Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States since that fateful day almost 70 years ago when President Franklin Roosevelt met King Saud on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Saudi Arabia was the only World War II non-combatant to take part in the Lend Lease program. And the relationship strengthened over subsequent decades alongside a deepening energy partnership. At times, Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally–for example, during Operation Desert Storm. But these instances of assistance pale in comparison to the damage Saudi Arabia has done in the region with its promotion and support of the most extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. To be blunt, Saudi Arabia has been just as corrosive to regional stability over the last decades as has the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only in recent years, as Saudi Arabia has begun to experience blowback from its own support of extremism abroad, has it begun to take the cancer of radicalism more seriously.
But while Saudi Arabia now portrays itself as moderate and responsible, and while many supporters of Israel concerned by Iran reconsider the role of Saudi Arabia in the region, ugly episodes, such as the the sentencing of Shi‘ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to death, remind us just how sectarian and ideological the Saudi Kingdom is. In June, my American Enterprise Institute colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I published a short monograph surveying regional Shi‘ite communities outside Iran. We noted both the legitimate grievances many of these communities have and their efforts to maintain their autonomy from Iran. Many Shi‘ites despise the Islamic Republic and to paint all Shi‘ites as Fifth Columnists is counterproductive. To turn a blind eye to repression of Shi‘ites in countries like Saudi Arabia is to play into Iranian propaganda and give these communities no recourse but to turn to Iran for protection.
Saudi Arabia is as bigoted a country as Turkey or Qatar, its recent attempts to paint a moderate image notwithstanding. It can never become a moderate, responsible partner so long as its embrace of sectarianism trumps tolerance and rule-of-law. Let us hope that Saudi authorities are not so shortsighted as to execute—murder would be as appropriate a term—Sheikh Nimr. And if they do carry out the sentence, Saudi Arabia deserves no support when it faces the storm that follows. It is time to calibrate U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia not to that country’s money and oil but rather to its behavior and willingness to undo the damage it has done over the past half century.