The United States has had many questionable relationships with nations across its history, befriending and casting nations aside with equally curious motives and callousness, but none may be stranger and more questionable than that which America has with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While American President after American President for the better part of six decades has sanctioned nations such as Cuba, Iran, Vietnam for several decades, and Venezuela over the past fifteen years or so, all ostensibly in the name of humanitarian concerns and criticisms, Saudi Arabia, one of the grossest human rights violators in the world today, always seems to find an American President groveling back to them.
Modern American relations with Saudi Arabia date back, in various forms, to between fifty and seventy years into the past, beginning for many timelines around 1933 when Standard Oil was granted the right to search for oil in that nation’s eastern province. Since that time, the pressure that the US routinely attempts to exert on other nations has been conspicuously absent where that oil-producing, wealthy bastion of the many heirs of Ibn Saud is concerned. The relationship is a toxic one for the United States. It hands those watching nations of the world relevant and poignant criticism of the outwardly obvious hypocrisy of American foreign policy stances from one place on earth to another.
Put another way; it is right to ask oneself when confronted by the circumstances of the matter, why precisely nations like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela should be cast out upon the fringes of the international community, while Saudi Arabia remains a protected and cherished international comrade as it commits many of the very same crimes.
If human rights were of paramount concern to America vis-a-vis international cooperation and mutuality with other polities, then the development of domestic, regional, as well as international reform would be non-negotiable portions of any bilateral or multilateral agreement concerning the US and another country. Incentivized innovation or reform, such as multilateral, international agreements, of which come as the price for a relationship with the US where deemed necessary, can bear infinitely more fruit than what I might call the coercive strategy of international reformation, entailing endlessly compounding sanctions upon non-aggressive nations; that this latter strategy never works goes much of the way in explaining why mutual accords must be developed over punitive measures wherever possible.
Iran is an example of both strategies at work over both the short and long terms, with thirty years of a barbarous sanctions regime finally falling to Barack Obama’s diplomacy, before the prevarications of Donald Trump that have brought us to this current point in time. Meanwhile, Cuba is an example of mostly a strategy of coercion over the course of over half a century that has failed to garner results—despite that the nation lies just miles off the coast of Florida. Other nations, however, seem to have such perceived value to the United States, that neither strategy is taken in cultivating a better working and humanitarian relationship with them.
These nations, like Saudi Arabia, as well as China and Vietnam, were welcomed into the international community more concretely, and particularly, into the orbit of American capital and diplomatic cooperation—over the span of sixty to seventy-five years between the 1930s and 2000s—without any type of framework nearly as stringent and articulated concerning points of contention between the US and each nation as either the old JCPOA was or the new JCPOA will end up being, with the expectation amongst some—but not everyone—that functioning amongst America and other European nations would lead to a sort of social or moral diffusion between the various societies, their customs and tolerances, and their peoples and governments; this, of course, hasn’t happened as President Clinton or a select group of his advisors had likely hoped for.
Clearly then, the concept of attempting to positively influence nations with views or customs opposed to one’s own through interaction, not isolation, has existed in the minds of at least a few people over the past several decades, even if this strategy is seemingly never executed very much better than the alternative, sanctions based strategy is. Yet, this Saudi relationship, like those with China or Vietnam, has yet to be judged in the decades since by any of those same individuals or groups to be an obviously hypocritical, self-defeating, or toxic partnership when held in contrast to those nations of whom have not received anywhere near the leeway, grace, and permittance that Saudi Arabia, its Kings, and their Crown Princes have received over the years either; why?
Not only do the Saudi Arabians subjugate their own people and keep a highly intolerant, Wahhabist Kingdom with strict rules regarding the rights of women and LGBTQ individuals, and not only do they silence journalists, abduct and terrorize ex-pats, but they do not even blush at any of these accusations. They sportswash their massive stores of oil-gotten capital. Time and time again, a President finds himself saying something positive and kind about his counterpart who, this time, happens to be the man who ordered a journalist and former royal advisor dismembered by a group of hitmen with a saw. It does not take long, however, to close one’s eyes and envision how similar altercations with nations like Iran, Cuba or Venezuala might not be forgiven and forgotten as easily as the United States seems to be able to when it concerns Saudi Arabia.
Hence, what America’s friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia suggests is that sanctions are not truly used to positively push nations towards a mutually agreed to and negotiated reform; instead, sanctions are used to club an unagreeable nation into some semblance of practical or economic submission, at which point, from an obviously weakened position, a number of things might occur. While negotiations, where the United States holds immense leverage, might seem like the natural next step after sanctions are imposed, that doesn’t often happen in any timely manner, and sometimes never at all; as I’ve previously written, while sanctions cause severe harm, countries eventually adapt to their new hardships before long.
No, as history has shown us previously, only when America looks to relent and search for better, more positive ways forward do sanctioned nations look to reconcile; pride is both funny and interesting and illustrates itself through the people’s governments as surely as through those people themselves on individual bases.
