Learning to Love the Unlovable Saudis

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Secretary of State John Kerry hugs Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at the Gulf States Foreign Ministers Meeting in Manama, Bahrain, on April 7. The author writes that those who want peace in the Middle East shouldn’t shun Saudi Arabia. Riyadh and Jerusalem are breaking down barriers that have undercut peace and prosperity for seven decades. Hamad I Mohammed/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Let’s face it: It’s hard to like the Saudis.

It’s an autocracy. Their princes behave badly. Saudi diplomats race through the streets in foreign capitals oblivious to public safety, and sometimes drunk.

In the Middle East, they have a reputation as rude, entitled, lazy and brutal. They consider women second-class citizens.

Up until a few years ago, there was hardly a Sunni Islamist terror group that the Saudis did not bankroll privately if not officially. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi and the still classified portion of the 9/11 Joint Congressional Report reportedly suggests at least some official Saudi complicity.

For decades, the Saudis have sought to buy friends and influence in foreign capitals and conversely used agents of influence to slime those with whom they disagree.

They bomb Yemen without any effort to mitigate civilian casualties and, quite frankly, sparked the Houthi uprising which Iran later co-opted by sponsoring religious seminaries spewing anti-Shi‘ite propaganda.

The next generation of Saudi leaders appears ready to double down on sectarian bigotry.

So should Americans celebrate the fact that, as President Barack Obama heads to the Kingdom, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is in tatters? While leaders and diplomats might offer platitudes, it will take years if not decades to restore trust. Simply put, it’s hard for Saudi officials to understand how cavalierly Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry turned their back on a seven-decade partnership. Frankly, the Saudis are right to be angry.

The modern U.S.-Saudi relationship began when Franklin Delano Roosevelt met Ibn Saud on board the USS Quincy as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Having fought a war to end all wars, only to become embroiled in another world war less than a quarter century later, Roosevelt understood oil was a strategic resource.

Convincing Ibn Saud to supply the allies with oil allowed the United States to keep its own in reserve. Indeed, Roosevelt included Saudi Arabia in the lend lease program.

Saudi Arabia remained a staunch U.S. Cold War ally. Many Arab states flirted with the Soviet Union. Not only did Saudi Arabia turn its back to the Eastern Bloc but Riyadh never tried to engage Washington in a bidding war as so many other Arab states did.

Sure, there was the oil embargo. The Saudis and Americans have always had their differences, and the Saudis still remember the often racist and biting cartoons that populated American papers at that time.

But both in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and then 11 years later when Iraqi forces rolled into Kuwait, Saudi Arabia was there not only to answer that 3 a.m. phone call but to go above and beyond the call.

It’s easy to bash the Saudis, and there is much to criticize. But, after Saudi Arabia experienced its own Al Qaeda backlash, it became a far more earnest ally in the battle against radical Islamism than it was before.

Today, the primary problem with the support of radical Islamist groups lies not in Riyadh, but rather in Ankara, Doha and Islamabad. To cite Saudi Arabia’s deplorable human rights record as reason to move closer to Iran is nonsensical, as Iran’s execution rate is at least eight times as high.

To suggest, as some Iran lobbyists do, that Tehran’s military spending is much lower than Saudi Arabia’s is disingenuous on two front: First, such numbers do not take into account the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s self-funding through its massive business empire and, second, it ignores Iran’s proxy warfare–if not aggressive deployments–in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

It’s also quite ironic that an administration that suggests it wants peace in the Middle East would turn its back on Saudi Arabia at the exact moment in which Riyadh and Jerusalem are breaking down barriers that have undercut regional peace and prosperity for almost seven decades.

The world is increasingly dangerous. China and Russia are both on the offensive. The Islamic State (ISIS) holds territory not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Libya and Afghanistan.

Iranian officials have made clear that enmity to the United States is a central pillar of the Islamic Republic’s ideology. Even if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action holds, it will leave Iran with an industrial-scale nuclear program as it expires in little more than a decade. Terrorists threaten life and liberty on every continent but Antarctica.

Obama prides himself on his realism. Realists see the world in terms of dispassionate calculation of interests. They undervalue if not ignore the importance of friends, allies and relationships.

Marriages can be rocky, but they are always healthier than an endless series of one-night stands. Saudi Arabia may be far from perfect, but if the United States turns its back on its allies, the main loser will not be Saudi Arabia but rather America’s national security and the trust other allies are willing to place in Washington.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.