Fawning over the Saudis is weak. But a working relationship is necessary

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi King Abdullah in January 2014 [Source: US Department of State]US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi King Abdullah in January 2014 [Source: US Department of State]

When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died of pneumonia last week at a ripe 90, the Western response was ridiculously gushing. Barack Obama cut short a visit to India of enormous geopolitical significance (especially for a President who has made pivoting towards the Asia-Pacific region – and away from the Middle East – the supposed centrepiece of his foreign policy), jettisoning New Delhi’s impressive new Prime Minister Narendra Modi by dashing to Riyadh to convey his condolences to the Al-Sauds in person.

Similarly, David Cameron lauded Abdullah’s “commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths,” while Westminster Abbey – basking as ever in the aureate aesthetics of its own Gothic glory, embodying the majesty of a tolerant and rational Anglicanism – flies its Union flag at half mast in mourning. The irony of this verges on the hilarious: the Christianity of Westminster Abbey and the ‘‘prayers’’ of Cameron for Adbullah’s family and nation are to say the least not acceptable in Saudi Arabia. Churches and Bibles are banned. Smuggling a Bible into the country has recently become punishable by death.

No one should forget the appalling human rights rule of this absolute monarchy. The egregious marginalisation of women (infamously, they are forbidden from driving), the floggings and beheadings, the exploitation of migrant workers; all these factors mean that no liberal democracy should think of Salafist Saudi Arabia as its friend.
Yet at the same time a sense has grown that the West should completely dump its relationship with Riyadh. This comes after a renewed recognition that the spectre of Islamic extremism, currently threatening global security and committing acts meeting some definitions of genocide under the black flag of ISIS, is at least partly rooted in the hardline Wahabi version of Sunni Islam dominating Saudi Arabia. Adding to this is our new cooperation with Iran – Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy – in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.

A pivot towards Iran makes some sense on the surface: the country holds democratic elections, has a young population and a vibrant civil society. In burning our bridges with the Saudis, the theory goes, we could enhance the nascent prospects of liberalisation in Iran, while heightening collaboration against the common menace of uproarious Sunni extremism and curbing their nuclear ambitions. The new Saudi king, Salman, can go and suffer the consequences of our wrath, unless he significantly lessens his country’s horrific ultra-conservatism and clamps down on powerful private citizens’ tacit support of international extremism.

This policy stance would be the other extreme, similarly inappropriate, to the fawning towards Riyadh exemplified by the likes of Obama and Cameron firehozing crocodile tears at the Al Sauds this weekend. Its naiveté is predicated on a vast overestimation of the power of all state actors involved: those of Western countries, the Saudi monarchy and the elected Iranian government. Those who expect the West – America especially – to be capable of marshalling an arsenal of power, hard, soft and the smart power combining the two, need only to look at the current situations in Iraq, where all varieties of American power were shovelled at the governments in power in futile (to say the least) attempts to bring stability, to find that notion disproven.

Moreover, the Al Sauds are hard to influence because they themselves have to balance numerous intersecting centres of power in the country, especially tribal leaders, supported by the cast-iron loyalty of their clans, and Wahabi clerics whose leaders, the ulema, have a direct role in formulating government policy, and, like the tribal chieftains, have vast numbers of loyal followers. This makes Saudi Arabia not quite an absolute monarchy in the usual definition of the term. Similarly, the fact that Iran is still at loggerheads over the West, despite President Hassan Rouhani’s election as a foreign policy dove, is testament to the enduring power of the hardline Grand Ayatollah over his elected government. All these factors make it hard for the West to budge either of the Middle East’s two great powers from current policies, giving the US and its allies nothing to gain from severing ties with Saudi Arabia.

That the Middle East will be intractably troubled for the foreseeable future, and a region in which outside intervention, explicit or implicit, easily risks creating further instability, are obvious facts that sadly need repeating to Western commentators. The best that can be done –– is to identify the most dangerous issues in the region and deal with them with policies calibrated to minimise further danger and harm. And, as future historians if not contemporary analysts will recognise, President Obama – no longer the object of so many quixotic hopes and dreams, but yet a great and undervalued leader in the real, messy world – is doing this.

For the US President and his allies, these are the rise of ISIS (and the still malevolent spectre of al-Qaeda in its various incarnations) and Iranian nuclear ambitions. In dealing with these, a relationship with Saudi Arabia is crucial. The new King Salman, like Abdullah before him, will gradually curb the influence of the ‘dominant minority’ of Wahabism and continue the Saudi domestic security forces’ successful operations against Islamic extremism. This is essential: the West can only defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda through close cooperation with the Sunni powers – and Saudi Arabia is by far the strongest of these. That’s while in opposing the shared problem of Tehran’s development of weapons of mass destruction, Saudi Arabia’s declination to turn off its flow of oil exports and raise the currently low oil price has added bite to Western sanctions on Iran.

As King Salman ascends to the throne, the West needs a balanced approach to Saudi Arabia. The fawning over a regime with an inadequate human rights record must stop; and the US and UK must use whatever economic incentives they can to persuade the Al Sauds to slowly but surely roll back Saudi ultra-conservatism. However, a relationship of cooperation on shared goals between the West and Saudi Arabia is essential for tackling the most dangerous issues of the Middle East. While this should not stretch to friendship (after all, as Charles de Gaulle famously said, “a nation has no friends, only interests”), the alluring prospect of ditching the Saudis for a rapprochement with Iran is nothing more than a chimera. Bonds with Saudi Arabia must remain.