The End of History: Why America No Longer Needs to Back Saudi Arabia to the Exclusion of All Others

04/17/2015 01:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

A fractured Middle East requires multilateral engagement, not blind loyalty based on circumstances that no longer exist.

For a nation that professes to be fighting terrorism, Saudi Arabia, despite prodigious wealth, seems to have few firm friends. Its bombing of Shia rebels, known as the Huthis, in neighbouring Yemen, was announced by the kingdom's ambassador in Washington but America has been lukewarm in its support. Three weeks into an air campaign that has flattened much of a desperately poor country, the U.S. military is providing satellite imagery and refueling services for its long-time Gulf ally. But that is the limit of America's involvement.

Some argue this limited support is because of Washington's ongoing nuclear talks with Iran, with which it has been at odds since the Islamic revolution 36 years ago. As the region's Shia superpower Iran openly supports the Huthis but more by instinct and religious sympathy than cold hard cash. As late as 2009, Iran and the Shia rebels on Saudi Arabia's southern border had barely any contact at all, despite their shared faith. America on the other hand has been Saudi Arabia's chief military supplier and trainer for 60 years, an agreement underpinned by oil reliance.

Why would it not align itself more strongly, or even take part in Riyadh's mission? The answer is that a once fresh faced American president knows better. The weight of office will not be relieved by Barack Obama cheerleading another Middle Eastern war.

Unlike his Republican critics, whose only foreign policy idea seems to involve bombing Iran, Mr. Obama is willing to acknowledge the limits of American military power so damagingly exposed by Iraq. The Republican successors of George W. Bush continue to exhibit chronic dementia.

No reasonable person would seek another quagmire to walk into, other than the likes of John Bolton, Mr. Bush's former ambassador to the United Nations. Along with Senator John McCain, Mr. Bolton seems to have spent the past eight years -- six times longer than he actually served at the UN -- on talk shows calling for Iran's immediate destruction. Mr. Bolton, a recess pick by president Bush, was never confirmed by the Senate. With the benefit of history, and perhaps YouTube, his views seem incongruously outdated.

For America, the Middle East now requires a flexible, often contradictory foreign policy rather than unswerving adherence to alliances where the principal actors seek to publicly damage you, rather than simply disagree. The House of Saud is not as brazen as Benjamin Netanyahu but by announcing its Yemen campaign in the U.S. capital the message was simple: we can combat Iranian influence despite America's desire for a nuclear deal with the Shia state.

Such an agreement, due by June 30, could give Mr. Obama his "Nixon's China" moment. Removing a latent threat that may otherwise end up in conflict would be a legacy achievement. The United States has backed Saudi Arabia for more than 60 years but it is a pact filled with contradictions that are becoming unmanageable. The rise in Iraq of the jihadi Islamic State, who profess the Wahabi brand of Sunni Islam on which Saudi Arabia is the leading exponent, has shown the need to lie in bed, though not copulate, with Iran. Backing Saudi Arabia's push to topple Bashar Assad in Syria has also failed. Away from the hard politics, Americans also remember that 15 of the 19 airline hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals.

The rise of ISIS has shown that such militancy has not been removed: the Islamist extremism devouring the Middle East is exclusively practiced by Sunni muslims. None of the terror plots in America or Europe since the Twin Towers fell have come from Shia groups. Yet it is Iran that is painted as the darkest bogeyman of all. Yemen is further highlighting the disconnect between the actions of America's longstanding ally and its foe in Tehran.

Iran may be a meddling neighbor but it has not bombed a people of whom 12 million are now thought to be going hungry*. Yemen imports 90 percent of its food and the deteriorating security situation is making this impossible. Bombing a people with nothing only pushes them into the arms of Iran, despite Riyadh's declared aim of doing the opposite. Like a bully in a school playground, Saudi Arabia also remains intolerant of any religion other than Sunni Islam within its borders, despite millions of Shia Muslims living on its eastern flank.

Recent history has shown that military action cannot convert people: Israel's war with Hezbollah -- again mostly fought from the air -- only strengthened the Shia militia cum political party's links with Iran. Hezbollah remains powerful despite Lebanon's fractured institutions. The Huthis are unlikely to give up quickly.

The decision of Pakistan's parliament to rule out sending troops to fight on Saudi Arabia's behalf -- a policy that would have taken the Gulf's richest oil state's reliance on foreign labour to new extremes -- is further evidence of a failing campaign. The plan to reinstall President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, currently exiled in a Saudi palace while Yemenis cower from air strikes, only highlights the gap between Riyadh's desire and Sanaa's tortured people. The parallel seems lost on the House of Saud, but not on Iran, whose Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, seems statesmanlike, proposing a four-point peace plan and speaking to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

So, where are Saudi Arabia's other friends? Egypt -- the number two power in the Arab coalition -- has its own problems to deal with and doesn't want to put boots on the ground either, mindful that the last time Saudi forces entered Yemen, in 2009, it lost hundreds. Al-Qaeda, the Sunni threat, and the Huthis, seen by Riyadh as the Shia equivalent, are still around.

Without America, who joined with Saudi Arabia against the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the eighties, a conflict that created the Taliban, before partnering with Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war and then turning against the Sunni dictator in the nineties before finally toppling him in 2003, the bombing of Yemen seems a hollow effort without gain.

America, which moved its few troops out of Yemen when the air strikes began, sees no rate of return. Shale oil is flowing and Americans' cars are not going to run out of gas. The best weaponry is still manufactured stateside and Riyadh will keep buying, so there is no loss there either. Mr Obama simply has nothing to gain by blindly backing Saudi Arabia.

*World Food Program press statement on Yemen, April 16

Yassin K. Fawaz is chief executive of the Raddington Group, a risk management firm. He is experienced in counterterrorism and intelligence, and frequently has provided strategic advice to Middle Eastern leaders.