Saudi Arabia does not handle public relations well. There is probably no country in the world spending more money to improve its public image in the United States while receiving less in return than Saudi Arabia. U.S. policymakers always understood the strategic economic and security relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. As for the general public in the United States, not so much.
Recently, Saudi Arabia has been taking it to the next level by dragging the United States into its public affairs disasters. Now some policymakers are turning on Saudi Arabia too. Is the U.S.-Saudi relationship really in danger? The short answer is yes. The relationship, which stretches back to World War II, is entering dangerous waters. The American “friendship” with Saudi Arabia has never been based on shared values but on shared interests. Now, the “values” divide between the two countries is putting significant pressure on the historic relationship.
There are three key factors putting a strain on the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States: the Russian alternative, the war in Yemen, and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and two pictures from the recent G20 Summit in Argentina speak volumes. The first is an isolated Muhammad bin Salman (the man who wants to be the next ruler of Saudi Arabia) standing next to the head of a foreign bank rather than a head of state. His unique dress accentuated his place on the periphery. The second is a cordial handshake between MBS and Vladimir Putin. The scene resembles a gesture between professional athletes rather than heads of G20 nations. The image made the rounds on the internet for its comical absurdity. Still, the intention is clear; though Russia is no legitimate alternative to the United States, actions at the G20 Summit reflect that Russia is poised to replace the United States as a Saudi ally.
The Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war caused a catastrophic loss of civilian life. However, the casualties were accompanied by substantial gains for the Syrian regime on the ground. In Yemen, the Saudi intervention has created a humanitarian disaster, but without the military gains. Three years after the Saudi involvement in the Yemeni war began, the capital Sanaa is still in the hands of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Their slogan, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, and Victory to Islam,” hangs on banners all over the city.
The war in Yemen is starting to enter the American consciousness, but not because of the involvement of Iran. Saudi Arabia takes the lion’s share of the blame for the humanitarian disaster there, even though other countries are heavily involved. The most notable image of the war in Yemen is of a starving child, not a Houthi rocket. Although the U.S. Senate passed a resolution calling for an end to American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen by a margin of 63 to 37, Saudi Arabia has shown no signal that it is calling it quits.
Perhaps now the biggest brand problem for Saudi Arabia is the Crown Prince himself. The MBS brand has become toxic. Mohammad bin Salman has almost overnight gone from being a media darling to a complete public relations disaster. Mere months after opening movie theaters and allowing women to drive (sort of), the Saudi government killed Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, undoing at a stroke all of its efforts at rebranding itself. Mohammad bin Salman’s track record thus far appears to suggest he is willing to pay a price in order to avoid losing face.
It is important to remember the bipartisan nature of the historic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Though previous presidents spoke with more nuance than Donald Trump, the issue of countering Iran, combatting terrorism, and managing lucrative arms deals undoubtedly factored into U.S. calculations. As recently as 2016, for example, President Obama vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) allowing Americans to sue members of the Saudi Government for alleged involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now MBS is uniting the American Left and Right; Senator Bernie Sanders called the Saudi regime a “despotic dictatorship,” and Senator Lindsey Graham referred to the Crown Prince as a “wrecking ball.” Graham adds he is 100 percent certain that MBS was behind the killing of Khashoggi. Graham says there isn’t a smoking gun, but there is a “smoking saw.”
Under MBS, the image of Saudi Arabia is not a pillar of stability in the Middle East, but the image of a “smoking saw.” To rehabilitate that image, the Saudi royal family may well decide to operate under new leadership very soon. If so, implications for U.S. policy in the Middle East are huge.
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Brandon Beardlsey is a graduate student in the Middle East studies program at GWU. He specializes in contemporary Islamic political movements. He has lived in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Indonesia. He speaks Turkish, Arabic, and French.