Saudi Arabia is arguably the least democratic of the Gulf states, yet it is wholeheartedly backed by the United States of America. This diplomatic relationship, one which grew even warmer under President Trump, threatens to undermine the credibility of America’s pursuit of democracy in the Middle East.
Since 9/11, the US has promoted democracy in the region with unprecedented force in the hope of reducing the terrorist threat.
Washington D.C has long considered Riyadh an influential ally. The two countries established full diplomatic relations following the birth of the Saudi state in 1931, and Saudi Arabia has since become a lynchpin in America’s broader Middle Eastern strategy.
With regard to security, both states have a shared interest in preserving the stability of the Gulf region. The USA’s ‘top priority of containing Iranian influence, firmly aligns with Saudi Arabia’s national interests; Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in an escalating regional rivalry for hegemony in the Gulf.
Riyadh and Washington also have strong economic ties. Saudi Arabia’s unique position as the world’s second-largest producer of oil means that the Middle Eastern country is a vital energy provider for the United States, whilst, Saudi Arabia is the USA’s biggest foreign military sales customer.
However, diplomatic relations between the two countries have not always been completely harmonious. Human rights abuses, the lack of democratic institutions and US accusations that the Saudi state-financed terrorism have all caused friction in the past.
Nevertheless, over the past 10 years, US-Saudi relations seem to have grown stronger than ever, even to the extent that this alliance has taken precedence over American efforts to instil democracy across the region.
Events in Bahrain and Egypt offer the most pertinent examples of the United States choosing to prioritise its immediate security interests over its professed liberal values and objectives.
In Bahrain, the US had established long-standing programs to encourage the development of democratic institutions. These were non-military, economic support systems designed to strengthen civil society and non-governmental activity.
Yet, when the Arab Spring (grassroots protests seeking political reform) reached Bahrain’s borders in 2011, the Obama administration made little effort to call for the start of a comprehensive democratisation process, and instead, favoured the maintenance of a strong relationship with its Gulf state ally.
Not only was US action confined to weak calls for reform, but America sat back and watched as Saudi Arabia sent 1200 troops into the country to crush the peaceful uprisings. Riyadh’s actions stemmed from a fear of the potential implications that regime change in neighbouring Bahrain could have on Saudi internal stability and international prestige.
Similarly, in 2013, Saudi Arabia moved to undercut US efforts to promote democracy in Egypt, actions that again were met with little American resistance.
Following their revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood, Riyadh announced a $5 million aid package to support Egyptian military elites. The Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Islamic organisation had risen to power in Egypt in 2011, following the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring protests. This development aligned with US aspirations for democracy in the country and was thus supported by the Obama administration. Riyadh’s actions, however, were driven by Saudi fear that given the size of Egypt, the rise of a state based on Islamic values different from their own, could challenge their dominance in the region.
Significantly, in the years since the military revolution in 2013, the US has backtracked on its push for democracy in Egypt over concerns that it would damage its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The Double Standards of American Democracy?
These events raise important questions about the sincerity of American diplomatic actions in the Middle East. The US appears interested in promoting democracy but only until its allies are threatened.
This is significant as it is the mantra of democracy promotion that America has used time and time again to justify its interference in the Middle East. Most notably, the 2003 invasion of Iraq rested on a promise to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime with a western-style system of democracy.
Ultimately, however, America’s biggest concern in the Middle East is Iran and an alliance with Saudi Arabia has seemed, at least up until now, the surest way to keep Tehran’s power in check.
A key question is what lies ahead for US-Saudi relations. There have been suggestions that the romance between Riyadh and Washington is at the point of termination.
In his 2020 election campaign, now-President Joe Biden emphasised the need for the US to reassess its relations with Saudi Arabia. This is off the back of criticism that the Trump administration faced for overlooking human rights abuses in the Gulf state, particularly surrounding the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was murdered by a hit squad outside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, an operation that had been approved by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salam. However, when a CIA report confirmed the involvement of bin Salam, the Trump administration withheld it and instead, continued to make arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
Despite campaign promises to the contrary, it is becoming increasingly clear that Biden, at least in his first few months in office, is not pursuing a radically different diplomatic path. Instead, strong US-Saudi relations and thus, the double standards of American democracy in the Middle East look set to continue.