US Policy toward KSA & Perpetuation of Dependency
During his visit to the United States in March 2018, Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince and the country’s de facto ruler, declared that “Wahhabism” was a tool for carrying out American agendas during the Cold War, and that his country’s foreign policy was subject to these agendas since it was founded in 1932.
These statements of Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) were the key findings of a scientific thesis submitted to obtain a Ph.D. degree in International Relations, at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University, almost ten years ago. The thesis which was submitted in 2009 was titled: “US Policy toward Saudi Arabia: A Study in the Impact of the Religious Dimension”. Following is the complete text of the key results of the thesis:
In the 1930s, the United States officially established a model of strong economic and strategic cooperation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) by virtue of the presence of oil, American personnel, and security and military agreements. In fact, establishment of this model began unofficially at the beginning of the 19th century through the religious missionaries that were supervised and guided by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), which was founded in 1810. Hence, the US policy was able to consolidate its influence in Saudi Arabia to the extent that the Kingdom became its most important strategic ally over the world during the twentieth century. KSA has even become more of a tool for the implementation of US global and regional strategy than an ally that could express disagreement with its other ally if this alliance conflicted with its strategic interests, religious or moral references, or even its position and spiritual influence, especially in light of the KSA special character as the Incubator of the Holy Sites and the cradle of the Islamic message.
This special character of Saudi Arabia has made it a religious and cultural model with an Islamic reference that is different from and even conflicting in many respects with the religious and moral values of the United States (deeply rooted in Judaism and Christianity) – which are mainly characterized by conflict, arrogance and exclusion; not only based on denying the other, but also on seeking their elimination and destruction, out of a doctrine, thought and approach, that the United States has established since its discovery by European travellers.
The Kingdom is not an exception to this rule, as there is no room for the American policy to accept or disagree with the other. However, if it appears that the other party can affect its interests and objectives, then the US must eliminate them through certain tools at the proper time. Therefore, the United States has adopted a precautionary policy toward the Kingdom, based on measuring the level of quantitative accumulation of the Islamic dimension in Saudi politics in the future, and finding out how far it could influence the position of the United States in the Arab and Islamic world. Thus, the US laid the foundations for sources of tension that could be exploited when necessary inside the Kingdom Itself, or within its surrounding countries. In fact, this policy has not been adopted against KSA (as a country), but against the cultural model it has represented – which is based on Islam as a reference framework.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 events, the strategic alliance between the United States and KSA began to falter due to the increasing indications of American intervention in Saudi internal affairs. The United States increasingly became aware of what it believed was a threat to its security – in the nature of the Saudi regime – within the framework of the US vision of the war on terrorism. In fact, the US vision on counterterrorism largely stemmed from a religious reference framework formulated by the religious right wing movements, which reflected on the orientations, issues and tools of the US policy towards Saudi Arabia, in order to achieve US strategic interests in the region. It also reflected on the nature of the relationship between the “religious” dimension and the “interests” dimension in American politics in general, and towards the Islamic world and Saudi Arabia in particular.
Within these considerations, the thesis, “The American Policy toward Saudi Arabia: A Study in the Impact of the Religious Dimension”, stated the following key findings:
First: Foreign policy, as a process, is not only based on the official part played by governmental bodies and institutions, but it also includes the positions of the influential powers in the process of making it, whether they are ideological currents (religious or political) or research centers concerned with foreign policy making. This requires taking into account the nature of the positions of these powers and the extent of their impact when we want to analyze the foreign policy of a country, especially if there are many indicators that these forces exercise a significant influence on some official bodies and institutions.
Second: The influence of the religious dimension on foreign policy is not only a reflection of studying the current reality of foreign policy and its components, but it also extends to many contributions both at the conceptualization level of foreign policy (through analytical and methodological approaches) or at the practice levels (by affecting the components of this policy, introducing new actors, and raising new issues, where the moral and religious dimensions represent the most important axes and approaches – and also through the introduction of a number of moral and religious techniques to be at the forefront of the mechanisms of world countries, especially major ones, while carrying out their foreign policy).
Third: The nature of political culture in American society, and the position of religion therein, as well as the influence of religious and intellectual currents, as well as the religious ideas and beliefs of the political leadership were the most important internal determinants of the influence of the religious dimension in American foreign policy. Religion is the origin of American society, as it is related to the nation’s traditions and national values, giving it a special power. Religion in the United States has set limits for itself: the religious institutions have always remained separated from political institutions, enabling laws to change easily, while old beliefs remained stable. In fact, Christianity has maintained great control over the minds of the American people.
Religious and moral influences have manifested themselves in American politics in many aspects and practices over their historical phases of development, where there were different orientations and policies that emphasized this dimension (either directly or indirectly), whether in terms of religious terminology, or in terms of other terminology and concepts such as “American values,” “American morality,” “Capitalist ideology,” “American culture” or other concepts that may overlap with the concept of religious dimension but they provide the same content.
Fourth: The impact of religion on American foreign policy is not the result of the current stage, and is not also related to the nature of political leadership and the composition of the conservative administration under the George Bush presidency alone, but it extends through various phases of US history. However, what is new is the size of this impact, which has witnessed a great increase compared to all the previous stages. This increase was linked with the nature of the historical situation inside the United States, in light of the September 11 events, the growing influence of religious and right-wing movements on the American society, and the existence of a political leadership ready for responding to this impact and having the capacity to transfer their self-convictions to actual practices. This has revealed a well-established American strategic tradition of expansion and hegemony in a new form based on religious motives that are strongly intertwined with strategic and interest motives.
in this context, we should emphasize that religion in itself is not a source of motivation for conflict and the desire to control, dominate, and eradicate the other, but it depends on how this religion is applied and the foreign policy actors’ interpretation of its texts, tendencies and ends. It also depends on the nature of the roots and experiences of each religion. Thus, we notice that the experience of the Islamic cultural model shows how it reflects a vision of reciprocal understanding and pluralism, whereas the Western cultural model is based on Jewish and Christian traditions which depend in part on conflict and eradication, according to their various applications and experiences.
Therefore, posing the right-wing religious model, represented by the George W. Bush administration (2000-2008), as a pretext for marginalizing the religious dimension of foreign policy, is not logical from the cognitive, intellectual, or political point of view. It is significant to show the difference between the Bush administration model and its supporting currents, and other models with different religious references that contradict the nature of Bush administration’s model – with the importance of highlighting the difference between “religion” in each model, and not just the “religious” component in it.
Fifth: The 11/9 events constituted the largest and most influential factor in terms of its implications on the United States and even on the international relations in the next stage. In fact, it was the prelude to many policies and procedures adopted by the United States against the Arab and Islamic countries, and an opportunity to impose more pressures on these countries, first and foremost the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Islamic model embodied by the Kingdom was the most important dimension that the US pressures addressed in dealing with the Kingdom after the September 11 events. The US administration attempted to contain, marginalize, or dismantle the religious dimension (in its relation with KSA) according to various trends and policies the US administration adopted at the time.
The growing influence of the religious dimension in American politics was the result of many considerations that constituted determinants of the rise of this influence.
Some were liked with the American interior, represented in:
– The position of religion in American political culture,
– The rise of the impact of many religious and political right-wing streams in the American society,
– The personal beliefs of President G.W. Bush.
Others were linked to a number of external considerations, represented in:
– The vision of values that govern American trends – based on Jewish and Christian roots, with a conflict-seeking and arrogant nature – seeks to dominate and impose its model of values and culture on different religions, cultures and civilizations, under the pretext of their missionary duty.
Within this missionary duty, the religious dimension is placed within one fabric with other dimensions, not in conflicting binaries, as some attempt to portray, to claim the rise of the religious dimension at one stage, and its decline at another stage. This is not the case for the policies of major powers, which are based on combining different dimensions, according to its intellectual reference, moral tendencies and strategic interests.
Sixth: The American policy is not only the creation of official departments, institutions and bodies, but it also includes a wide range of non-official bodies and institutions, as well as a wide group of thinkers who provide the necessary intellectual defence of the American values. For example, when the United States chooses to stay out of a certain dispute, it still keeps its right to intervene in some future conflicts, according to those thinkers whose biographies reveal that there are interconnection between the worlds of culture and science, government, and large corporations. If academic careers in international relations or strategic studies are linked to jobs within the US government, it is difficult for them to risk the role of such thinkers in foreign policy making. Thus, the relationship between culture and thought on the one hand and policy making on the other seems normal and correct for government officials.
