On the surface, there is something quite mystifying about the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. That nation acts like it can do anything at all and the US will not say a word against it. Their human rights record along practically any axis you choose (gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, freedom of speech, you name it) can only be described as appalling, with harsh punishments routinely meted out for people exercising what we would consider to be the most basic of rights. There is not even a pretense of democracy, with an autocratic monarchic system ruling the country. Even the fact that 15 of the 19 people who carried out the 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia did nothing to shake this relationship and instead the US attacked Iraq on wholly trumped up charges.
Not only does the US not criticize that nation, it goes out of its way to treat the Saudi leaders as if they are people of honor when they should be treated like pariahs. This collection of fawning praise from former US presidents for king Abdullah on the occasion of his recent death can only be described as nauseating. President Obama is doing the same, not only offering fulsome praise but even cutting short a state visit to India in order to go and ‘pay his respects’ to him, and he will be accompanied by a bipartisan delegation from Congress containing many leaders. The Defense Department has announced the creation of a new research and essay competition in order to “honor the memory of the king”.
The question is what is the glue that holds the two nations together, since the Saudis do not have the equivalent of the Israel lobby to get the US to provide unconditional support for whatever it does.
The most common reason given for this strange alliance is that the US is dependent on oil from that country since it has the largest reserves of oil and is the world’s biggest exporter. That is not true. Public perceptions of how much we are dependent on Saudi oil is immensely inflated, with people thinking that it constitutes about 60% of our imports. In fact, the US is nowhere near as dependent on imported oil as it used to be, with the current level of 33% of needs being the lowest it has been since 1985. Of that, Saudi Arabia accounts for just 13% of total oil imports, so that currently it meets only about 4.3% of the US’s needs.
Clearly we are not critically dependent on Saudi oil. So why are we so ingratiating towards them? It is not because we need their oil but because of what they do with the money they get from oil exports. The Saudis have shown a willingness to ally with the US and use their money to further their common interests in the region, especially the goal of containing Iran, by pouring money into fighting governments and groups everywhere in the region that they think are advancing Iran’s interests in particular and combating the rise of Shia influence in general. In other words, Saudi Arabia is willing to do the US’s dirty work by underwriting groups whose goals the US supports but cannot ally itself with publicly. The fact that Saudi Arabia is also simulateneously promoting the spread of its own brand of Wahhabism, a particularly toxic and intolerant form of Islam, does not seem to concern the US.
I believe it is this willingness by the Saudis that make them so valuable to US policymakers and makes them confident that there is nothing they can do in violation of human rights, however outrageous, that will result in any condemnation from the US. The Saudi autocrats that rule that country so ruthlessly seem to have made a pact with the US. They will do the US’s dirty work in the region and bankroll groups that may be highly unsavory but serve their interests in return for the US not uttering a word of condemnation against its disgusting violation of human rights at home.
Saudi Arabia is not an anomaly. It has long been obvious that the US’s preaching about human rights in other countries is hypocritical, strongly dependent on whether that country is subservient to US interests or not and the media takes its cues from them. So we never cease to be told about human rights violations in Cuba and Venezuela and Russia but rarely about Jordan or Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan or Equatorial Guinea. The Center for Public Integrity lists more such instances.
What makes Saudi Arabia unusual is that it is a high-profile nation so that the hypocritical nature of US attitudes towards human rights should be easy to make obvious if the media and Congress wanted to.