Why the Saudis have the US over a barrel-and it’s not an oil barrel

That the Saudi government and its powerful figure crown prince Mohammed bin Salman are brazenly lying about what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is now blindingly obvious. There is an unbridgeable gulf between their initial response that Khashoggi had left the consulate and they did not know where he was to their most recent grudging admission that he died after he got into a ‘fist fight’ with people inside the consulate. The body has still not been produced. What we are now seeing is careful maneuvering to decide what is the most they can concede that will enable their most ardent supporters, in this case Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, to continue their warm relationship with both the kingdom and bin Salman.

Whether this story will be sufficient to provide cover for bin Salman’s ardent supporters in the US media or whether they need to go further remains to be seen. Andrew O’Hehir describes the furious backtracking going on by people like Thomas Friedman at the New York Times and David Ignatius at the Washington Post to wriggle out from under their earlier effusive praise of bin Salman.

O’Hehir says that is is important to realize that people like Friedman and Ignatius are not expressing just their own opinions. Even though they work for newspapers and not the government, they are important channels by which the political-military-business establishment in the US sets the boundaries of acceptable range of opinions.

If we assume for argument’s sake that Friedman’s opinions (or Ignatius’ opinions) are really his opinions, they are never his alone. They are formed by consensus, shaped by a coalition of “responsible adults” who work in the national security agencies, the State Department, the Washington policy think tanks and various foreign governments closely allied with our own. He speaks them as a representative of a particular elite caste who have Thought Deeply About Such Things, are not overly swayed by personal or sentimental considerations and are working (as they perceive it) for the ultimate betterment of humanity, under the permanent mentorship of the United States of America.

Meanwhile, Friedman has spent much of the last two weeks quoting his own previously-expressed doubts and reservations about MBS — always carefully inserted between the fawning passages — and I guess you can’t blame him. Beneath all that ass-covering, we may detect a note of protest: My friends made me say all that stuff but I never totally believed it!

It is of course not just these two who have drunk the bin Salman Kool-Aid. The article points to others like Bob Woodward and Dennis Ross, and Glenn Greenwald has listed others in the media, including in Khashoggi’s own paper the Washington Post, who have been shills for bin Salman and Saudi Arabia.

O’Hehir says that this situation can be traced back to a deal that people like Friedman and Ignatius sold to the public on behalf of the establishment.

The U.S. cut a nearly explicit deal with the Saudis, some decades ago: Keep the oil flowing, keep the Arab nations from attacking Israel and keep acting as a regional rival to Iran, and “you can do whatever you want out back” (in Friedman’s words), including running the most repressive theocracy anywhere in the world, exporting an especially poisonous blend of fundamentalist Islam that fueled violent uprisings in many different places, and waging a brutal proxy war in Yemen that may be the worst and least-noticed humanitarian disaster of this century.

One thing on which there seems to be some disagreement is as to which nation in the US-Saudi relationship has the upper hand. It is argued that by virtue of its oil production capability, it is the Saudis and that if they cut oil production it would hurt the US. I am not convinced of this. The US imports just a few percent of its oil needs directly from that country and it would be easy to switch to other suppliers. Furthermore, oil is fungible in that nearly all the oil essentially goes into a big pool and buyers buy from that pool. Bilateral deals are not that significant. It is true that a cut in production by the Saudis would raise prices somewhat and affect the global economy but it is not clear by how much. And cutting production might hurt the Saudis more by drastically reducing its revenues, thereby hurting its grandiose military and other ambitions and its ability to maintain an oppressive state and buy off its domestic population to prevent them from revolting.

The arms issue seems to me to be more salient. Trump’s claims of how much money the Saudis are spending on buying US arms is, as with all his statements, exaggerated but it is not insignificant. If the US were to cut off arms, could the Saudi’s buy them from other countries like Russia?

I believe that the Saudis have the upper hand in their relationship with the US not because of oil or arms sales but because the US has made them an essential player in the long-range plan to have the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance be the dominant force in the region, controlling events and seeking to destabilize Iran, the only possible rival for dominance. The US has dealt the Saudis these cards and they are playing them against the US. This is why successive US presidents including Barack Obama have made ritual pilgrimages to that country and groveled before its king.

I hate to be so pessimistic but I think that there is no atrocity that the Saudis can commit on an individual limit (such as with Khashoggi), on a domestic policy level (as with its internal terror policy and barbaric punishments of activists and criminals) or on a international level (as with its horrendous war in Yemen or its export of its highly intolerant Wahabi form of Islam) that will cause the US government to take any meaningful action. The US administration will let various members of Congress mouth off their protests to give the impression of outrage but nothing concrete will happen, and hope that this outrage will eventually die down.


  1. Acolyte of Sagan says

    If the US were to cut off arms…….

    ….every irony meter on Earth would simultaneously explode.