In the context of this influence, the pervading negative attitudes towards the Kingdom after the events of September 11, 2001 found its support in the existence of a network of intellectual currents, research centers and human rights organizations that are anti-Saudi in American society. However, the public relations campaign that the Kingdom launched in the wake of the events of September, 2011 within the American society failed to contain, or even change their directions. Meanwhile, positive positions towards KSA were limited to a number of brief statements, but of a diplomatic nature, to maintain the minimum requirements for the stability of the relationship between the two countries. This indicates that the strategic alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia was not enough to form a positive image of the kingdom in the American society, especially amid the non-official activities that were influential in making and directing the US policy – primarily governed by intellectual, cultural and religious anti-Saudi orientations. This reflects the influence of the moral and religious dimensions in shaping the American policy toward the Kingdom, and the increasing influence of the American interior in this policy, which extended to the Saudi interior via the political policy, representing the interconnection between the two parties.
Seventh: The war of “ideas” represented the general framework and main engine of American attitudes towards the domestic issues in Saudi Arabia, during the period of the study. The war started with demands that the Kingdom should undergo a radical change in various fields, which would lead to profound changes in the intellectual and cultural environment, as well as in the cultural specificity of the Kingdom. Such targets would not be achieved except through creating a state of public controversy about this cultural environment and its underlying beliefs and references. Education, religious freedom, and political and community reform were the most important channels around which US policy focused during this period.
However, despite the US stances toward the religious freedom violations in KSA, the US administration took no action to address these violations, but only tended to postpone the sanctions that could be imposed on the Gulf country as a “state of particular concern”, according to the Religious Freedom Act. In fact, this postponement was in line with the nature of US policy and its priorities at every stage. The US administration found that approving such sanctions would undermine its strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia and embarrass the Saudi regime. Also, such move could push KSA adopt some measures that might be inconsistent with the interests and orientations of the United States, where KSA is a key partner, such as the war on terrorism, maintaining regional balances, and facing the repercussions of the global financial crisis. It is to be mentioned that the United States was among the most affected countries of the financial crisis during G.W. Bush’s second term, and it was believed that the Kingdom could effectively contribute to reducing repercussions of the crisis on the US economy.
Although the US administration practiced pressures on many Arab countries and put forward a number of initiatives related to political reform, however these pressures and initiatives were useless. Anyway, the US pressures were restricted to press releases, and even some US officials hailed what they called “the efforts of political reform in the Kingdom”. On the other hand, the US non-official positions were critical of the Kingdom, its cultural model, and its political system. Some US voices even called for dividing the Kingdom into several countries, to be easier to control. This emphasizes that there is a powerful and influential stream within the American society that considers the Kingdom, its economic potential, its religious authority, and its cultural model as a major challenge to the security and stability of the United States. Such anti-Saudi US bodies used to set plans for dealing with such challenge both at present and in the future – to be carried out as soon as there are appropriate international circumstances and a US political will– as happened in the neo-conservative plans and theses which were prepared in the 1980s and 1990s, but were put into effect in the early years of the 21st century.
Eighth: The war on terrorism constituted the dominant framework of the American policy toward the regional and international issues related to Saudi Arabia during the time of this study, and this was a major consequence of the events of September 2001. Due to the significance of the war on terrorism, it was linked to many other issues that the US policy was concerned with such as the charitable work and funding of terrorism, the Iraqi issue, as well as the traditional issues of the US policy in the region, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Gulf security and the regional balance in the Middle East. .
All these issues have been the focus of the interaction between the United States and the Kingdom; and many political, economic, security, cultural and cultural dimensions have intertwined together. Among these dimensions, the impact of the religious dimension in US policy toward the Kingdom became prominent, both on the level of orientations or policies. In fact, “The elimination of terrorism” was linked with the “elimination of Islam”, and the “control of charitable work” was linked with the “elimination of the Islamic duty of Zakat and reduction of alms”. Also, the “invasion of Iraq” was linked with the “realization of the prophecies of the Bible”.
Through analyzing these issues, we can state that they have been a priority in US policy toward the Kingdom compared to other domestic issues inside the Kingdom. In raising domestic issues, the United States aimed to pressure the Kingdom to conform to US attitudes on foreign issues and to be in line with the objectives it seeks to achieve. The United States did not seek real reform within the Kingdom, or to conduct a change in its educational curricula. Because the United States knows that intervention in these issues would raise many tensions in light of the conservative nature of Saudi society, it only wanted to send a message to the Saudi regime that its internal issues are not far from concern, and that they can be used to intervene in the Kingdom’s conditions not only through the official US policy, but also through its non-official policy, its tools, and its multi-track channels.