While sanctions certainly put nations at extreme disadvantages in negotiations with America, that only holds true if that nation relents and grovels for negotiations; a crumbling nation that will not beg and take the least mutual offer afforded to it is no more pliable than the nation before the sanction regime is first applied—although it is much more desperate, poor, predisposed to appealing towards despotism and despots further, and is usually wracked with all sorts of issues and crises. On the other hand, the reconciliation process, as all three examples of Saudi Arabia, China and Vietnam demonstrate, can be undertaken with any nation—even should they not reform the abuses that America has long harangued and embargoed them regarding—so long as they possess something perceivably useful to and for the US.
While with Saudi Arabia, that which is “perceivably useful“ is clearly its energy resources and extreme wealth, both China and Vietnam possess productive and consumptive resources that make them appealing partners to American national and business interests in the Eastern Hemisphere. That other nations possess oil, large populations, or anything else for that matter is relevant as we appraise the differences between America’s relationships with each. Still, I do not believe that it can be broken down beyond the terminally vague phrases of “national interests” and “fiduciary responsibilities.”
America’s rhetoric and behavior towards some nations has been so binary as to feel as though literal switches were being flipped in contrasting circumstances. Either the metaphorical lights are on for a nation concerning the United States, or they are off—the metaphorical dimmer on these relationships is less noticeable than with a nation like China, where there has certainly been evolution—both positive and negative—concerning the relationship and how each side perceives each other, as well as those ideas or qualities adopted by either. But, for those countries like Iran or Cuba, there has been hardly any nuance to be found from the US government outside of Barack Obama’s eight years in power.
And there certainly has to be greater nuance than there has largely been. Donald Trump liked to speak tough concerning any and everyone, but his administration pandered to Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud and Saudi Arabian interests just as his predecessors and sole successor have; he praised the Saudi Arabian leader, ignored the assassination of Jamaal Khashoggi, and was ready to hand Saudi Arabia and, in turn, the UAE, with nuclear reactors while he simultaneously withdrew the US from the original JCPOA, signed by his predecessor.
The 46th President—not the 45th—is in charge today. But when that administration of Joe Biden’s talks about resetting relations with Saudi Arabia, it becomes disappointingly clear to realize that what he really means is that he would like a more positive relationship with that nation and will do whatever he or America can to make it so; he does not insist instead at this critical juncture that Saudi Arabia must improve its own domestic and foreign policies before relations with the US can improve. That leverage, which America so bravely waves around when dealing with polities like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, is nowhere to be found when it comes to dealing with the Saudis, and the world notices as much as we all in America do.
There is no misunderstanding of any of this either. This American kindness and forgiveness concerning Saudi Arabia and its plethora of issues is related solely to the oil that Saudi Arabia possesses and sells, and the friendships it has looked to create and develop with other US-aligned nations such as Israel within their neighborhood. While attempting to find some consistent rhymes, reasons or threads concerning why America doesn’t mind befriending some abusive nations and very much minds befriending others proves both interesting and, in itself, inconsistent, the diplomatic and economic hegemonic interests and functionality of nations within America’s own paradigm of ambitions and interests is the most obvious of any explanation or conjoined explanations.
Were American foreign relations solely determined by factors like who had oil, who wasn’t a self-described Socialist or Communist nation, or who didn’t violently violate human rights, then the current timbre of the world would be much different than it is today. But as it stands in our present reality, America has developed relations with both China and Vietnam while continuing an embargo against Cuba; they have continued to sanction Venezuela while operating over the years with the likes of fascist rebels, juntas and strongmen from states such as Greece, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere. American diplomats and politicians call Iran an extreme theocracy and re-sanction it, as American institutions—both public and private—attempt to patch up relations with an extreme theocracy in Saudi Arabia.
American foreign policy and foreign relations have evolved out of circumstance, convenience, perceived necessity, and poor foresight. Like the alliances the US formerly had with both Iran during the days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s bloody and oppressive rule, as well as with President Augusto Pinochet during his violent reign in Chile, each demonstrates that civilian oppression and political ideologies are only really an international concern to or for America when those nations are not amiable with the United States and its own national interests; yes, that sadly includes the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as well.
Again, foreign policy is not so binary at all; both Iran and Venezuela, like Saudi Arabia, have lots of oil, and Cuba can be no more Socialist or Communist in the ways Americans allegedly detest than either China or Vietnam. Where Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela differ from a nation like Saudi Arabia, however, more than concerning political ideology or behaviour, is regarding their national histories and how the United States has—at various times, and sometimes numerously—either attempted to or succeeded in interfering with their national existences and forward progress.
