At around two in the morning on August 25, 2017, a five-year-old girl named Buthaina lost her entire family. Saudi Arabia had dropped a bomb on her home and several others in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, as part of its ongoing campaign against Houthi rebels. The attack killed 16 people, including Buthaina’s parents and four siblings, and injured 17 others.
Now under the care of her aunt and uncle, Buthaina herself was one of the injured. Images of Buthaina trying to open her bruised eyes went viral after the attack.
Where does Saudi Arabia get the bombs it uses to kill all these people?
For the most part, they come from the United States, with the United Kingdom and France also supplying substantial amounts. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 1950 to 2016, the United States provided Saudi Arabia with more than $34 billion worth of arms, while the United Kingdom provided more than $10 billion, and France provided more than $7 billion.
The United States is the world’s leading arms exporter, and Saudi Arabia is its top client.
The bomb that injured Buthaina and killed her family originated in the United States, as an Amnesty International investigation found.
Buthaina and her family are just a few of the victims of the long-standing U.S.-Saudi alliance—an alliance that has allowed Saudi Arabia to remain one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, export its odious Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, and inspire jihadist movements throughout the world, at the cost of thousands of lives.
Oil, Money, and the “Threat” of Iran
The basis for the U.S.-Saudi alliance is the fact that Saudi Arabia sits on top of a lot of oil, as well as its opposition to actors and movements in the region that run counter to U.S. hegemonic ambitions.
Nowadays, the United States gets most of its oil through domestic production or from Canada. (The United States is now the world’s leading oil producer, with Saudi Arabia a close second.) Just 11 percent of the oil that the United States imports comes from Saudi Arabia.
Despite this, the United States — under both Republican and Democratic administrations — has backed Saudi Arabia and will likely continue to do so in the future.
Although the United States is currently enjoying its own oil boom, it’s likely to be short-lived. Domestic oil production will probably begin to decline around 2020, as the United States has proven reserves of just 10 billion barrels. The Saudis and their OPEC partners, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, have proven reserves of 460 billion barrels.
In 1945, the State Department identified Saudi Arabia’s oil resources as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” That hasn’t changed — and there’s no reason Washington won’t want Saudi Arabia to remain firmly inside its camp.
In addition, if all those massive arms deals between Washington and Riyadh were suddenly to stop, defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics would stand to lose lots of money.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s extremist variant of Islam has been very useful for the United States. Despite the rhetoric about a “clash of civilizations” supposedly happening between the West and Islam, the United States has, for the most part, traditionally sided with extremist sects of Islam against their more secular enemies for the simple reason that those secular enemies would rather remain independent of U.S. domination.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship began in the 1930s but strengthened after Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt in 1956. Nasser, a neutralist and secularist during the Cold War, nationalized many of Egypt’s industries and instituted social welfare measures. For these crimes, he was considered “an extremely dangerous fanatic” with a “Hitler-ite personality” by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.
Since Nasser had widespread prestige throughout the Arab world for his anti-imperialism and independence, the United States needed a counterweight in the region. “The people are on Nasser’s side,” as Eisenhower complained. That counterweight was Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy and the only country in the world named after a ruling family (the Al Saud family).
The U.S.-Saudi relationship took on new urgency in 1979, when Iran overthrew its U.S.-installed dictator. The United States and United Kingdom had overthrown Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, because its secular leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, had nationalized Iran’s oil industry.
With the loss of its ally in Iran, U.S. support for Saudi Arabia would now be based not only on the kingdom’s opposition to secular nationalist movements and governments, but also against the Shia theocracy in Iran.
U.S. opposition to Iran has nothing to do with Iran’s human rights record or its authoritarian government. If it were, the United States would not be supporting Saudi Arabia, which has a much worse human rights record and a more authoritarian government. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran has actual elections, women have some kind of rights, and there is a liberal opposition.
Nor is U.S. opposition to Iran based on Iran’s support for “extremist” groups abroad — because, again, Saudi Arabia supports and inspires much worse extremist groups abroad.
Watch this dumbfounded State Department official trying to explain the contradiction between U.S. support for Saudi Arabia while opposing Iran:
The truth is, Iran just isn’t a threat to the United States. Its military budget is $13 billion, equivalent to about 2 percent of the U.S. military budget of $611 billion, the highest in the world. (Saudi Arabia’s military budget is $64 billion, the fourth highest in the world.) Iran does not have nuclear weapons, nor does it have a nuclear weapons program. As the Defense Department has pointed out, “Iran’s military doctrine is primarily defensive.”
Why, then, does the United States take such an antagonistic attitude toward Iran?
The answer is simple: Iran refuses to subordinate itself to U.S. hegemony. Anybody who doesn’t follow orders is an enemy.
Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Record (Or Lack Thereof)
As a 2004 report from the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board explains, “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies,” which includes the “longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies,” such as Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian dictatorship, an absolute monarchy currently ruled by the 81-year-old King Salman. However, his son and heir to the throne, the 32-year-old Mohammad bin Salman, is thought to be the de facto leader because King Salman suffers from dementia.
Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MBS, has announced a slew of initiatives and “reforms” meant to modernize Saudi Arabia’s economy and improve Saudi Arabia’s image abroad. For example, Saudi Arabia recently ended its ban on women driving.
For the most part, however, Saudi Arabia remains the human rights horror story it’s always been. There are no national elections or political parties. The extremist Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam is the official state religion, and the public practice of any religion outside of Islam is illegal.
Freedom of expression does not exist. Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism laws “create a legal framework that appears to criminalize virtually all dissident thought or expression as terrorism,” as Human Rights Watch documents. In Saudi Arabia, “terrorist acts” include:
- “Calling for atheist thought in any form.”
- “Anyone who throws away their loyalty to the country’s rulers.”
- “Seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion, or calling, participating, promoting, or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings, or group statements in any form, or anyone who harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means.”
Saudi Arabia is more gender-segregated than any other country in the world. As Amnesty International explained in its annual review of Saudi Arabia, “Women remained legally subordinate and inferior in status to men in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, and could not access higher education, take paid employment or travel abroad without the approval of their male guardian.”
The death penalty is applied liberally in the kingdom, including for nonviolent offenses such as “witchcraft and sorcery,” and while juveniles cannot be executed, they can be sentenced to death — meaning, if a child receives a death sentence, he or she is held until turning 18, at which point the execution is carried out.
Saudi Arabia executed at least 154 people in 2016. (The United States, meanwhile, shamefully retained its status as the only Western government to execute its citizens, killing 20 people in 2016.)
Executions are often carried out with a public beheading and sometimes followed by crucifixion — meaning after the execution is carried out, the body is displayed publicly for a time. Ali al-Nimr, for example, has been sentenced to die by way of beheading and crucifixion for the “crime” — committed at the age of 16 — for “going out to a number of marches, demonstrations, and gatherings against the state and repeating some chants against the state,” among other things.
Saudi Arabia: Exporter of Terrorism and Violence
“Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in classified cables in 2009. While Riyadh “takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority,” she explained.
In other words, Saudi Arabia is generally content to allow Sunni-based extremist groups to continue operating, as long as they remain outside the kingdom and do not target Saudi leadership. This is because Sunni-based extremist groups largely align with Saudi Arabia’s interest in undermining Iran and Iran’s Shia allies across the Middle East.
As the journalist Ben Norton writes for Salon, “The Saudi regime has spent an estimated $100 billion exporting its extremist interpretation of Islam worldwide” over the past few decades by “[infusing] its fundamentalist ideology in the ostensible charity work it performs, often targeting poor Muslim communities in countries like Pakistan or places like refugee camps, where uneducated, indigent, oppressed people are more susceptible to it.”
Saudi Arabia is an ISIS “that has made it,” in the words of Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud. The Saudi kingdom “relies on an alliance with a religious clergy that produces, legitimizes, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism, the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh [ISIS] feeds on,” he writes.
In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia matched dollar for dollar what the United States was spending on its CIA program funding the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. Most of these funds went to extremists such Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, despite his known habit for throwing acid in women’s faces.
Today, Saudi Arabia is creating a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, with U.S. support. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen to defeat the Houthis, a group that Saudi Arabia accuses of being proxies for Iran — an exaggerated claim.
In addition to bombing civilian targets such as homes, schools, hospitals, mosques, and markets, Saudi Arabia has instituted a blockade on Yemen, “making an already catastrophic situation far worse,” according to the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, and UNICEF.
At least 10,000 people have died in the conflict, with another 3 million people displaced. Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign and blockade have helped cause a cholera epidemic in Yemen that “has become the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern history, with a million cases expected by the end of the year and at least 600,000 children likely to be affected,” as the Guardian reports.
As Zeeshan Aleem writes for Vox, Saudi Arabia’s campaign has “contributed to a malnutrition crisis of colossal proportions: Close to 80 percent of Yemen’s population lacks reliable access to food, and the United Nations estimates that 7 million of the country’s population of 28 million people are facing famine.”
None of this would be possible without U.S. support. As Alex Emmons writes for the Intercept:
The U.S. has had the power to pull the plug on the intervention since the beginning. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year veteran of the CIA, explained last year that “if the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia], ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”
In his final days in office, Obama halted some arms sales to Saudi Arabia (when everyone knew Trump could simply reauthorize them when taking office, which he did), but other than this, both the Obama and Trump administrations have strongly backed Saudi Arabia and its campaign in Yemen, with massive arms deals, intelligence sharing, and refueling Saudi planes as they continue to bomb Yemeni civilians.
Even putting all moral questions aside — which we shouldn’t — it’s clear that what the United States is doing with Saudi Arabia is undermining its own national security. Policies such as arming and supporting the Saudi tyranny to kill thousands of innocent Muslims in Yemen have a tendency to drive recruitment for terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
Thankfully, there is growing congressional opposition toward U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s tyrannical government and despicable actions — and U.S. support for them — are immoral and destabilizing.