The Terribly Annoyed Saudis

Official Washington’s pols and pundits fret whenever Saudi Arabia or Israel complains, but those “allies” are charting a dangerous course for the U.S. that President Obama seems incapable of changing, writes Michael Brenner.

By Michael Brenner

A staple of commentary about the fraught politics of the Middle East, especially the Gulf, is the wrenching torments of the Saudi royal family as they face unprecedented challenges. The essence of their plaint is that they are fending off a host of threats not of their own making and no longer can count on the United States as a reliable protector and moral supporter.

This theme has been picked up by analysts both in the region and here in the United States. The claim on our empathy is felt by many. Most often, the KSA and its empathizers have as their point of anxious departure the Iran nuclear deal, which is interpreted as some sort of American abandonment of their traditional ally.

President Barack Obama concludes a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room of the White House in advance of his trip to Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Germany, April 19, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama concludes a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room of the White House in advance of his trip to Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Germany, April 19, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Riyadh lobbied hard for a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic and was keenly disappointed by that landmark accord. President Obama’s visit to Riyadh was designed to alleviate these strains and to reinvigorate the supposed alliance. Apparently, he may follow up with a proposal for some sort of security understanding between NATO and the GCC.

There is a contrapuntal theme – but struck so sotto voce as to be almost inaudible. That is the line that conveys an antithetical conception of the problem and the challenge in apposition to the Saudi-centric narrative, which dominates the diplomatic and intellectual discourse.

With a measure of detachment, it becomes starkly clear that the conventional approach only makes sense from a parochial Saudi vantage point; indeed, that of the new leadership of the semi-senile King Salman and the ruthless, power-hungry Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed who have pursued a series of reckless policies since taking power. They went out of their way to demonstrate their anger at Obama by refraining from welcoming him on arrival at the airport in violation of all protocol.

The House of Saud’s overriding preoccupation is their parlous legitimacy as rulers of Arabia. It is the pivot of everything they do. They are keenly aware that it hinges on their acknowledged status as custodians of the Holy Sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina, which they seized by force in the 1920s without even a semblance of consultation.

Hence, the crucial alliance with the leaders of the Wahhabi movement. It is that blessing that endows the royal family with a semblance of authority. A number of propositions follow. They cannot afford to be outflanked at the fundamentalist end of the Sunni Islamic continuum.

Therefore, their aggressive promotion of an ultra-orthodox creed. Therefore, their strenuous efforts to coopt the proliferating jihadist movement that they themselves have encouraged. Therefore, the compulsion to present themselves as protector of the faithful against heretics (Shia) and all enemies of Islam. Therefore, their staunch opposition to the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring.

Therefore, their antipathy toward Iran whose own brand of Islamism threatens to foment unrest among Saudi Arabia’s large Shi’ite minority. Therefore, the goal of having the United States serve all of these ends by providing unqualified military backing regarding Iran, Assad’s secular regime, and the Houthis in Yemen.

Therefore, there resentment at Washington’s bringing to power in Iraq a Shi’ite dominated government. Therefore, their demand that the U.S. not cooperate with Shi’ite militias in the campaign against ISIL. Therefore, the ancillary goal of ensuring that the American’s cease their proselytization in the name of democracy in the Islamic world. Therefore, the aim of modeling the Saudi-American relationship on the Israeli model.

The current ruling Sudari branch of the royal family is more aggressive in pushing this strategy than were their predecessors while bent on establishing a Sudari line of succession. That claim gains strength if the Salmans can deliver on their audacious agenda.

Saudi King Salman meets with President Barack Obama at Erga Palace during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Saudi King Salman meets with President Barack Obama at Erga Palace during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Why does it serve United States’ interests to adopt the Saudi line that Iran is an implacably hostile force that sows instability throughout the Middle East and with whom any form of normalization is dangerous? Why does it serve our interests to act in a manner that strongly suggests that we have chosen the Sunni side in Islam’s sectarian confrontation?

Why does it serve our interests to participate in the bloody Saudi-led assault on Yemen which has led to a vast strengthening of the Al Qaeda branch which Washington long has judged to be the most menacing? Why do we tolerate the Saudi-led forces fighting side-by-side with Al Qaeda units? Why should we assiduously avoid even raising the issue of Saudi and friends’ backing of ISIL and their promotion of al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Shem in Syria – against the backdrop of aggressive projection of their anti-Western Wahhabist creed across the Islamic world?

Why should we give priority to removing Assad when his downfall will bring to power violent Salafist groups of the most extreme kind whom the KSA now see as shock troops in their war against Iranian led Shi’ism?

Other than narrow Saudi interests, the other stakeholder who sees advantage in the existing strategy is Israel – with whom the KAS now is in tacit alliance. Each demands obeisance from the United States despite their high degree of dependence on the American super-power.

Washington, in turns, accords them deference and appeasement. By any reasonable objective standard, that is illogical. Yet, there are no answers given to the questions asked above. They are not posed in political circles, they are ignored by the media, and the commentariat only rarely raises a timid hand.

The Obama administration restricts itself to making ad hominum declarations on individual issues that confuse more than they explain. If there is a coherent justification for what we are doing, and not doing, it is well-nigh time that we heard it. Preferably, before the President digs us an even deeper hole in Riyadh.

Instead, there is every indication that such a course reversal has been neither presented nor debated – much less accepted within the Obama administration. That is a sad commentary on this administration’s intellectual sclerosis and the President’s callowness. Always lacking the gumption to stand up to Netanyahu and the Israelis, he (and his successor) now must contend with a partnership that adds Saudi gold to the flow of influence in Washington.

The complexity of the dilemmas that the White House has created for itself is further exacerbated by the dismaying truth that most of the main actors are either emotionally unbalanced or monomaniacal fantasists: al-Baghdadi; the Salmans – father and son; Erdogan; Netanyahu.

The most level-headed and reasoned is Putin – whom Obama shuns in the conviction that a new Cold War is inescapable. Having designed a field of action sown with mines and offering no escape hatches, the temptation to temporize until retirement day may be irresistible.

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]

10 comments for “The Terribly Annoyed Saudis

  1. May 1, 2016 at 15:32

    The Saudis are certainly the most dangerous allies that the United States has. This vastly rich absolutist dictatorship-monarchy which faces no accountability at home is liable to do anything for the simple fact that they can. They’ve shown no limit in their appetite for bloody foreign adventures as of late – in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Libya. They’ve claimed the right to buy a nuclear bomb from Pakistan. And nearly every Muslim country must necessarily dance to their tune because they can spend and hire freely – either on the carrot, or the stick.

    We have only to look at their acts in pursuing sectarian war in the Muslim world. Ever since the bombing of the Golden Domed Mosque in Iraq when the Sunni-Shia war first ignited in Iraq, the Saudis have followed a near genocidal policy in Syria and Iraq.

    They have reach from the top of the US social hierarchy with their relationship with the Bushes. They have reach in their ability to buy into almost any organization they wish (see their interests in media organizations ranging from CNN to Twitter). Not to mention their sheer ability to corrupt our political system in the same way the Israel Lobby has – by flooding Washington DC with huge amounts of cash.

    The Saudis are another US-created Frankenstein monster but with close ties to the US elite. The only similar relationship I can think of was the Shah of Iran’s relationship with super-powerful Americans like CIA director Richard Helms. And we all know what a disaster that turned out to be, and the US did everything we could to prop him up only to see him fall in one of the most embarrassing episodes ever in US history – the hostage crisis. And that lead to an enmity with Iran that has lasted ever since.

    What will happens when the Saudi Regime finally falls? Can the US stand to be without its petro-dollar partner in crime?

  2. J'hon Doe II
    April 23, 2016 at 13:45

    Exclusive Interview: Seymour Hersh Dishes on Saudi Oil Money Bribes and the Killing of Osama Bin Laden

    By Ken Klippenstein / AlterNet
    April 20, 2016

    Hersh’s new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, is a corrective to the official account of the war on terror. Drawing from accounts of a number of high-level military officials, Hersh challenges a number of commonly accepted narratives: that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the Sarin gas attack in Ghouta; that the Pakistani government didn’t know Bin Laden was in the country; that the late ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in a solely diplomatic capacity; and that Assad did not want to give up his chemical weapons until the U.S. called on him to do so.

    Ken Klippenstein: In the book you describe Saudi financial support for the compound in which Osama Bin Laden was being kept in Pakistan. Was that Saudi government officials, private individuals or both?

  3. Bob Van Noy
    April 23, 2016 at 09:39

    “Yet, there are no answers given to the questions asked above. They are not posed in political circles, they are ignored by the media, and the commentariat only rarely raises a timid hand.”
    Michael Brenner

    So true, Professor Brenner, excepting this very site where there is accurate reporting and logical analysis of “our contemporary, neocon created dilemma”. Even more exasperating, we are faced with the very real possibility that politically, it is getting even worse…

  4. Helen Marshall
    April 22, 2016 at 21:15

    Once Hillary gets in, we are likely to have a new Hot War…there’s no indication she has any interest in restraining the likes of Victoria Nuland in her drive to crush Russia…

    Meantime, it is good to see the Israeli-Saudi connection made…

  5. John
    April 22, 2016 at 21:13

    The shackles and chains of slavery….The US dollar pegged to OPEC… aka petrodollar……The shackles and chains of slavery…The US citizens pegged to the god of Israel, Yahweh….bless Israel or be cursed by Yahweh….What is this scam, worse than a very bad low budget B movie

    • J'hon Doe II
      April 23, 2016 at 12:59


      Abraham’s son

      Ishmael is a figure in the Tanakh and the Qur’an and was Abraham’s first son according to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

      Ishmael was born to Abraham’s and Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar.

