Time to change U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (Getty Images)
September 28th, 2011
02:00 PM ET

Time to change U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia

Editor’s Note: Caitlin Fitz Gerald writes about international affairs and civil-military relations at Gunpowder & Lead. She is currently turning Carl von Clausewitz's On War into an illustrated children's book. You can find her on Twitter at caidid 

By Caitlin Fitz Gerald – Special to CNN

American foreign policy is often torn between shared values and strategic interests. Nowhere is the divide more pronounced than in U.S. dealings with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Although Saudi Arabia has an egregious record on human rights, a major arms deal is being finalized between the country and the U.S.  Indeed, Saudi Arabia appears positioned to remain a stable center of U.S. policy in the region, now more than ever. 

Saudi Arabia's interactions with its restive neighbors have been reliably counterrevolutionary. Saudi Arabia has historically preferred Yemen divided and weak. Although divisions within the regime on the best approach to Yemen are clear, Saudi Arabia has shown a consistent willingness to intervene in Yemen's affairs. North of the Kingdom in Jordan, where stalled political reforms and a struggling economy have led to regular protests, the Saudi regime has offered economically advantageous membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council and at least $400 million in grants to support the country's economy and reduce its budget deficit.  Additionally, Kingdom forces headed up an intervention in Bahrain in March, on behalf of their allies, the ruling al-Khalifa regime.

Saudi troops helped the Sunni leaders crack down on the Shia protests and may have assisted in the destruction of a number of Shiite mosques in the country. This assistance not only helped restore stability to the closely neighboring island, but also may have served as a message to the Kingdom's own Shia population, which has long been the subject of severe discrimination by the Wahhabi sect that dominates the Saudi religious establishment. In recent years, there has been a renewal of small Shia protests in Saudi Arabia, but public protest remains illegal. The government aggressively clamps down on protest movements, and those arrested often disappear into the prison system. The only man to appear for a planned day of protests on March 11 in Riyadh was arrested; he remains imprisoned with no access to legal representation.

Saudi Arabia's record on human rights is dismal . The plight of the country's foreign domestic workers is so bad that Indonesia this year barred its citizens from working there after a particularly serious incident. Laborers not only work long hours for little pay under draconian sponsorship laws, but abuse is commonredress virtually unknown and a worker is more likely to be convicted for standing up for herself than to see her employer convicted for abusing her. Saudi citizens cannot rely on the rule of law either, as the legal system is still built largely on un-codified religious law and royal decree. Even codification efforts seem aimed toward formalizing injustice. Despite some recent changes, women in Saudi Arabia have diminished legal standing; a woman's voice carries half the weight of a man's in court proceedings and women require the supervision of a male family member for many activities. They are also not permitted to drive, which is the only rights issue for which U.S. politicians have applied any public pressure on the Saudi regime.

Nevertheless, last fall, the U.S. came to an agreement with Saudi Arabia on a $60 billion arms deal, the biggest such deal in U.S. history. It includes a large package of new fighter jets, upgrades to older jets and a variety of attack helicopters, as well as equipment, weapons, training and support for all systems. It hasn't been finalized, but Congress raised no objections when the deal was reviewed last fall. In fact, in July there were reports that the deal was being expanded to include an additional $30 billion to facilitate upgrades to the Saudi Navy. An agreement of this scope and magnitude shows a clear commitment by the United States to its future relationship with the Kingdom. Upgrading their fleet will allow them to take a stronger posture against Iran and those attack helicopters will be useful for limiting spillover from the chaos in neighboring Yemen.

While our Secretary of State and various members of Congress are lobbying the Saudi regime to allow women the relatively minor freedom of driving, others in our government are negotiating billions of dollars in arms sales to the Kingdom and watching quietly as Saudi troops clamp down on their neighbors' democratic reform movements. Our actions speak for themselves. With Egypt in a turbulent transition and unrest sending tremors through the whole region, the U.S. is banking on Saudi Arabia to help contain the chaos in Yemen, keep Bahrain a quiet home for the busy Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy, prevent Iran from dominating the region, and of course, keep the oil flowing.  There is also a bonus effect of filling any potential void in military spending to our massive defense industry that might be left by anticipated cuts to domestic defense spending. We have $60-90 billion in military hardware riding on Saudi Arabia - never mind a substantive discussion of human rights or democratic reform.

This is problematic in several ways. It has become a tired refrain in international policy circles: Why do we have a responsibility to protect the civilians of Libya, but not the people of Saudi Arabia? Why do we oppose the extremist ideas of Iran or the Taliban, but remain silent while Saudi Arabia uses its wealth to spread Wahhabist ideology around the world? We have a clear credibility gap. We can only talk of democracy and universal rights while materially supporting their biggest opponents for so long before our words are rendered meaningless. Our stance on these issues should be clear and consistent, even if our approach to promoting that stance must be different for different states. Otherwise, on any occasions when we want to spark a discussion or spur action on these issues, our opinion will be given significantly less weight.

The strategic interests that drive our relationship with Saudi Arabia now may seem more important in the short-term, but in the long-term, what has the greatest potential to serve our interests: the arms we can sell to Saudi Arabia or the example of free expression and assembly we can set? What is a bigger long-term threat: Iran, with its devastated economy and ever-waning legitimacy, or the extremist ideology Saudi Arabia spreads through the mosques and schools it builds and funds all over the world?

For many years, the U.S. turned a blind eye to the abuses of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in a trade-off for a perceived security advantage only to be left stumbling for a reaction as the Egyptian people took it upon themselves to oust him. Saudi Arabia is still a long way from this stage, and American support will make that distance longer, but eventually change will come, in one way or another. Maybe it will be a peaceful democratic transition; maybe it will be a coup from within the dynasty or from the Wahhabi religious establishment. Do we want to have an unblemished record of support for a repressive regime when that time comes? Or would we rather have the credibility of a nation that encouraged reform and expanded liberty and that might be in a position to influence or lend assistance to a genuinely democratic movement?

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. krm1007

    As a country, culture, civilization USA lacks values and principles other than throwing borrowed money at problems. Therein lies its probable cause of extinction. USA has no sense of direction except day to day survival mode fighting talibans. So what policy to change with Saudi Arabia.....? Too little too Late?

    September 28, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The "day to day mode" is common practice in western democracies, as leaders are myopic decision makers!

      September 29, 2011 at 11:31 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    To be on the safe side of history, one should always support the people of a country, rather than their governments and rulers. These come and go, people stay. The U.S. is walking on a tight rope in dealing with Saudi Arabia.
    The only hope for this country to change lies in the hands of the young, especially women. Being educated and open, they have more courage and incentive to urge for reforms. Yet there's a danger that the Saudis keep the status quo, as their grievances can be addressed with material compensations. If reforms are voiced, they might just be made symbolically.

    September 28, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  3. Mo

    I am a liberal Saudi (and a proud agnostic too!!), that being said. I realize that my country -just like any other country- has it's goods and bads. Nonetheless, I find Ms. Gerald's article to be factually inaccurate and I believe that her analysis shows a deep lack of understanding of the Middle East, its people and cultures. I am almost certain that Ms. Gerald has never stepped a foot in Saudi or even the Middle East, and somehow she calls herself an "expert" on the middle east. You can't just become an expert by Googleing the word "Saudi".

    My criticism of Ms. Gerald's article doesn't mean I am exonerating Saudi. However, I believe that we are making progress – even though it is very slow- in the right direction. We need change to come from inside. We need people to strongly believe in that change. We need evaluation. People don't like it when other people claim the higher moral ground and start lecturing them about human rights and so on. Imagine if Norway, Sweden, or even France pressed the U.S to abolish the death banality on it soil! How would Americans (or Texans) feel??!

    Saudi was founded in 1932 and women were given the right to vote in 2011, let's compare that to the U.S. The U.S was declared in 1770s and women were not given the right to vote until 1920s !!

    September 28, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Reply
    • Visay

      You are wrong, Saudi women are not given the right to vote in 2011, but in 2015, if they were it would be retroactive and not prospective four years from now.

      Liberal, agnostic or whatever, the problem with muslim countries is they want to creep into free countries to dismantle their religious freedoms and replace them with destructive Islam and if they can't the men act like lawless spoiled goons.

      September 29, 2011 at 12:16 am | Reply
      • Mo

        Hateful and ignorant!

        September 29, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • lisa

      I agree Mo. I am an American woman living in Dubai and I think there are very great steps being made forward. Saudi needs to go slowly and then it will make it. If it goes too fast it will explode like a time bomb. Like I said in another post, Russia rushed its changes and is still a mess. China took things slowly and is now the communist/capitalist powerhouse of the new century. Those of us who know the region respect what efforts are being made and respect them. Yes, we wish they were faster, but I think there is danger in too fast in this region. Slow and steady is a better pace for Saudi, I agree. Thanks.

