First, survey after survey – including excellent work by the Pew Trust – shows that largely Muslim states give religion, religious law, and religious extremism the same or higher polling support than Saudi Arabia.
  • Second, some countries like Pakistan are more than willing to blame the Saudis for their own low and terribly managed investment in education; willingness to tolerate native extremist movements like the Deobandis; and consistent (ISI) state support of terrorist and extremist movements to use against other countries like India and Afghanistan.
  • Third, all legal Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia are state-funded, and no other largely Muslim state has exerted tighter control over what they say since the rise of Al Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia is no model of stability or rapid modernization — although it is rather hard to list other states that are actually doing better. It is important to note, however, that security, stability, and rising living standards are also indicators of human rights, and scarcely unimportant ones.

Saudi and U.S. Common Interests

If the United States is to have lasting strategic partnerships anywhere, it must avoid the kind of broad political rhetoric and false assumptions that other countries should act on the basis of U.S. strategic priorities and needs. No U.S. ally in the world has identical strategic interest with the United States, and partnerships need to be based on respect for that fact and on compromise.

In broad terms, U.S. and Saudi strategic priorities have much in common:

  • Ensuring the stable flow of some 17 to 18 million barrels of petroleum exports per day out of the Gulf, and steadily increasing the flow of oil, gas, and product exports to meet the demands of the global economy. These exports are critical to the Saudi economy, but also to the overall health and growth of the U.S. and Saudi economies.
    • The U.S. for example, had a GDP of some $18 trillion in 2015, $1.6 trillion in exports (9% of GDP) and $2.35 trillion in imports (13% of GDP).
    • In 2015, it still imported some 9 million barrels of petroleum and product per day. Only 1.51 million barrels came from the Gulf (16%), although 1.06 million barrels (11%) came from Saudi Arabia. This was well under 8% of total U.S. imports.
    • Direct import dependence, however, is only part of the story. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that U.S. dependence on imports from nations whose economies are critically dependent on the stable flow of Gulf petroleum exports is far more important. In 2015, 16.3% of U.S. imports came from China, 9.7% came from Japan, 6.3% came from South Korea, 4% came from Taiwan, 3% from India, and 1.1% from Vietnam: A total of 40.4%. Even assuming that the United States eliminated all petroleum imports and exported some oil and gas, it would still be strategically dependent on the stable flow of Gulf petroleum exports.
  • Saudi armed forces are largely U.S.-equipped, and are shaped on the basis of American support and advice. A recent Administration fact sheet noted that Saudi Arabia had some one billion dollars of U.S. arms in active delivery. Reporting by the Congressional Research Service shows a steady build up in U.S. arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia.
    • Saudi Arabia ordered $13.2 billion worth of U.S. arms in 2007-2010, out of a total of $29.6 billion. Saudi Arabia ordered $47 billion worth from the U.S. in 2011-2014, out of a total of $56.4 billion. These included systems tailored to supporting joint action against Iran and counterterrorism.
    • Deliveries lag far behind orders. Saudi Arabia only took delivery on $5.3 billion out of $10.9 billion in 2007-2010, and $9.0 billion out of $16 billion in 2011-2014. The end result is a massive backlog of arms deliveries tailored to cooperation with the United States that predates the war in Yemen.
    • Saudi Arabia conducts regular joint exercises with the United States, seems to have flown some sorties with the U.S.-led air campaign operating against ISIS, and receives extensive support in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has reshaped its air force to develop long range strike capability that is interoperable with U.S. forces, decided to modernize key elements of its navy in ways that improve cooperation with the U.S., and is working with the other Gulf states to create effective missile defense and more modern land-based air and cruise missile defense systems.
    • While the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have made little progress in standardization and cooperation, Iraq, Kuwait, and Oman have all made major purchases that are tailored to some degree to operating with the United States, and Bahrain and UAE are steadily improving their cooperation with the United States.
    • Saudi-Omani tensions remain serious, and Oman’s role in the JCPOA negotiations has not helped. Internal tensions in the GCC spill over to a limited degree in U.S.-Saudi relations.
  • Dealing with the full range of complex threats posed by Iran:
    • Avoiding a nuclear arms race in the region and Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.
    • Countering the massive Iranian build up of conventionally armed rockets and missiles that are evolving towards precision-guided systems, and can reach virtually every major energy, desalination, population, and military target in the Gulf region.
    • Countering the equally massive Iranian build up of an asymmetric threat combining air, missile, and naval systems that include smart mines, a wide variety of anti-ship missiles, easily dispersible patrol boats, submarine, and submersibles, all of which Iran has threatened to use to “close the Gulf.”
    • Halting the steady expansion of Iranian influence and arming of non-state actors and proxy forces in areas ranging from Lebanon and Gaza, to Syria and Iraq, which threatens states like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Yemen.
  • Suppressing and defeating any form of violent extremism, particularly ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, Al Qaeda, and groups like the Al Nusra front.
  • Ending the conflicts and human tragedies coming out of the conflicts in Libya, the Sinai, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
  • Helping to support and stabilize moderate states and regimes like those in Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt.
  • Creating an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and a stable, secure two-state solution.

Saudi and U.S. Differences

There are, however, important differences in the Saudi and U.S. view of the security situation in the Middle East. These are differences that President Obama failed to acknowledge in his criticism in the Atlantic’s April 2016 article, but which are nonetheless vital to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states:

  • ISIS is seen as the primary terrorist threat to the United States and Europe, to the point that U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria is focused largely on defeating ISIS and the Al Nusra Front.
  • Saudi Arabia also sees ISIS as a threat, and is an ally in the U.S.-led air effort. However, its primary terrorist threat is still Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has some strength in Saudi Arabia, but is based largely in Yemen. Other Arab Gulf states — other than Iraq — also see ISIS as a lesser threat.
  • Saudi Arabia has improved its relations with Iraq to some extent, but it sees the U.S invasion of Iraq as having divided the country, putting it under Shi’ite and Kurdish control, removing Iraq as a key military counterbalance to Iran, and giving Iran a critical level of influence in Iraq that it will retain, even if the U.S. can bring Iraqi forces to the point where they can defeat ISIS. Saudi Arabia also feels that the U.S. has been far too slow and limited in its efforts to build up Iraqi forces.
  • Saudi Arabia sees Assad and Hezbollah as major threats to the Arab Sunni world, and as closely tied to Iran. It has seen the United States as indecisive and ineffective in supporting Arab rebel forces and checking Assad ever since 2012, as having failed to act decisively on its own red lines, as having failed to react or check Russian intervention in support of Assad, and as having been willing to accept a settlement that might well either divide Syria permanently or keep Assad in power. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Arab rebel forces, and the United States are improving their coordination, but Saudi experts are still deeply concerned that recent U.S. efforts to build up Syrian rebel forces with a larger U.S. advisory effort and heavier arms will come too late to be effective.
  • Saudi Arabia sees Iran as having effectively made Hezbollah the major power in Lebanon, as a key power in Syria and Iraq, and as a major threat in Bahrain. It gives the expansion of Iranian military forces and regional influence far higher priority.
  • Saudi Arabia sees the war in Yemen as a war that effectively began in 2009, and potentially would put an Iranian supported Houthi-Saleh Shi’ite government in control of a state that has a critical strategic position in controlling access to the Red Sea, and a 1,307-kilometer long border with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has had constant security problems with Yemen since the 1960s, and also sees the fighting as having led to the halt in its partnership with the United States in seeking to defeat AQAP in Yemen, and as having greatly expanded AQAP influence in Yemen. It welcomes limited U.S. support in the war, but sees the war as having far more strategic importance than the U.S. does.
  • Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned that regardless of what it does, it is still seen by many Americans as supporting terrorism and being responsible for 9/11. Saudi intelligence officers raise questions about CIA support of Bin Laden in Operation Cyclone in Pakistan, but the exact sequence of events there and leading to Bin Laden leaving Saudi Arabia in 1992 remains unclear. In any case, Saudi Arabia treated Bin Laden and Al Qaeda as a steadily more serious threat, and attempted to push the Taliban into putting him under their control well before 2001. Saudi Arabia had its own “9/11” in the form of AQAP attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003, and has become a steadily closer partner in counterterrorism since that time. It has created the equivalent of a third U.S. advisory mission in Saudi Arabia to focus on counterterrorism supporting the Saudi Ministry of the Interior – in addition to the two long-standing military advisory groups working with its regular military and National Guard.
  • The U.S. support of an expanding role for Iraqi and Syrian Kurds in the war on ISIS has led to an expansion of Kurdish occupied territory that is largely Arab. Saudi Arabia does see this as a threat to the unity of Arab states and Arab control, although not the kind of direct threat seen by Turkey.
  • Saudi Arabia sees current efforts to make the Saudi government legally liable for “9/11” as a major political attack on Saudi Arabia, and one that shows no recognition of Saudi partnership with the U.S. The full details of “9/11” remain classified, but there is other evidence that the Saudi government never supported Bin Laden or Al Qaeda. At the same time, there is a broader problem in that at least some senior Saudis — and senior figures in the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar — did support extremist charities and causes, and that controlling the flow of all such funding remains virtually impossible.
  • President Obama’s statements in the Atlantic implying that Saudi Arabia was not doing its share in the security field have not helped. Saudi Arabia feels its cooperation has been high, that the United States has failed to create effective force postures in Syria and Iraq, and does not seem to recognize Saudi priorities at the White House level. It feels as though its arms purchases and cooperation with the United States have involved a major effort, and that supporting the third largest military budget in the world represents a massive effort. Saudi Arabia spent some $81.9 billion on defense in 2015 – ranking third in the world after the US ($597.5 billion) and China ($145.5 billion) and above Russia ($65.6 billion), This amounts to 12.9% of its GDP at a time when nations like Britain and France find even 2% a challenge.
  • Saudi Arabia also feels the U.S. still sometimes regards it as an all-purpose source of aid and security funding for U.S. needs at a time when Saudi petroleum revenues have dropped to the crisis level — only 40% to 60% of their 2013 and 2014 levels.

Uncertainty, Not Crisis, in Relations

The end result is several ironies in the meeting between President Obama, the Saudis, and the other GCC states. First, such meetings almost inevitably announce improved cooperation in areas like missile defense and common resolve, and downplay serious issues. Unlike previous meetings, however, Obama is to some extent a lame duck President, and one clearly operating without the support of a Congress that Saudi Arabia sees as uncertain and to some degree hostile. In a year where every major security issue involves critical uncertainties, this U.S. President brings little clear leverage to the negotiations. His success will consist largely of restoring the image of cooperation without having an impact on the substance.

Second, the Saudi royal family is all too familiar with the constant outside obsession with Royal politics and succession issues. This time, however, the U.S. President’s succession issues involve three main populist candidates whose foreign and security policies are almost all rhetoric and no clear substance. If the U.S. delegation is worried about future Saudi leadership, imagine how the Saudi leaders feel about the United States!

Third, and perhaps most ironic of all — regardless of what the Saudi Arabia can or cannot say publically — the only competent U.S. Presidential candidate that serves the common Saudi and U.S. interests, and now now seems to have a serious chance of winning, is a woman.


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