The US's 60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia raises few questions in the mainstream media's presentation.
Oct 21, 2010

The US's 60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia raises few questions in the mainstream media's presentation.

As the Obama administration passes the potentially record breaking, 60 billion dollar arms deal to Saudi Arabia, it is worthwhile to note the lack of any notable opposition among the mainstream media or even a genuine examination of the relationship and background. The close US-SA relationship is so unquestioned by the establishment that it is essentially outside of the prominent public discourse, despite some striking contradictions. Most in the public know little of the relationship, unlike the relationship with Israel or Iraq which is discussed extensively.  It is a relationship that ought to be explored for Saudi Arabia directly contradicts many western values yet enjoys enormous de facto, unquestioned support as this arms deal represents. I lead off with a bit of the background of Saudi Arabia and its relationship with the US, and then discuss this arms deal in that context and the emerging geopolitical realities of the region.

If one were to analyze the states of the Middle East by compatibility of their society with the US, Saudi Arabia would be near the bottom. Far from being even remotely democratic, its kingship is ranked the 7th most authoritarian regime in the world. It has many oppressive human rights abuses, a very substandard rule if law and horrific treatment of women. It exports radical and even militant Islam (recall 9/11 originated in SA as opposition to US influence in SA) to places like Afghanistan through it's massive international madrassa networks, arms and funds transfers and the like. It is the embodiment of a fully Islamic state with Sharia as its constitution. Now I should be clear, I believe in tolerance and cultural relativism. However, the conclusion that SA is simply culturally very divergent from western values can be objectively supported. In particular, given the strength of anti Islamic bias in the western media, one would expect such a radically Islamic state to get a lot of negative attention when being supported by the US through deals like this. It isn't that these attributes reject the ability for the US to be a firm Saudi ally in my mind, merely that open discussion and pressure on these issues ought to be maintained.

Despite these aspects of its nature, the US has essentially unconditionally supported the Saudi regime for several decades. Outside of Israel, they are the US's most important ally in the region. This massive military deal represents a component of this unilateral support.  Of course, SA is a very strategic and economically important ally because of its situation at the top of oil exporting nations ever since it won pricing power for oil from the US in the 70s. As was seen in the oil shocks in the 70s, if the flow of oil from SA is disrupted the consequences can be devastating. SA also has a lot of influence and importance in the geopolitics of the region. When you see these advantages of SA being such an important ally, it isn't hard to guess why the issues with SA like its complete lack of any semblance of democracy and freedoms don't factor in as relevant when giving unconditional arms deals. Now the US administration supports the Saudi regime in numerous ways military, political and diplomatic ways such as this arms deal,  but the largest single way is through oil itself. The revenues make up some 70% of the revenues of the regime and directly support it. Given its unpopularity, it is not contentious that without US backing the regime would have collapsed; indeed, it still may. The result of this asymmetry where the US is so dependent on Saudi oil means they have no meaningful capacity to pressure the Saudis to make changes in any other ways.

The question now turns to the absence of this discussion in the US media. If it is as glaring an asymmetry as I suggest, one would expect it to be an important issue. Indeed, the media laments vociferously about the issues of non democratic and Islamic states like Iran or Iraq in the lead up to war. Why is SA not a focal point of condemnation as well and why does the media not pressure the administration to pressure Saudi Arabia the way it does for Iran? The answer I think is in the homogenized bias of the media that overwhelmingly accepts the administrations framing of political issues. When the administration consistently vilifies Iran and takes steps against it like it's unilateral sanctions, hr media runs with that framing. Even when people, like myself, disagree with the administration it is very hard to do it outside of the context of the framing. With Saudi Arabia, the framing is either entirely positive or just absent with no discussion on the issues as sourced by the administration for the media to present. Hence the juxtaposition.

Another aspect of this story is with regards to the evolving geopolitical reality of the region. Namely, the rise of Iran as the other dominant player in the middle east. Supporting military hardware in Saudi Arabia boosts the checks on potential Iranian aggression and projected power. It is interesting to note the Israeli media actually lauding this despite Saudi Arabia conventionally being seen as opposed to Israeli interests. Iran, it seems, is polarizing enough to overcome these differences. There have been unconfirmed reports of an Israeli-Saudi air corridor through which Israel could potentially attack targets in Iran, presumably nuclear targets. It should be noted that these helicopters and jets are explicitly offensive weapons. In the case of providing antimissile systems in Bahrain and Qatar these are technically defensive weapons. However, they should be best seen in the context (as is well understood in military doctrine, by the way, this point isn't contentious) of removing the Iranian deterrent of missile strike retaliation. Hence, they allow for aggression against Iran by reducing Iran's ability have a deterrent of being able to strike back at important cities.

If we were to be open and honest about these relationships which, while right on the surface, are surprisingly rare in the mainstream discourse, we might be able to use the US influence to move in the right direction. As it is, the US not only gives a blank slate to Saudi Arabia's ruling family, they actively support them to a phenomenal degree.

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