Saudi Arabia: Our essential yet imperfect ally

By Joshua Marshall

When Senator Bernie Sanders said in November’s Democratic debate that “Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally,” he was echoing the sentiment of many Americans. According to a Gallup poll from February, only 29 percent of Americans had a favorable or mostly favorable view of Saudi Arabia (compared to 69 percent for our other key ally in the Middle East, Israel). 67 percent had an unfavorable view, a number that has been steadily growing over recent years. Egregious human rights violations, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and a rejection of liberal democratic values have all alienated the Kingdom from the increasingly self-conscious and humanitarian minded American public. 

More than this, it is the carnage of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen that has damaged its image and imperiled its alliance with the United States. Stories of school buses being destroyed, food shortages, and images of the mounting human costs of this protracted war have dampened Americans’ willingness to support the Saudi regime. In early 2019, with the conflict dragging on, Congress passed a resolution seeking to prevent the sale of $8.1 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia. Senators and representatives from both parties spoke about the horror in Yemen and the need to end American support for the Saudi led war there. 

All of this, however, ignores a simple, if uncomfortable truth; Saudi victory in Yemen is in the interest of the United States. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and its regional allies have sought to dislodge the Houthi movement, which holds power through much of northwestern Yemen. The Houthi, funded by Iran and North Korea, is a group in a broad proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that has raged since 1979. As Iran seeks to assert itself as the predominant power in the Middle East, it has funded numerous groups in hopes of destabilizing key U.S. allies in the region. Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthi, among others, have received funding and support from Iran, which hopes to benefit from the chaos it sows. 

Whether we attribute Iran’s actions to the aggressive pursuit of further power or see it as the crusade of a fanatical regime bent on spreading its faith, the end result is the same; Iran has devoted blood and treasure to a policy designed to systematically undermine the influence and power of its existing regional competitors. Iran wants to establish itself as the preeminent power in the Middle East and has pursued this goal by starting and prolonging conflicts across the region. 

It is plainly in the interest of the United States that Saudi Arabia succeeded in this front of the proxy war. We can, and should, seek to restrain the regime in its attacks on civilian targets. Such attacks are not justified and do far more harm to Saudi Arabia than the Houthi. The Trump administration’s deferential attitude towards Saudi Arabia is unwise, but so too are the rash calls to cut the Kingdom loose in a region that is in dire need of stability. We must prepare ourselves to face a growing Iran, and the key to that will be to ensure a strong and cooperative Saudi Arabia that can stand as a bulwark against Iran. 

Even if one is opposed to the fight against the Houthi, it remains within the interest of the United States to build close relationships with the Saudi government. Assuming the worst-case scenario comes to pass, in which Iran has succeeded in developing a nuclear weapon and has the capability to use them, the natural Saudi reaction will be to follow suit. Before long, a region full of wealthy and technologically developed states with few domestic impediments pursuing their own security policies will be developing weapons of mass destruction in the most dangerous arms race imaginable. The only thing that could stop it is the security guarantee of the United States. We cannot afford a fearful Saudi Arabia that acts like Erdogan’s Turkey, alienated from the west and resentful for a string of perceived betrayals.

Our best bet rests with a strong Saudi Arabia willing to work with us in the interests of defeating our common enemy.

Joshua Marshall is a first-year International Relations minor from Hillsborough, NH with an interest in foreign and domestic politics. He is the senator for the class of 2023.