Has the U.S.-Saudi Relationship Reached Its Breaking Point?

In light of the recent attack by a Saudi air force pilot at an American naval air base, it is crucial to reinvestigate the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia. Although President Trump placed no blame on the Saudi regime for this possible terrorist act, the three American lives that were taken as a result may be the catalyst for change in the nature of U.S.-Saudi relations.

Benjamin Moore
January 03, 2020

Although unwavering deference to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a practice that began under the Trump presidency, defence of the controversial relationship has been exacerbated to the point of incredulity under the leadership of America’s 45th president.

The brutal attack which took place on 6 December by a Saudi air force pilot in an American naval air base, one of 852 Saudi nationals receiving military training in the United States, was a tragic one, killing three Americans and labelled by U.S. officials as a possible act of terrorism.

Despite these vicious killings, President Trump has been uncharacteristically placid, his infamous condemnation of those who disrespect the U.S. muted. Instead, the President’s immediate reaction was to assure the American public that “they are devastated in Saudi Arabia”, seemingly seeking to mitigate any suggestion that the Saudi government would be held to account.

As noted by The New York Times, what was pointedly absent from Trump’s extenuation of the Kingdom’s reaction to the attack was assurances that they would aid in the investigation, that they would help in identifying the motives of the suspect, or the deficiencies in the vetting process that enabled the rogue pilot to enter training at the naval air base in the first place.

In a time when the president is unhesitatingly quick to criticise international allies, it must be asked why he, and, indeed, the United States more broadly, remains reverential to a nation whose military is credibly accused of multiple human rights abuses, whose leader is linked to the murder of journalists, and whose disastrous war of regime change in Yemen continues to rage on.

In previous decades, the obvious reason was because of oil. As a global leader in petroleum consumption, close ties with one of the world’s largest oil exporters made sense for the United States. All manner of sins could have a blind eye turned to them so long as the pipeline remained open and flowing.

Despite pledges from President Nixon to reduce America’s need for foreign oil in the 1970s following the infamous gas embargo, America’s oil consumption increased throughout the 1980s and beyond. Only recently has America become a net exporter of oil as its needs becomes gradually more self-sustaining, a feat that President Trump is proud of as he boasted in a September 2019 Tweet, "we don't need Middle Eastern oil & gas." 

If the United States is witnessing a decrease in the historic dependence on foreign oil, why then does an acquiescence to condemn Riyadh remain? Following the attack on the naval air base, why haven’t there been calls from the President for a ‘total and complete shutdown’ of Saudis entering the country until American representatives can “figure out what the hell is going on”?

Very few are surprised by Trump’s double-standard on this issue, growing increasingly accustomed to his hypocrisy on the international stage. As a businessman (and president), Trump values above all else what he interprets as a good deal for the United States, and the Saudis are his most valuable customers, moral implications be damned. He regularly cites the enormous economic value for the American economy of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, crediting the country for providing the United States with “a million and a half jobs.” He has also vetoed numerous congressional attempts to retrench American assistance to the Kingdom should it hinder this transactional agreement.

Saudi Arabia is also perceived as a counterbalance to Iran in the Middle East as it struggles to contain Iranian influence and aggression. This stance has been encouraged by the United States, which views Iran as a destabilising force that could threaten its own regional interests. Saudi Arabia is likewise supported by Israel, a key American ally, which views the encroachment of Iranian power towards its borders as a moral threat to its own existence. But should Saudi Arabia’s hostile stance towards Iran allow for the mollification of its heinous acts elsewhere? Conventional wisdom would determine that it does not, but we are not dealing with a conventional president.

Putting aside the debatable merits or otherwise of Trump’s foreign policy views, it remains unclear what could jeopardise the viability of this relationship for the commander-in-chief that he would not be willing to excuse. The brutal slaying of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, which many interpreted as a step too far, proved inconsequential for the current administration, despite credible evidence from American intelligence findings that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was linked to the killing.

There are encouraging signs, however, that the cosy relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia under Trump is not invulnerable as it receives bipartisan criticism from both major parties. In the wake of the shootings, Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) described members of the Trump administration as “PR agents for the Saudis”. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) conveyed similar sentiments when he stated that the attack “has to inform our on-going relationship with Saudi Arabia.” Senator Rand Paul, another Republican, wrote on Twitter that “It’s way past time to quit arming and training the Saudis.”

Indeed, it appears that an attack against American soldiers on American soil has bridged the ideological gap between the two parties at a time when they are further divided than at any moment in recent memory. It is possible that a veritable rebuke of Trump’s fondness for the Saudi Kingdom may materialise in spite of his notorious hypocrisy, but that remains to be seen.

Over the course of Trump’s presidency, it has become glaringly apparent that he is not easily persuaded by the opinions of his detractors, or even those of his closest advisors. Although bipartisan support for a regression of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States., including a revaluation of its training exercises in partnership with Riyadh, has yet to venture towards veto-proof measures, some are hopeful that this potential act of terrorism, if it is so determined to be by an investigation, may prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in this increasingly flimsy relationship.

Benjamin Moore is a master's graduate of International Relations from Dublin City University in Ireland, currently working in the Taipei Representative Office in Ireland. His areas of interest and research include U.S. foreign policy and 20th century American history.