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U.S. Must Normalize Its Relationship With Saudi Arabia, Expert says


Bruised but never broken, that might describe America's long-standing partnership with Saudi Arabia over the years. It's an alliance that dates back to the Cold War. The United States found itself aligned with Saudi Arabia as it recruited fighters to push Soviet troops and their atheism out of Afghanistan.

ALI AL-AHMED: Islam was used as a tool to serve political goals of the United States and the Saudi monarchy. This idea of jihad was created to serve a political purpose.

GREENE: That's Ali Al-Ahmed. He is director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs and also a vocal critic of the Saudi government. He said he's concerned that the U.S.-Saudi partnership has endured despite the kingdom's poor human rights record and its uncertain links to extremist movements.

AL-AHMED: The U.S., when it comes to foreign policy, rarely changed direction. And if you take an example of Cuba, for example, it took 50 years. And I applaud President Obama for changing that policy.

GREENE: But repositioning with a longtime partner, especially at such a volatile moment in the Mideast, could prove a lot more complicated.

I wonder about the reality in the world today and the dynamic we're seeing. You have Iran, which has been in this conflict and sort of a power struggle with Saudi Arabia. You've got Russia that is aligned with Iran. If the U.S. just suddenly distances itself now from Saudi Arabia, I mean, might that embolden Iran, embolden Russia and be potentially really dangerous for the United States?

AL-AHMED: It's my belief that because there has been too much leaning toward the Saudi position by the Americans, it has created this tension between the Iranians and the Saudis. I believe if the U.S. steps back little bit from the Saudis, it will force them to come together.

GREENE: So you're suggesting the close relationship with the Saudis is actually preventing any potential for the Iranians and the Saudis to work together.

AL-AHMED: I really absolutely do because the Saudis believe that the United States is their proxy, and the U.S. has done that in the fact, you know. If you look at the U.S. wars in the Middle East, they are basically Saudi wars that the U.S. had to fight. The Saudis might have written a check, but it was American soldiers who've died in these wars, and that's not what serves U.S. interests in the region. I wouldn't say, you know, the U.S. should turn against the Saudi government. I think that it has to normalize the relationship because right now it's an abnormal relationship. They must deal with the Saudi government as they deal with the German government, the French government for some of their domestic policies. Why is Saudi Arabia an exception? Do not spare them criticism. And this is the problem that gave rise to ISIS and extremism. So the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States today is creating problems for the United States, for the region and emboldening extremism and terrorism.

GREENE: Now just make that argument for me, if you can, why the close relationship with Saudi Arabia may be helping to or having helped to create ISIS and embolden terrorists.

AL-AHMED: The United States support for the Saudi government has given them a sense of security that they can do anything without repercussion. They have continued to allow the growth of terrorism. They're raising more money. In fact, a TV station that is broadcasting from Saudi Arabia called Wesal, the phone number that they use is a Riyadh phone number. And they call for attacks. They endorse attacks. There has been always this, oh, this is private individuals. That line has been peddled for so many years, but Saudi Arabia is not the United States where there's a lot of personal freedoms. Anything that happens in Saudi Arabia or any Gulf country is under the direct or indirect control of the government.

GREENE: But let me just ask. I mean, the Saudi government would obviously deny much of what you're saying. But if there were the links that you're talking about, what would be in the interest of people in the Saudi government to support links to ISIS?

AL-AHMED: If you look at al-Qaida and the ISIS, they have really served the regional goals of the Saudi government, they attack their enemies. They destabilize Syria, Iraq and Yemen. So I think there is a need to have real, honest reassessment of that relationship. This is not to call to break a relationship with the Saudi government but to really normalize it. So you deal with that government as you deal with other governments.

GREENE: That was Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs. And we should say NPR reached out to the Saudi government for a comment about Wesal, the TV station mentioned there. An embassy spokesman says it is not a Saudi-owned or supported channel and that Saudi Arabia is fully committed to confronting terrorism in all of its forms. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.