  2. Art says

    Note that complicated US weapons systems, aircraft with associated sensors and missiles, are not easily or quickly interchangeable. They represent a long term commitment to a supplier. The parting of ways between the US and Iran after the removal of the Shah and hostage crisis had profound implication for the Iranian military. Implications that still resonate some thirty-seven years later.

    The wider context is that US aircraft and missile systems are considered the most agile, reliable and effective. Particularly if the US provides training for the flight and maintenance crews and an ongoing sequence of upgrade packages and generous supplies of parts and spares. Do not underestimate how important that second part is. Aircraft and missiles require specialized training to operate and repair and a stead stream of specialized parts and materials to function.

    The Iranian experience shows how degraded their aircraft were simply because of a lack of parts. Many aircraft were cannibalized to keep a few operational. Missiles were in short supply and, because the sensors and missiles were not upgraded regularly they largely failed to keep up with the ever more demanding current standards. Modern systems and those dating back thirty years do not meet on a level playing field. That the Iranians were able to keep their air force flying and reasonably effective against older Russian foes is a testament to their inventiveness and technical prowess.

    As good as US systems are they took a knock to their reputations simply because the Iranian experience shows that US systems come with political strings. Most weapons systems from major producer nations do, to some degree, but the US cut off of support, without any option for buying parts or rework options (engines and other major systems need regular rework best done by the original manufacturer), was seen as being historically abrupt and needlessly hurtful to a nation which had, only months before, been an ally.

    Yes, other nations have observed announced boycotts of support for their systems but there was quite often some provision made for back channel support, for a price. The English tended to be quite strict while the Germans and French were more circumspect. The Russians, with previous Soviet bloc nations that are at least nominally independent and willing to do the work, had ready made unofficial back channels already. Theirs is a more cash and carry model. Made even more effective by the Russian design philosophy of their systems being more rugged and field serviceable designs. They may not be the bleeding edge of modern capability, they seldom sell their best, but they work exceedingly well in the second and third-world contexts. And can be expected to keep working after decades of rough handling. In part because if your engine needs reworking there are several organizations located in previously Soviet-bloc states that will help you out.

    China is starting to get into major weapons systems sales but, last I checked, their offering were limited and their policies, the strength of any political string, has yet to be made clear. That could change. If SA was cut off abruptly it might turn to China. It would be a major geopolitical shift, China’s first major entry into the Middle-East, and it would rattle the US defense industry and military planners. It would be a major slap in the face to the US. SA tends to operate around the edges and such a bold move seems out of character. More likely they would turn to the Russians.

    Another, not very good alternative, would be for SA to turn to extra-national businesses. There are larger private businesses that could get simple missiles and iron-bombs. Perhaps even enough spares to keep the SA air fleet operational for some time.

    The US -- SA arrangement seems unlikely to change. One dead journalist more or less. If Trump is forced to impose sanctions, like the sanctions against Russia, they will be more talk than anything else. There may be a public display of stern resolve but the weapons, supplies, information, and cooperation will still go on. At least as long as Trump has a say. SA likes its US made toys.

    If the Democrats take the House but not the Senate there will be investigations but no results. If they take both the whole thing goes underground as gray, or black, operation entirely within the DoD and intelligence community. If in 2020 a Democrat takes the WH then SA will have to decide to stick with the US systems with strings or to transition to Russian systems. By 2021 China may be a workable option if SA wants to screw with us for not seeing things their way.

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 Art
    That the Iranians were able to keep their air force flying and reasonably effective against older Russian foes is a testament to their inventiveness and technical prowess.


    To some extent cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia for few years might not do much harm to Saudi — armaments for the RSAF bombing of Yemen being the notable exception.

    Given the massive arms purchases over many years from the USA and other countries the Kingdom probably has far more weapons systems than trained people to operate them. When something breaks down, they just need to take the bubble-wrap off another one.

  4. Art says

    Perhaps I didn’t state that clearly. I was talking about military equipment, primarily aircraft, and Iraq was flying Russian designed aircraft, mostly Mig-21s, in the air defense role.

    You are right in that flying ground attack against nearly undefended Yemeni targets doesn’t require the most sophisticated aircraft. A flying dump truck can drop iron-bombs as long as you are unconcerned with strays. Playing slap-and-tickle with Iranian pilots or their more sophisticated air defenses is another matter entirely.

  5. Dunc says

    If in 2020 a Democrat takes the WH then SA will have to decide to stick with the US systems with strings or to transition to Russian systems.

    It doesn’t matter who’s in the WH -- US support for SA has always been a thoroughly bipartisan matter, and I don’t see that changing.

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 Art
    I see what you mean now. I read it as hostilities against Russia. Sorry.

    However I was not referring to something like A-10s. I was thinking more of munitions.

    My suspicion is that a lot of very high-tech, very modern equipment is mothballed in Saudi Arabia. I just don’t think they have the people to operate it in a combat situation.

    Maintenance in another matter. It would likely be reasonably easy to hire ex-military, etc. from Western countries or, perhaps, Pakistan or India with the skills to maintain the equipment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *