Has anyone noticed that President Obama’s newfound affection for democracy in the Middle East has not resulted in a call for an end to the autocratic regime of Saudi Arabia? We also have heard of no serious protests in Saudi Arabia -- although we will see what the planned "day of rage" for March 11 will bring --despite the fact that the country is one of the most serial abusers of human rights in the world and practices a policy of apartheid toward Saudi women. How can this be explained?
Obama’s failure to speak out against Saudi Arabia reflects a 70-year-old policy of U.S. administrations ignoring Saudi abuses against not only their own people, but American citizens. In fact, the only president to stand up to the Saudis was John Kennedy when he demanded that the kingdom abolish slavery in the early 1960s. And, contrary to the State Department Arabist views that you can’t impose our values on the Arabs, the Saudis complied.
Every other U.S. president has been afraid to confront the Saudis because they have been led to believe by diplomats more sympathetic to Arab interests than American values, that oil supplies could be jeopardized.
The Saudis have cleverly played on our fears by warning the oil would be threatened by our relations with Israel, then the threat of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser followed by the Soviet Union and now Iran.
The truth is our oil supplies have never been in danger because the prime motivation for Saudi policy is to guarantee that the royal heads remain connected to the royal shoulders, and the Saudis decided very early in their history that the United States was the only country that could guarantee their security.
In the 1960s, we sent troops to defend the helpless Saudis from Egyptian troops in Yemen. Thirty years later, despite selling them $60 billion worth of arms, we had to send 500,000 troops to save them from Saddam. Obama recently agreed to sell $60 billion more in weapons they don’t need and can’t use to appease the Saudis who still know it will require U.S. troops to save them again from threats from Iran.
In 1973, the Saudis used the American resupply of Israel during the Yom Kippur War as a pretext for embargoing oil to the West. Privately, however, the Saudis said that the American airlift was proof of the need to be an ally of the U.S., because they believed only American could rescue them in that fashion – as we did in 1991.
Now why doesn’t Obama call for democracy in Saudi Arabia? One reason is fear. While the administration is happy to ignore warnings about the possibility of a radical Islamist regime taking power in Egypt, the administration is petrified of that happening in Saudi Arabia. But could a different regime be worse than the Sauds who undermine American interests and values in the region and threaten our security as the leading sponsors of international terror.
Oil, of course, is the entire reason for our interest in Saudi Arabia. What would a different regime do with the oil if not sell it to us? Drink it? Our fear of losing access to oil, however, has allowed the Saudis to blackmail us for 70 years. They act like pushers, manipulating the supply of oil to discourage us from pursuing alternative energy sources. Thus, when prices peaked at $149 per barrel, the Saudis said the ideal price of oil was $70-$80. The average price last year - $79 per barrel. The Saudi oil minister recently made a similar remark and pledged to increase supply to make up for price spikes created by turmoil in Libya and elsewhere in the region. The message to Obama is that the Saudi monarchy will help his reelection bid by minimizing the oil shock to the U.S. economy. Why rock the boat by pushing for democracy?
Meanwhile, inside Saudi Arabia, the king is staving off any democratic insurrections the way his family has kept power since the establishment of the kingdom - by buying loyalty. The Sauds have stayed in power by marrying their rivals and paying them off. This is why there are thousands of princes who all drink from the royal trough and benefit from oil profits as well as the commissions they receive on deals made with foreign countries. To further ensure that Saudis don’t get too inspired by events elsewhere, the king has announced minimal political reforms while pledging $35 billion in new government benefits. He has also banned demonstrations.
The Saudis are certainly scared. They saw Obama abandon a long-time ally overnight. They already believe he is weak and have doubts whether he will keep their heads on their shoulders because of his failure to take military action against Iran. They also see the restive Shiite population in their neighbor Bahrain making trouble for the Sunni government there which may embolden their own Shiites, who will be egged on by Iran.
Rather than reassure the Sauds, now is an ideal time to, for the first time since Kennedy, insist on changes in the regime. Democratization is only one important step. The U.S. should demand an end to support for terrorist groups and the financing of radical Islamic schools and mosques. Obama should insist on ending the apartheid policy toward women and other human rights abuses. Finally, he should pressure them to take measures to demonstrate their willingness to make peace with Israel.
It has always been the case the Saudis needed us more than we needed them and this is a unique opportunity to use the political, economic and military leverage we have to insist that they show a commitment to our values and interests for the benefit of their people and our security.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst whose latest book is "The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East" (HarperCollins Publishers).