The US pressures have produced many concurrences between Saudi policy and US policy toward international and regional issues of common concern. In fact, KSA has been more of a tool in managing these issues than a strategic ally to the United States. The result of this pressure has been more prominent in the case of charitable work, where US-Saudi joint committees were formed to scrutinize, monitor, and restructure the Saudi charitable work, not only outside the Kingdom, but also at home.
The kingdom was also a tool used by the United States to create a balance with the Iranian role in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine; and a tool for settling the situation in Iraq, resolving differences between the Palestinian factions, so that Iran would not be able to contain them; and also a tool in the sectarian conflicts that the United States tried to provoke in the region within the framework of its policy of religious and sectarian fragmentation (both among regional countries, such as the sectarian conflict between Iran on the one hand and the Arab countries on the other, or between Sunnis and Shiites in many Arab countries, such as Iraq and Lebanon.) In fact, the sectarian issue is also present within the Kingdom itself, and can be used whenever the United States would like to raise and move.
The sectarian issue was the most important tool that the US policy relied on to manage the traditional issues related to the Kingdom, such as Gulf security and regional balance, as well as the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict, where the US used the kingdom as a tool through many channels, like introducing initiatives on the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict (2002 Initiative), the settlement of the conflict between Iraqi factions (The Mecca Agreement, October 2006), the reconciliation between the Palestinian factions (the Mecca Agreement, February 2007) and the non-official normalization with the Jews (the Interfaith Initiative).
All these are new roles in Saudi politics, which were not existing in previous stages of its development, except for some few cases, such as the 1973 oil embargo and the Taif Agreement signed to settle the Lebanese civil war in 1989.
However, the US pressure on KSA was less severe during the second term of President G. W. Bush than in the first term due to several considerations, including: the decline in the tendency to revenge, after the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq; the relative stability of the situation in Iraq; and the increasing importance of the Kingdom in facing the crisis of the Iranian nuclear program and the repercussions of the global economic crisis, when the United States was one of the most affected countries by these repercussions.
Ninth: It is not correct to say that the United States depended on an only an ideological vision in dealing with the Arab world. In fact, the United States also adopted a clear pragmatic vision of its interests in the Arab world within the framework of a clearer strategic vision of its global interests. Therefore, the US action before the 11/9 attacks was mostly pragmatic, and was commensurate with the characteristics of the state, the political system and the American elite. Through this approach, the United States found out that the Arab world is full of contradictions that can be easily used to formulate a policy capable of achieving its strategic interests. The changes in the world system in general and the United States in particular in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted the US to change its pragmatic approach and replace it with another that stems from a clear and integrated ideological vision. In fact, this vision had been formulated by a very extreme right-wing parties before it was revealed – not created – after the 11/9 attacks.
In its quest to impose its cultural model, and link the realization of this model with its missionary role over the world, the United States adopted a dual strategy of religious/value and interest/strategic dimensions. The two dimensions have never been absent or marginalized through the various stages of the development of the United States – whether this was within the United States (by imposing them on the various ethnicities and nationalities of American society) or through the US expansion abroad – which was not initiated by using the huge military or economic machine enjoyed by the United States, but by using the tools of soft power such as culture, thought, religious missionaries, cultural institutes, and educational institutions. Afterwards, tools of hard power were activated, specifically with the developments of World War I.
Tenth: Whatever interpretations – both for and against – were of the influence of the religious dimension in American policy, we can say that this dimension was strongly present as a frame of reference for the American policy. If religion in US policy is not a direct source of laws and has only a little impact on the formation of public opinion, yet it directs the society’s customs, values, and vision about life, and organizes the state through many institutions. If religion does not participate effectively in governance, it comes at the forefront of the political institutions that regulate the political process internally. Also, the US foreign policy depends on religion in formulating and determining its orientations, as one of its tools, and then a reference framework.
Meanwhile, we have to emphasize the complicated and intertwined nature of international relations, particularly the foreign policy. We cannot say that there is one interpretation for their trends and policies, relying on only one factor or preferring one factor to another. We should also take into account the priority of the impact of some considerations, depending on the nature of the stage of that these relations and policies are undergoing and the changes and developments they are experiencing.