THE BLOG
05/05/2016 11:01 pm ET Updated May 06, 2017

Tensions in Relationship With Saudis Suggest Difficult Challenges Ahead for US Foreign Policy

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Late last month, President Barack Obama made his fourth, and likely his last, trip as U.S. president to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to ease growing tensions and reaffirm America's longtime friendship with the kingdom.

His trip, however, turned out to be mostly thorny, revealing gaping rifts in a relationship between two allied nations that share several common strategic goals, but possess sharply differing views on many critical issues impacting the safety, well-being and stability of the Persian Gulf region, including Iran, human rights and how to combat terrorism.

Saudi Arabia, an authoritarian regime, remains one of our strongest allies in several respects, but it's a country that has never shared our most deeply held values, as evidenced by its ongoing repression of human rights, stifling of political dissent and support for many extreme religious views. And while our relationship has always been uneven, today it is as beleaguered and brittle as it has been for several decades. The chilly reception Obama recently received in Riyadh, coupled with a steady drumbeat of criticism of the Saudis coming out of Congress over their alleged involvement in the 9-11 terror attacks and failure to contribute more in the Middle East in the fight against ISIS, have led several foreign affairs analysts to characterize the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a "broken marriage."

More broadly, though, the tensions between our two nations underscore the difficulty of conducting American foreign policy in the 21st century. Indeed, our strained relationship with the Saudis suggests what I believe is a new norm for U.S. foreign policy engagement across the world. Increasingly, we struggle to find elements of common ground with our allies, and our non-allies, as the challenges facing the global community (terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation) grow more complex and dire.

Presently, Saudi Arabia is a country that finds itself in the midst of changing leadership and with an economy that, in recent years, has lagged, largely due to a major depression in oil prices. Facing a growing budget deficit, Saudi leaders have begun laying out a vision for the future of the kingdom that centers on a number of economic reforms designed to stimulate its financial sector and decrease the nation's deep dependence on oil production. These reforms include, among others, cutting spending; drawing down foreign currency reserves; shedding government subsidies for critical resources such as water, electrical power and gasoline; raising taxes; and privatizing a number of state-owned industries. These reforms, and more, are required if this dysfunctional country is to better serve all its people.

We've heard the song and dance about systematic change from the Saudis before, of course, and I, personally, remain skeptical about their ability to carry out the plan they've set forth. Their rhetoric on economic reform is moving in the right direction at least, but there's been far too little action inside the country on societal and cultural changes that an entrenched Saudi monarchy continues to resist.

During his recent visit, President Obama pointed out several of the key areas in which we would like to see the Saudis make greater progress. They include more rights for women and expanded protection for religious minorities, as well as reductions in the repressive nature of Saudi society and its support of some of the country's fundamentalist clerics, who continue to contribute to many of the most extreme views held in parts of the Islamic world.

However, we still tend to soften our criticisms of the Saudis, despite our deep concerns over their lack of democracy and their human rights abuses. President Obama's recent chiding aside, we traditionally talk far less about democracy and human rights in Riyadh than in other parts of the world, weighing any issues we might have against Saudi repression against the importance of building our alliance against terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. Without question, security continues to serve as the dominant strain in America's relationship with Saudi Arabia. The financial reality also remains. The U.S. may be the leading producer of oil in the world, but Saudi oil production is still hugely important to our economic interests.

For their part, the Saudis have been unhappy with the U.S. over a number of different issues, including our failure to back longtime ally Egypt when President Mubarak came under pressure to resign in 2011 and, more recently, our engagement last year with Iran over our historic nuclear reduction agreement. They were particularly stung during last month's summit, when President Obama criticized them for an unwillingness to accept Iran's role in the world and to co-exist with their greatest rival in the region.

I've kept close tabs on the U.S.-Saudi relationship for several decades, often wondering when the dam would break in Riyadh and a suppressed population would rise up against the nation's rulers. It's still possible, of course, but such a revolt hasn't happened because of the effectiveness of the Saudi's harsh internal security system. The government shuts down dissent and represses the population, and whenever a local protest does spring up, Saudi security forces put it down promptly. The government has also been skillful in cultivating the support of religious leaders, whose extreme views they tolerate. And though the country is undergoing a change in leadership, it's clear that the monarchy continues to dominate.

Some foreign policy analysts suggest the U.S.-Saudi relationship is headed toward divorce, but I do not anticipate such a dramatic split. I believe that our two nations will continue to work through our rocky relationship and work around our differences. The fact is that we still need each other. Our economies are intertwined. We are allies in the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda. The Saudis need our military support, and we need their contributions to stability in the region. Our shared security challenges have long defined the relationship. Together, we provide a powerful check against Iran, which remains an adversary of the West and a serious threat to stability in the Middle East.

The Saudis will continue to object to our 'foreign interference' in their internal affairs, and our support of democracy, free expression and assembly. Frictions between our two nations will surely persist. Our shared security concerns in the region will, as they have in the past, prevail over any stresses in our relationship.

As this relationship vividly illustrates, it becomes extremely hard, if not impossible, for the U.S. to consistently support and advocate our democratic values in American foreign policy. Our relationship follows a classic pattern in American foreign policy, in which our strong security interests and our democratic values clash. Security usually wins out.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.