Before Donald Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia my eyes were already preparing to start rolling. If there is one thing that brings Americans of all political stripes together, it is contempt for our alliance with Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the American ruling class reaffirms and reiterates our alliance with the passing of every administration like clockwork.
The Saudi alliance useful. It is financially lucrative for the small minority of Americans who are part of the international elite. It helps sustain some intellectuals and think tanks in Washington D.C. And in the bigger game of geopolitics the Saudis have been aligned thoroughly with the United States since after World War II.
But no one is under any great illusions about what the Saudi regime is. When Trump says “For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” we have to laugh at the audacity of the lie. Starting in the late 1970s Iran did try to assert leadership of international Islam…but to do so it had to dampen sectarian consciousness, because 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. Iran does support other Shia movements (though in general other Twelver Shias; the alliance with ghulat sects is opportunistic, as is that of the almost-Sunni-Zaydis of Yemen), and has had a very close relationship with Hezbollah for generations. But it has engage in this with a relatively soft touch with pretenses, because the Shia are outnumbered.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia does not need to pretend. The Saudi government and populace has been fomenting and exporting sectarian hatred for generations. Sectarian hatred even predates oil as an export of the peninsula. In 1802 the Wahhabis under the Saudis sacked Karbala. The Shia of eastern Saudi Arabia live under what is perhaps best analogized to Jim Crow for Americans.
After 9/11 many average Americans asked “why do they hate us?” This is a big question with many answers.
Here is one. For various reasons our government is allied with a neo-medieval monarchy. Most Americans are not too aware of foreign policy, international affairs, and geography. But if you are a well informed citizen of Iran, you know exactly what Saudi Arabia is.
Many Muslims who are Sunni also know what Saudi Arabia is. Many Sunnis rue the day that oil enriched the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, because they believe that it transformed the nature of modern Islam. This is overdone; the Wahhabis of the 18th century in Arabia can be paired up with the Deobandis of 18th century India, or the revivalism of the Sokoto caliphate in the 19th century in the Sahel. But on the margin and in quantitative degrees it is hard to deny that oil wealth has helped shape the ideological topography of modern day Sunni Islam.
The robust American alliance with one of the most extreme regimes in the world makes a farce of our rhetoric of freedom and democracy. But Americans being who we are, we continue to engage in that rhetoric despite the reality that we quickly compromise when the national interest demands it. The strength of the American-Saudi alliance from administration to administration suggests there is far more than what we see above the surface. The rumors that some Muslims spread that the House of Saud has some of the biggest wine cellars in the world illustrates the reality that that regime is very willing to violate the spirit and letter of the laws which it promotes in public.
But the alliance is always a black mark in our American self-perception that we’re a moral superpower. Most Americans don’t realize it, but in the Muslim world it something that people take note of.