      Born: 1911 BC, Canaan
      Died: Mecca, Saudi Arabia
      Parents: Abraham, Hagar
      Children: Nebaioth, Basemath, Dumah, Hadad, Adbeel, Tema, Naphish, Mishma, Jetur, Massa, Kedar, Mibsam, Kedemah
      Siblings: Isaac
      Nephews: Jacob, Esau

      Ishmael – progenitor of race called Arab

  6. Peter Loeb
    April 22, 2016 at 16:18


    The major premises of Michael Brenner’s analysis seem if they exist at all.
    The latter is entirely surmise, no conclusion.

    The “Israeli model” fares well in the United States. If Hillory Clinton
    becomes President of the US it will become the center of all policy.

    There was no reason for Obama to visit Saudi Arabia at all.There is
    no reason for this President to visit our “European allies”. There
    is no reason for the US and its politicians and bureaucrats to
    speak of Iran’s “destabilizing? behaviors”. It is on the countrary
    the US and its “allies” who are using an greement with a sovereign
    nation into a weapon to destroy it.

    Does this include the fabricated evidence by Israel’s intelligence
    Mossad to make it seem like Iran is a nuclear threat. (See Gareth

    It is precisely this kind of unilateral demonizing of Israeli enemies
    which we should become accustomed to in future US

    At the least, it takes away all international scrutiny of the outrageous
    crimes of Israel and the US.

    If Palestine is recognized as a nation, perhaps the Shanghai
    Cooperation Organization (SCO) should contract with it
    to build enormous military bases there. This would provide
    Palestinians with employment opportunities, The US
    has hundreds of such bases around the globe which do not
    seem to be subject to any UN decisions whatsoever. If they
    were, if they were in any sense deemed provocative.They
    Have become a perfectly acceptable feature of international
    relations. The issue is whether Russia and China would
    want to make such an investment.

    More practically, until Israel and Saudi Arabia come under
    the same regulations as Iran with membership in the
    Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty(NPT), random and
    complete inspections by the UN’s IAEA in order to
    completely eliminate the capacity of Israel to
    make nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction.
    Such proposals have often been passed in the UN General
    Assembly and blocked thereafter by the US. Perhaps
    such radical suggestion implying that Israel be held
    to the same laws and practice as other nations
    would be considered “anti-semitic”. It is not
    considered provocative for Israel to threaten war
    against Iran as it has done. One must presume
    that Israel’s divinity makes it immune to to claims
    for others.

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  7. Brad Owen
    April 22, 2016 at 10:46

    well, until I hear something better, I’ll keep believing that these actions are coordinated at the higher, “Imperial” level and “over the heads” of the Nation-States named: USA, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Russia. USA, Saudi Arabia, Israel all figure prominently in the successors-to-Cecil Rhodes Plan for a New Western Roman Empire that includes; #1. a colonial Africa (whose Right Flank must be guarded from Asian westward expansion across the narrow Middle East Isthmus), #2. A re-captured “Lost Colony” USA, #3. a colonial South America (kept-in-line by joint USA/Spanish/Poruguese influences and manipulations), #4 retaining the Loyal Subjects of “The CommonWealth” by not flaunting the Imperial nature of this operation, deflecting blame on USA, Israeli influence, Saudi influence, ANYTHING but Imperial emanations from City-of-London (sometimes referred to as Londonistan). Russia is slated for Imperial absorption into an allied New Eastern Roman Empire, hence all of the crazy “anti-Putin/anti-Russia” crap (prepared to abandon Siberia and India to an Asian Empire; no Land Wars on the Asian Continent; lesson learned from Korea and Vietnam). Turkey will either be absorbed or rendered a “Wall of Chaos” to stave off Asian Empire westward advances; everyone concerned remembers “The Golden Horde”. Now THIS is an Empire upon which the Sun ever sets.

    • Brad Owen
      April 22, 2016 at 11:13

      I guess one can also say “The Golden Hoard” since China’s so hungry for gold.

  8. Joe Tedesky
    April 22, 2016 at 10:40

    Recently, with the 60 Minutes report about the Saudi 9/11 involvement referencing the missing 28 pages, it makes one wonder to where all of this news is heading. My guess this story will end up somewhere next to the CIA torture news that was swept away, and never to be heard from again. Probably this is a new way of flushing out the system, and keeping the critics at bay. A sane move would be for the U.S. to partner up with Putin, and together squash these terrorists who trouble our worldly societies. Yet, this will never happen since the likes of the Rothschild’s won’t have it. Love your articles here Professor Brenner, keep it going.

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