Saudi rulers, in particular the de facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), have reason to be fearful. For decades they have relied on Washington for protection but it appears the Yankees are on the verge of packing their bags to go home. It would not be a bad outcome since US presence has caused destabilization and inflicted immense suffering on the people of the region.
America’s Afghan fiasco has been compounded by Washington removing its most advanced missile defence system and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia. The redeployment of US defence systems from Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh could not have come at a worse time. This is a blow to the Saudi regime at a time when the Yemeni defenders have escalated their pounding of Saudi heartland in retaliation for barbarous attacks on their impoverished country.
Several other developments also point to American disengagement from the region. One is the US pivot to Asia-Pacific region to confront China. The other is America’s lack of need for oil—one of the principal reasons for coming to the region, some 80 years ago. The US is now self-sufficient in oil, thanks to fracking, as well as development of renewable energy sources. Further, important voices are being raised in the US about the futility of baby-sitting Arabian potentates who have outlived their usefulness.
True, there are tens of thousands of American forces in the Arabian Peninsula for which hefty fees are being charged but their drawdown from the region may be in the offing. The kingdom’s former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al Faisal, who often reflects MbS’ thoughts, publicly complained about the withdrawal of missile defences. “I think we need to be reassured about American commitment,” he told CNBC in an interview aired in early September. “That looks like, for example, not withdrawing Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia at a time when Saudi Arabia is the victim of missile attacks and drone attacks – not just from Yemen, but from Iran.”
This was followed, on September 11, by the FBI releasing the 16-page document relating to Saudi officials’ role in assisting two of the alleged hijackers. This was done on the orders of President Joe Biden under pressure from families of the 911 victims. Regardless of Saudi spin, lawyers for the victims’ families feel the released documents strengthen their case against the Saudi regime.
Further, equally worrying for the Saudi regime, important voices in the US are calling for withdrawal from the Middle East. In an article on July 8, 2021, Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow at Cato Institute, laid out “A Blueprint for Getting Out of the Middle East” following Biden’s decision to bring 20 years of costly effort and tragic failure in Afghanistan to a close. He said the president “shouldn’t stop there. The US should remove its military forces from the Middle East. The arguments of decades past for their presence have expired. The artificial balance of power created by the US has resulted in both moral and military hazards. America’s foreign policy should finally change to reflect new circumstances.”
Bandow went on: “Biden has an opportunity to set a new course. He should permanently downgrade the region’s importance and halt the disastrous era of ‘endless war’.” If this was not bad enough, Bandow zeroed in on Saudi Arabia and its oppressive crown prince.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a particularly good example of how US interests have been severely damaged by catering to the whims of supposedly vital allies. Under the de facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has actively undermined American interests even as MbS has become increasingly oppressive, aggressive, and reckless: invading Yemen, kidnapping Lebanon’s premier, underwriting jihadist insurgents in Syria, promoting authoritarian regimes in Bahrain and Egypt, imprisoning his own people, and more. President Donald Trump even sent extra troops to act like the Saudis’ royal bodyguards. The only good result came after he refused to respond to Iran’s attack on Saudi oil facilities. Washington’s restraint led Riyadh to engage in talks with Tehran, a benefit of refusing to make every Mideast problem America’s own.”
This, however, is not the first time a senior member of a US think tank has expressed such opinion. In September 2020, Justin Logan, Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship, had made similar arguments. Titled, ‘The Case for withdrawing from the Middle East,’ Logan wrote: “The Middle East is a small, poor, weak region beset by an array of problems that mostly do not affect Americans—and that US forces cannot fix. The best thing the US can do is leave.” He also cited the immense cost and evident fruitlessness of US wars in the Middle East, of maintaining 60,000 troops in a region of limited importance to the US, and the array of problems—threat of terrorism, protection of Israel etc—have all dissipated and do not warrant the presence of troops there. It will also prevent the US from joining or starting wars there, he argued.
It is understandable why such opinions would cause sleepless nights in Riyadh. Not surprisingly, in the wake of the US retreat from Kabul, MbS dispatched his younger sibling and deputy defence minister, Khalid bin Salman to Moscow to sign a military cooperation agreement with Russia. Spurred by growing uncertainties in US-Saudi relations, such moves betray extreme fear and anxiety but are unlikely to buy the Saudis any security. Unlike Syria with which Moscow has decades-long security agreement, Russia will not deploy its forces to protect a decrepit kingdom headed by a clown prince.
Pity the puppets.