Reprinted from Reader Supported News
Saudi king Salman bin Abd al-Aziz has miscalculated badly since taking the throne, miring his country in an unwinnable civil war in Yemen, angering his own Shia Muslim minority by cracking down on dissent and executing one of its leaders, and breaking diplomatic relations with Iran. With historically low oil prices and a massive deficit, and with Middle East watchers grumbling that the country is actually being run by the king's untested and inexperienced 30-year-old son, Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudis must get their act together soon or they risk further destabilizing the entire region. And if American diplomatic leadership was ever needed, it is now.
Muhammad bin Salman's growing influence over the day-to-day running of defense and oil policy is even creating tension within the royal family. Just last month, several princes suggested to the British press that the king step down and take his son with him. The country's policies since Salman assumed the throne have been impulsive, like severing diplomatic relations with Iran; and interventionist, like invading Yemen.
Salman's miscalculations have called into question his ability to lead, and may presage a broader conflict, as the governments of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have had to commit troops to Yemen to relieve the burden on Saudi ground forces. This has had no effect on the fighting, however, as the Shia Muslim Houthi rebels have strengthened their positions in Yemen's north while al-Qaeda continues to operate unfettered in the south. The Houthis even launched a SCUD missile near a Saudi airbase in October. A second missile was intercepted by the Saudi military.
Riyadh's decision to execute 47 people on January 2, the largest mass execution in Saudi Arabia in 35 years, has further exacerbated an already shaky balance with Shias in the region. The execution of Nimr al-Nimr in particular, an outspoken critic of the king who rallied the Shia minority, has further inflamed tensions.
Relations with Iran are particularly bad. Immediately following Nimr's execution, Iranians sacked and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The Saudis responded by severing diplomatic relations with Iran. Bahrain, Kuwait, and Sudan followed, and the United Arab Emirates downgraded relations with Tehran. But the devolution of Saudi-Iranian relations was not just because of the execution. The Saudis initially strongly and publicly opposed the Iran nuclear accord and have financed fundamentalist Sunni groups in Syria fighting the Iran-backed Syrian government. Some of those groups are aligned with al-Qaeda there.
Meanwhile, the State Department has remained mute on Saudi policy, other than to congratulate the Saudis on assuming leadership, ironically, of the United Nations Human Rights Council. And this was after the Saudis sentenced a 17-year-old to death by crucifixion because he participated in anti-royal demonstrations, after a Saudi blogger was imprisoned for 10 years and given 1,000 lashes because he questioned the role of religion in the kingdom, and after the wife of a prominent dissident was arrested because she, well, was a dissident's wife.
The Obama administration has not had a single foreign policy success in the Middle East over the past seven years besides the Iran nuclear deal. It cannot allow Saudi intransigence to interfere, especially in an election year. There is still time for the Saudi government to close Pandora's Box. But the only way to achieve stability in the Middle East is for Washington to draw its own proverbial line in the sand. It must work with its allies in the region to convince the Saudis to end the Yemen debacle, respect its own citizens, and work with Iran. Otherwise, the future holds only war and economic disaster.
If the Saudis don't want to play ball and make nice with their own people and their neighbors, Washington should reassess the relationship. Truth be told, Saudi Arabia is not a reliable friend. Questions about Saudi involvement in the September 11 attacks have never been answered. The Saudis oppose peace with Israel. They oppose peace with Iran. With oil prices as low as they are, and as alternative energies are finally being developed in the United States, maybe it's time to tell the Saudis to drink their oil.
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