Saudi-U.S. Relationship Is Indispensable for American Interests | Commentary

Posted October 13, 2015 at 12:12pm

With growing turmoil in the Middle East, including Russian involvement in Syria, the United States needs to reinvigorate its longest-standing relationship in the region: our partnership with Saudi Arabia.

Beginning during World War II and enduring through the Cold War and the War on Terror, the U.S.-Saudi friendship is built on our countries’ shared commitment to maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East and reliable energy supplies and reasonable oil prices around the world.

In the midst of warfare in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the emergence of terrorist organizations including the Islamic State and al-Qaida, the refugee crisis throughout the region, and the tragic deaths of more than 700 pilgrims on the Hajj, the bond between the U.S. and the Saudis is even more important than in the past.

As violent extremists seek to exploit historically rooted discontent, the United States needs Saudi insights into Arab and Islamic issues in order to help resolve local disputes and avert regional conflicts before they become global crises.

Moreover, in the midst of upheavals throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi Arabia remains a regional leader as a major Sunni Muslim power, the custodian of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina and the pivotal member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional intergovernmental and economic body that includes almost all the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

In recent years, the ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been strengthened by large-scale arms sales, totaling at least $97billion, security training programs addressing potential threats to the Persian Gulf and expanded cooperation on counter-terrorism initiatives, from disrupting al-Qaida groups to averting the transfer of funds the Islamic State.

Yes, Americans are concerned about women’s rights and other human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. But today, the government is acting firmly to move Saudi Arabia forward across the board, from its political system to its economic and social policies. The U.S. can best encourage Saudi progress by offering a helping hand and not a cold shoulder.

Since the death of King Abdullah in January, there has been a generational transition in the nation’s leadership, with his half-brother, King Salman, entrusting important responsibilities to younger leaders such as the reformist Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

These new leaders understand that Saudi Arabia needs to diversify its economy, reducing its dependence on oil and opening itself up to international investment. As Saudi Arabia’s economy modernizes and matures, it will offer great opportunities to American companies, which already export $25 billion worth of products and services to the kingdom.

In order to attract foreign capital, Saudi Arabia knows it needs to nurture the schooling and skills of its young people, hundreds of thousands of whom have already studied at American colleges and universities on scholarships provided by the Saudi government.

As Saudi Arabia takes its place in the global economy as a source of skilled workers as well as energy resources, the country can be expected to lift up, not hold back, half its population — Saudi women.

Toward this end, reforms are underway, although not yet as quickly nor as comprehensively Americans would want. At long last, in December, women will be able to run and vote in elections, in accordance with an order issued in 2011 by the late Abdullah. In another historic change, directed by Abdullah in 2013, women now comprise one-fifth of the members of the Consultative Council, an advisory group appointed by the king.

Facing a churning global economy and a turbulent Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s new leaders will continuing modernizing their country’s policies. While welcoming Saudi economic and political reforms, American policymakers should ensure that Saudi Arabia does not realign its security focus away from its partnership with the U.S.

Saudi Arabia has recently reached out to Russia and China on economic and strategic issues. But Salman’s visit in September to Washington, D.C., demonstrated that America is still Saudi Arabia’s strategic partner of choice.

For the sake of stability in the Middle East and the entire world, the U.S. should reaffirm our partnership with Saudi Arabia.

Former Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., served in the House from 1977 until 2015.