Tankers for Tomahawks: An Argument for Restraint with Saudi Arabia (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Dylan Bengard, Spring 2024 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The U.S. relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Saudi Arabia, or KSA) has long been a cornerstone of its foreign policy in the Middle East. As Riyadh is often seen as a balancer to Iran in the region, the U.S.-Saudi partnership has risen to prominence since the late 1970s and has remained so now. Central to this relationship is the extensive arms trade between the two nations, where the United States has consistently supplied advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia. However, this partnership has not been without controversy, drawing scrutiny from policymakers, scholars, and the public alike. In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration viewed the Saudi kingdom as one of strategic importance to achieving U.S. foreign policy initiatives. Specifically, the need for oil was a high priority for the American economy. In addition, the Soviet Union was seen as a grave military threat to access to the Persian Gulf and its resources. Now more than ever, however, lawmakers, policy experts, and human rights activists have become dubious of the overall importance of this relationship.

As the United States has begun to push for civil liberties and human rights across the globe, relationships with authoritarian countries such as Saudi Arabia tarnish the genuineness of America’s strategy. Unlike in its relationships with other authoritarian countries, it has become difficult for the U.S. government to break from its relationship with the Saudis. U.S. militarism is a lead factor in this dilemma. The presence of American soldiers on Saudi soil itself has carried numerous consequences, particularly with the Arab world which has viewed the U.S. military presence in their holy land as another form of American imperialism.

A second important consideration is the amount of weapons sent to Saudi Arabia and their impact (or lack thereof) on U.S. interests. For decades, the United States has pursued high-value arms deals with the Saudis in hopes of balancing the region in its favor and obtaining favorable deals over trade and oil in the Persian Gulf. However, when looking at the current U.S.-Saudi relationship, the partnership hasn’t balanced in America’s favor.

While it is necessary for the United States to thoroughly reexamine its overall foreign policy goals in the Middle East and North Africa, including its relationship with countries in North Africa, its unwavering backing of Israel, the failures of the Global War on Terror, and its inability to stop Iran’s march toward obtaining a nuclear weapon, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has stood through decades of controversy. Saudi Arabia has continuously undermined U.S. interests in the Middle East while contributing further instability in the region while completely ignoring U.S. values of democracy and civil liberties. It is necessary more than ever for Washington to reexamine its relationship with Riyadh.

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