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President Barack Obama visited with King Salman bin Abdulaziz in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh in January 2015. (Photo: Reuters/J. Bourg)

President Obama's Coddling of Saudi Arabia

Jake Johnson

Much has been made of President Obama's lengthy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, in which he argues that many American allies have become "free-riders" — allies content to receive military, strategic, and financial assistance while offering little or nothing in return.

One of the countries he mentioned by name was Saudi Arabia, a nation that has been a close ally of the United States for many decades. But during President Obama's tenure, the relationship has (at least on the surface) experienced somewhat of a dip as Iran — Saudi Arabia's main rival — negotiated with the United States and several other nations with the goal of reducing the country's nuclear capacities.

Such a dip, while a negative for American hawks, would presumably be celebrated by many. For years human rights groups have argued that the United States should use its leverage to put pressure on the Saudi regime, if not to cut ties with the kingdom totally, as it is one of the most heinous human rights violators in the world. Indeed, as Kamel Daoud has argued, Saudi Arabia is "an ISIS that has made it."

Many have interpreted President Obama's rhetorical jabs at the Saudi kingdom as a sign that substantive change is occurring, change that will be beneficial for Saudis and for the region. This, unfortunately, could not be further from the truth. While President Obama's comments have irked Saudi officials, Congress and the president himself have provided ample reassurance to the Saudi ruling elite by way of historic arms deals and strategic support.

The United States, because of its close relationship with the kingdom, has been complicit in the war crimes it has committed in its assault on Yemen, and American politicians have been far too willing to turn a blind eye to blatant human rights abuses that they would righteously condemn if committed by official enemies. And President Obama, despite his rhetoric, has throughout his administration continued to approve historic arms deals to the kingdom, deals that have included so-called "smart bombs," aircraft, and other advanced weaponry.

The New York Times summarizes: "The Saudi military is flying jets and dropping bombs it bought from the United States — part of the billions of dollars in arms deals that have been negotiated with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations during the Obama administration."

Judging by the above, there seems to be little evidence to support the notion that the president is ushering in a new era of U.S.-Saudi relations, an era in which Saudi Arabia is, for once, held to account for its actions. In fact, the evidence points in precisely the opposite direction.

As the New York Times reported on Saturday, Saudi officials are infuriated by a bill put forward by the Senate that "would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks." To demonstrate its anger, the regime has resorted to threats: If the bill is passed, Saudi officials say, they will "sell off hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of American assets."

Criticism of the bill has come from another source, as well: the Obama administration. "The Obama administration has lobbied Congress to block the bill’s passage," the Times reports, arguing that "the legislation would put Americans at legal risk overseas."

In his interview with the president, Jeffrey Goldberg notes that, "Obama’s patience with Saudi Arabia has always been limited." Well, approving historic arms deals and shielding the kingdom from calls for accountability is a bizarre way to demonstrate waning patience.

Such an embrace of one of the most repressive regimes in the world by the Obama administration — an embrace that walks the line drawn by many previous presidents — demonstrates the near truism of foreign relations expounded by Noam Chomsky and others: "The United States supports democracy if and only if it conforms to U.S. strategic and economic objectives."

The same seems to be true with human rights and, indeed, the war against terrorism, itself. Saudi Arabia, as many have observed, is a hub for the spread of extremist ideologies like those currently motivating the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

The West's continued coddling of Saudi Arabia represents a tacit acceptance of the tactics the kingdom uses both to suppress its own population and to spread violence beyond its borders. Is this the change we are supposed to believe in?

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Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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