      October 2, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • Ahmed Alshehri

      Thank you for your comments you have just explained it all on our behave.
      kind regards,


      November 12, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  4. saudi

    I'm from Saudi and I believe my country needs to change in many ways, especially politically. All these 'votes' and elections we have don't mean anything real. The people who will be elected will only work with trees and streets and nothing more serious. When the media talks about women now are able to vote in Saudi, I ask them, vote on what? Can men even vote on anything that they deeply care about? No we can't.

    September 29, 2011 at 12:11 am | Reply
  5. saudi

    "Saudi was founded in 1932 and women were given the right to vote in 2011, let's compare that to the U.S. The U.S was declared in 1770s and women were not given the right to vote until 1920s !!"

    Does this mean we should still have slavery?

    From your perspective, Saudis should still live in tents and feed their camels. They shouldn't have technology because man, their country is so young!!

    September 29, 2011 at 12:26 am | Reply
    • Mo

      Slavery! I don't know why you're throwing the slavery argument here! Nonetheless, social evolution takes time, and generations! Don't just expect a people to change many of their ways so quickly because you gave them "technology"!

      Plus, the thing that I don't really understand is why there are so many people in the West who are so keen to see changes take place in Saudi?! Do they love Saudi that much? or Maybe they're planning to visit Saudi as soon as it changes according to their standards? Do these people really have Saudi's best interests at hart!? Judging from some of the comments posted here, I would say no they don't have Saudi's best interests at hart!

      September 29, 2011 at 8:57 am | Reply
      • bobalu

        I think Saudis royal regime and US support for them have many consequences throughout the world that effect us all. The Royals do not want democracy in the region (because they don't want to be the last dictators left) so they use their money and influence to inhibit it in Jordan, Bahrain. Yemen, Egypt and the like. In order to maintain their position they have made a deal with the religious establishment where they pay off the wahhabis who then send their dollars to fund Jihad and through that terrorism. If we had democracy in KSA, the wahhabis would lose big time. KSA and the rest of the middle east would progress more quickly, religious extremism would fade and they would be in a much stronger position to demand concessions from Israel who could not play the scared victim so much.

        September 29, 2011 at 11:32 am |
      • lisa

        Cool down! I think you misinterpreted this post! He was just making a simple comparison, not saying Ssudi was like slavery. Others may say that, but not his post. Calm down! this was just a comparison. Like Americans, Saudis are hated by many people and you need to understand that and get used to it. Not all is fair and understood and you need to educate them. You are obviously a good one to do that. Read more carefully next time before just reacting to a post before really understanding it. You have alot to offer people to understand your country better. Use it wisely!

        October 2, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      "Does this mean we should still have slavery?"
      How do you call the treatment of household workers from Indonesia, the Philippines etc, who slave 20 hours a day and 7 days a week, not talking about other abuses?

      September 29, 2011 at 9:24 am | Reply
  6. Mr. Been There Done That

    I find the article lacking core understanding of how the Saudi society works, and the dynamics of the ruling family with its people.

    At least 60% of the Saudi population come from tribal backgrounds, and within all of those, they each have a symbolic leader. King Abdullah acts as the leader of the tribes leaders. So having a ruler in one form or another, will always be the case, as it has been the norm and the basic fabric of existence in the Arabian peninsula long before Islam.

    And I think its very naive to think all parts of the world are ready for a full democracy, as its seen in many western countries.

    I believe there are the Pro's and Con's of any country, and if you look at the progression of Saudi, its on the right trajectory. Obviously they face challenges, just as any other country, but true change MUST come from within, and cannot be expedited by foreign and usually unfamiliar "experts" that try to be a catalyst for what they perceive is more righteous.

    I hope the leaders understand many aspects that need to be examined and re-approached for change, such as:

    - disclosing the revenues and expenditures of the nations wealth.
    - giving women and minorities more freedoms and opportunities.
    - more religious freedom and tolerance inside and outside the kingdom.
    - deal with higher food and housing costs more aggressively.

    The wheels of change in the Kingdom are moving, but against popular belief, it must come gradual and with the support of the majority, since most of the Saudi's I speak to (are themselves) divided about things so obvious as women's right to drive, so you can only imagine the divide on more fundamental issues.

    I believe giving the above more attention would do alot about the contempt that many Saudi's I met carry with them, and of the speculators that are harsh towards Saudi for reasons that are not objective.

    that's my $0.02

    September 29, 2011 at 7:19 am | Reply
    • An Ordinary Saudi

      Sir, thank you for your great analysis and insight! You seem to know a whole lot more than the writer of this article!

