Last week my Bloomberg opinion colleague Eli Lake asked whether Democrats want to maintain the alliance with Saudi Arabia. This question should also be posed in reverse: Does Saudi Arabia want to maintain the alliance with the U.S. rather than just Trump administration?
The Saudi government is not doing enough to protect the relationship. It’s drawing bipartisan criticism such as the recent congressional vote to end involvement in the Yemen war. But worse, it’s becoming a partisan issue between Republicans and Democrats.
That’s incredibly dangerous. The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been resilient precisely because it’s indispensable.
The Persian Gulf is still the jugular vein of the oil-reliant global economy and strategically crucial to U.S. global strategy.
Americans could walk away from the Gulf. But that would mean essentially abandoning the project of international leadership altogether.
If the U.S. wants to stay, it needs a main local partner.
One option is Iran, which disagrees with the U.S. on almost everything. The second is Saudi Arabia, which largely wants the same outcomes the U.S. does.
It’s not much of a choice for American leaders.
It’s even less of a conundrum for Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia needs a global patron to secure its interests. Russia and China couldn’t do that even if they wanted to.
For now, only Washington can. So, the Saudis don’t have any real alternative either.
That’s why this alliance has been so durable. It survived the Arab-Israeli wars, the 1973 oil embargo, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The current crisis isn’t happening in a vacuum, but it’s also not being propelled by such momentous developments.
Instead it’s driven by mutual misperceptions in the triangular relationship among Republicans, Democrats and Saudis.
In the Trump era, everything is becoming polarized. There’s even an effort to turn the ultimate foreign policy consensus, the “special relationship” with Israel, into a partisan standoff between Republicans and Democrats.
But the Israelis have a solid bipartisan support base. The Saudis don’t.
This crisis has its origins in the Obama era, when the Saudis became alarmed at U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran, reaction to the Arab Spring protests, and Obama’s statements about “free riders” and how they should “share the Middle East” with Iran.
When the Trump administration began, both Washington and Riyadh reveled in the supposed “reset” capped off by Trump’s first overseas trip, which was to Saudi Arabia.
Since then, both the administration and the Saudi government have been treating the relationship as a personalized one with the president and his family.
The Saudis are understandably gratified by the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
But, in the meanwhile, the message has been inadvertently communicated to Riyadh that the real partnership is not with the U.S. in general but with the Trump administration or, at best, the Republicans.
That’s incredibly dangerous because Democrats are integral to American decision-making and are already starting to regain government authority.
The biggest danger for the Saudis is that Democrats will come to forget that the alliance began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and has been supported by almost all of their own leaders for many decades.
Instead they may come to view the alliance with Saudi Arabia as a Republican, Trumpian error that should be corrected.
Having concluded this, they may then look for the alternative Democratic policy and, remembering only Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, conclude that their party stands for outreach to Tehran.
Already there are loud voices on the Democratic left strongly implying a preference for partnering with Tehran over Riyadh.
Unfortunately, some Saudis are acting as if that was a predictable or standard Democratic attitude. It’s not. It’s new and dangerous.
Democrats, and even some Republicans, are correctly horrified by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year, are concerned about human rights and the treatment of dissidents and women’s rights activists, and are raising serious concerns about the war in Yemen.
That doesn’t make any of them anti-Saudi. It means there are some serious issues that need to be dealt with on both sides of the equation to fix a fraying friendship.
Saudi Arabia shouldn’t misinterpret legitimate criticisms and concerns as a rejection of the alliance. And it’s especially troubling that some Saudi media in both English and Arabic seem to be falling into this partisan trap by attacking Democrats as such. Arresting American citizens doesn’t help either.
Instead, Saudi Arabia should act swiftly to ensure this entirely avoidable crisis is reversed and the relationship repaired. The best way to do that is to engage with Republicans and Democrats, and take criticisms seriously, not personally.
Otherwise, Riyadh may find that its alliance with Washington is supported by only one party or faction that may not be in power much longer.