President Donald Trump has succeeded because he has a sense of what normal folks believe about a range of issues. In one area, however, he has gone seriously awry. He constantly subordinates American interests and values to Saudi Arabia, a brutally repressive and aggressive regime that has promoted Islamism and enabled terrorism worldwide.
Most recently, the president claimed that Riyadh had “already deposited $1 billion in the bank” for American forces deployed to protect the royals. Other officials said that $500 million so far had been paid. The Pentagon would not confirm any particular amount, but spokeswoman Rebecca Rebarich said, “Discussions are ongoing to formalize a mechanism for future contributions that offset the cost of these deployments.”
The president should stop treating American military personnel as mercenaries, hirelings of pampered Saudi princes whose own people are not interested in risking their lives for their oppressors. Washington selling military services to any nation is a bad idea — but especially to the Saudis.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is a bizarre throwback to another age. An absolute monarchy, the royals long ago made a deal with the mullahs. The former support the latter promoting Wahhabism, a particularly intolerant, demeaning, and hateful variant of Islam, around the world. In return, the clerics teach Saudis that they must obey (and finance!) the princes. In this way Riyadh has promoted a global Islamic Dark Age, spurring the growth of vicious Islamist thought. Saudi money has established a radical European beachhead in Kosovo. Mosques in America also receive Riyadh’s money. Despite his social reforms, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has yet to dismantle the Wahhabist propaganda machine.
The Saudis always use their cash and connections to avoid accountability for anything. After 9/11, the Bush administration facilitated the evacuation of a planeload of Saudis even as Americans were stranded around the country and world when all U.S. flights, except for the royals’ plane, were grounded. In mid-January, the FBI reported that the bin Salman regime “almost certainly” helps its citizens escape prosecution for serious crimes, ranging from rape to manslaughter. The agency complained that Riyadh was “undermining the U.S. judicial process.”
Worst is the regime’s reckless and destabilizing foreign policy. The war against Yemen was simple aggression in order to reinstate a pliant leader. That attack — which triggered a war about to enter its fifth year — created a humanitarian crisis and greatly enhanced Iran’s influence in a nation neighboring the KSA. Riyadh backed a repressive, minority Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, which represses an angry Shia majority, creating a highly explosive situation. The Saudis launched a campaign to isolate Qatar, which forced the latter to expand economic relations with Tehran and initiate ties with the Turkish military to survive. The Saudis backed Islamist radicals in the Syrian civil war and are funding the Libyan civil war, now entering its ninth year. Then there was the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, with a failed attempt to force his resignation. The U.S. has effectively underwritten this hideous, counterproductive record.
Imagine if Iran was guilty of such conduct!
The final insult to America is Riyadh’s virulent repression of Saudis at home. MbS has, to his credit, begun to relax some social restrictions — while jailing those who pushed for the very same reforms. For instance, his government detained and imprisoned women who protested the ban on female drivers. Indeed, the decision to punish those who advocated change even after it was adopted by the government illustrates how intolerant and vicious the royal regime has become.
There is essentially no liberty in the KSA in two essential areas: politics and religion.
Freedom House rates the Kingdom at the very bottom of every category: freedom, political rights, and civil liberties. Overall the House of al-Saud collects just seven of 100 possible points. Freedom House noted,
Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on extensive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power.
The State Department knows what the royal employers of America’s military are up to. State’s latest human rights report on the Kingdom is 59 pages long — with scarcely a word of praise.
The administration detailed the human rights abuses, including
unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced renditions; forced disappearances; and torture of prisoners and detainees by government agents. There were also reports of arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; criminalization of libel, censorship, and site blocking; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and movement; severe restrictions of religious freedom citizens lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and prohibition of trade unions.
MbS even rounded up bloggers and journalists after the launch of the economic and political campaign against Qatar because they failed to shower the ruling al-Sauds in praise. Silence was insufficient. Lavish, unquestioning praise was required.
Religious liberty is similarly restricted, that is, nonexistent. Not a single church, synagogue, or temple operates in the Kingdom. The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom continued to label Saudi Arabia a Country of Particular Concern. Promises of reform have been made, but, the Commission warned, so far the regime “maintained a ban on non-Muslim public religious observance and continued to arrest, detain, and harass individuals for dissent, blasphemy, and apostasy. The Saudi government continued to violate the rights of Shi’a Muslims and non-Muslim minorities, and to advocate a doctrine of religious intolerance.” Indeed, “after more than 15 years of incremental progress, the Saudi government showed backsliding on improvements to its textbooks that continued to propagate intolerance and advocate violence against religious minorities, women, and the [gay] community.”
In its report on religious freedom, State made similar points. Quite simply, “freedom of religion is not provided under the law.” The law criminalizes many things, “including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.” Even Muslims, minority Shiites, suffered serious repression. And despite MbS’s much-heralded reforms, the religious police, or so-called Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, still “monitored social behavior.” The KSA is one of the very few Muslim nations to completely ban other faiths.
Yet for this regime, so hostile to U.S. interests and values, the Trump administration is hiring out America’s soldiers. Like the other Persian Gulf states, the Saudi royal family pays outsiders to do most of the serious work. About 30 percent of the population is foreign, with expatriates doing the work Saudis prefer not to do (barely 1 percent are Western). Most important on that list is the military. The regime purchases lots of fancy airplanes and pays Washington to teach its flyers, like the one who killed three Americans at Pensacola’s Naval Air Station. But the royals fear their personnel are better at slaughtering Yemeni civilians than defeating Iranian irregulars.
President Trump knows better than to bow to the Saudis. During the campaign, he criticized the royals. But when he made Riyadh his first foreign visit, he appeared to come away bewitched. Some observers blamed the impact of the fabled sword dance, which he participated in. Others pointed to the Sauronesque orb at the new counter-terrorism center, which he visited. Perhaps he peered into the modern Evil Eye when no one was watching him.
Whatever the cause, his willingness to subordinate U.S. interests and values to Saudi Arabia violates his promise to follow an America-first policy. It is well past time to kick the royals off the U.S. defense dole.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.