Before the sanctions or embargo was instituted in various stages from August to September of 1962, Cuba had very close relations with the US, dating back to the turn of the century and even further beyond. Yet remaining in the 20th century, while the Eisenhower administration instituted a weapons embargo of their own beginning on the 14th of March, 1958, about five years after the fighting on Cuba between the government and rebels began, and a bit more than a year before the former-US-backed strongman Fulgencio Batista was finally driven out of Havana on the 31st of December, 1959, some 90% of Cuban workers—approximately 160,000 humans—worked for US corporations and interests in Cuba in the years before the revolution brought Fidel Castro to power. Furthermore, in the years to come, the US government would allegedly try over 600 times to either have him overthrown or murdered. Nearly sixty years of depravity, isolation, and sanctions were ultimately, however, ended not through the capitulation of Cuba to the pernicious outside coercion of America, but through good faith diplomatic efforts by the Obama administration.
Concerning Iran, which, before the revolution and before the United States granted their murderous ex-Shah asylum, was a staunch, decades-long ally to both the US and the UK, must also be mentioned and discussed. After decades of degradation and repression, when the Iranians finally overthrew their oppressor the Shah in 1978-79—which the US could not stop this time—America simply traded one murderous regime for another in another nation within the region, getting even cozier with Saudi Arabia than they had previously been just as the Soviet Union was invading Afghanistan.
Yet, at this point, with Iran suddenly being on bad terms with the US, they then were promptly expected to improve their behavior more actively under the Ayatollah, the late Abolhasan Banisadr, and his successors than America had wished them to under the Shah; meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, who for the previous century and a half had already been Wahhabists, has never in those years since relations improved with the US—coincidently around the same period as the Iranian Revolution—been pushed towards any real or positive change and continues to actively prevaricate against the type of progress that is pushed for concerning Iran.
Venezuala, a relatively new US bugbear, is another example of a previously “friendly” nation that, due to domestic political innovations and the political temperature of the US, has now been identified as, in numerous ways, a malicious nation that must be cordoned off from the rest of the world lest it infects other nations with Marxism or something. Before the Trump administration tried to support a coup and an American-backed leader in Venezuela in 2018, and before sanctions were placed upon that nation approximately 15 years ago, the administration of George W Bush also tried to overthrow the Venezuelan government of then-President Hugo Chavez.
Hence, one can conclude that the greatest issue that comes with a reset as it concerns Saudi Arabia, is that too much was given to them immediately regarding a relationship with American business and government without the proper human rights innovations; conversely, Iran has, to measure based upon the Saudi watermark, grossly less than they should proportionate to their behaviour, which, in the case of Saudi Arabia, is consistently being condoned through the acceptance of their barbarous actions, the continued fawning, and private and public cooperation with that nation and its regime, all without acting or working for a change from Saudi Arabia in return.
And, in order to do that in any plausible, long term or meaningful way, relations with those other nations—the ones that have not gotten the patience that America has for Saudi Arabia—must be first improved too. While talks between the US, Iran and the EU, and other interested parties continue on, there are no such bilateral or multilateral negotiations—to my knowledge at least—set up to begin the process of reconciling relations with nations like Cuba or Venezuela. Indeed, like the Iran-JCPOA, although, without the nuclear question, other innovations—like human rights—would likely be more the prime subjects of negotiations, a positive, mutual, and progressive pathway must be set up for nations to traverse together going forward, which would show the commitment America has for truly developing and growing its relationships with any nation the world over.
At the same time, however, similar, positive and progressive paths forward must actually be addressed concerning both America, as well as Saudi Arabia. The United States, on the one hand, must end its dependency on oil, so as to diminish the leverage that any nefarious, human rights violating regime has over America thanks to its use of oil or its derivatives; Europe must do the same.
Saudi Arabia, on the other, must show an openness and willingness to discuss and enact real reform upon their own society, domestic, as well as foreign policy in order to continue to benefit from the very relationship that America so often denies other nations based upon the same or similar premise. Continued relations with Saudi Arabia as they currently are constituted only manage to paint the American President—whoever that may be—as weak and amoral—likely even immoral—and the nation as opportunistic and hypocritical in the standards it has for itself as well as for its allies, business partners and friends; this was actually accentuated by the Crown Prince MbS himself, when he reportedly teased the American President for caring more about Jamaal Khassogi than for the Palestinian-American Shireen Abu Akleh who was killed by Israel just months ago.
Something must be done regarding the coziness between America and Saudi Arabia, for the optics of America’s—and really, Europe’s as well—relationship with Saudi Arabia will continue to raise eyebrows when those nations cry out concerning the machinations of other nations across the world. Both America and Europe appear hypocritical in this light and, in the same way as concerning the backing of Israel, leaves the US and EU appearing as opportunistic and toxic members of the international community of nations, and without hardly a degree of the altruism that might often be heard in the undertones of either of their speeches or grand declarations. The proof, however, is in the pudding as does the expression go, and that proof is long past due to be witnessed from the United States, its President, and its allies.