      September 29, 2011 at 8:16 am | Reply
  7. Sindhi

    It will be blessing since we Muslims would ask Saudi Arabia to use oil as weapon against US for its (US) relations with Israel, in supporting massacring of Palestinians every now and then.

    September 29, 2011 at 9:53 am | Reply
  8. hello

    Stop being "freinds" with Saudi Arabia, an anti Christian bunch of pieces of S%%$.

    September 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Reply
    • sara aykers

      The Saudis don't have a problem with Christians.. There are several thousand of us over the past 60 years who attended church, Sunday school and vacation Bible school in the kingdom.

      We were always treated in a kindly manner.

      September 30, 2011 at 10:25 am | Reply
  9. sara aykers

    Caitlin Fitz Gerald: have you ever been to Saudi Arabia?

    September 29, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  10. sara aykers

    This article seems to be cobbled together from every possible bit of misinformation about Saudi Arabia.

    September 29, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Reply
    • Mazen


      September 30, 2011 at 1:32 am | Reply
  11. nnn

    Whoever is in charge in Saudi Arabia will still have to sell the OIL – they have no other means of income. It can OLNY GET CHEAPER WITH A REGIME CHANGE. We do not need the Saudis, or the people of Saudi Arabia – the need us! You mentioned Taliban and other extremists, not only is it true that Saudis are as bad, but many extremists organizations would lose their funding if Saudi Arabia was reined in.

    September 29, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  12. nnn

    Whoever is in charge in Saudi Arabia will still have to sell the OIL – they have no other means of income. It can OLNY GET CHEAPER WITH A REGIME CHANGE. We do not need the Saudis, or the people of Saudi Arabia – they need us! You mentioned Taliban and other extremists, not only is it true that Saudis are as bad, but many extremist organizations would lose their funding if Saudi Arabia was reined in.

    September 29, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  13. Mo

    Now, that's one of the people I mentioned in my previous comment. He put it out there that he wants to see Saudi reined in, pure and simple!

    September 30, 2011 at 1:36 am | Reply
  14. Gordon McWhorter

    Almighty Allah, God, the Alpha and Omega: Curse the oil of the Earth to dry up and turn into dust! Curse the rulers of this world with feeble minds and weak limbs! Curse the flesh of the war mongers that their flacid penises raise no more! Curse the day, Oh Heaven! Curse the night. There is no peace here. There is no good. The whole world is covered in sperm and feces. Father! Purge the Earth with fire! Free her from the human animal.

    September 30, 2011 at 4:18 am | Reply
  15. ad

    Well, Saudi Arabia should be reigned in. Here is a list of reasons: a) oppression & slavery b) attack on neighbors c) denial of rights of women and minorities d) the oft-cited oil price.... And, you are reacting as if they were the victims. Secondly, the West really does not need these people – it is the other way around.

    September 30, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  16. Zero

    I think the US should butt out and sort out it's own country first cause from what I see in the facts (according to the USA) there's hardly any crime there compared to USA which is the crime capital. So USA stop interfering and sort your own mess of a country and those hooligans who inhabit it.

    October 1, 2011 at 2:47 am | Reply
  17. lisa

    May I remind everyone of the power the world exerted on South Africa with apartheid. While Saudi is trying to go slowly and reform, which is understandable in its culture, maybe we can actually make a difference by making them a pariah. On the other hand, this did not work with Cuba or the USSR. We cannot bleed Saudi like we did to those two and the USSR fell from its own structural problems. Cuba has outlasted them all based on its ideology. I live in the MEast and SA is not that simple. Look at Egypt and Libya now. We do not want a SA out of control! The King now is trying to go slowly to keep the radical leaders who are very powerful calm. Look at the difference in transitions between Russia and China. Russia tried to go fast under Yeltsin(I was there) and China took its slow time and is still communist but more capitalist than all of us. Who won?"? We need to be careful in pushing for fast reforms in a nation that is not able to cope with fast change. It stinks, I'm a woman, but I think this is the ugly reality.

    October 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  18. mememe

    Comparing the relative speed of change in Russia and China, to argue that slow is better, seems premature given the possibility of civil unrest overwhelming China if a downturn comes knocking. I suppose no one really understands historical change but the West created capitalism and spread modernism over 500 years, ending traditional culture in the process and the single biggest obstacle to that process continuing towards a fully integrated world market it could be argued, is Islam as it exists in the Middle East. I am not saying I like that or you should but either way I guess if compromise doesn't come conflict will.

    October 3, 2011 at 2:51 am | Reply
  19. ebook

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    July 2, 2012 at 3:57 am | Reply

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