Saudi Arabia is the world’s top exporter of oil, and the country has thus figured into U.S. energy policy, foreign policy and security considerations. Now, as the U.S. prepares to usher in a new administration, both presidential candidates are trumpeting plans to decrease dependence on foreign oil.
Contributing blogger Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, examines how Saudis perceive the American election.
Saudi angle on U.S. elections
The Saudis have been remarkably tight-lipped about the U.S. presidential election and about whom they favor among the candidates. Their reticence can be explained, in part, by their bewilderment at the choice.
They don’t know what to think of the real possibility that a young and charismatic black candidate might win. Senator Obama represents the joker in the deck, although they also have a sense that in terms of the pillars of U.S. policy in the Middle East (i.e., oil security and Israel’s security) little will change regardless of the election’s outcome. In other words, they feel the regime’s survival is assured because of the importance of oil.
Historically, the Saudis have favored Republicans for the following reasons: 1) a shared social and economic conservatism and a visceral anti-Communism; 2) the closer ties that Republicans are thought to have to the oil companies and the weapons industry, which represent the two domestic constituencies of, and therefore lobbyists for, the Saudi government in the U.S. political system; and 3) a highly personal (anti-institutional) form of political engagement in foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East. The Saudis like the current President Bush on a personal level, and he appears to relish the all-male gatherings in Saudi Arabia, as can be seen during his last trip to Riyadh in January.
The royal family’s objection to G.W. Bush’s policies have to do with what they perceive to be his impulsive and rash behavior as well as his high-stakes style in foreign policy. On the whole, the Saudis were not in favor of the invasion of Iraq because they were worried of the instability that this would create in the region. The Saudis are, if anything, conservative and don’t like to gamble their survival on military campaigns unless these are absolutely necessary, as in the 1991 Gulf war against the Iraqi invader of Kuwait. Instead, they prefer other means, which include financial inducements and fighting through proxies (e.g., Lebanon today).
Based on all the above, I would guess that the Saudis would prefer if McCain were to win. Furthermore, there are indications that they have a strong dislike to Senator Biden, primarily because of his public criticism of the Saudi royal family, its religious policies, and the very form of rule it represents. The Saudis have been relatively discreet about this animus towards Biden, and when it has surfaced, as in an editorial article by Jamal Khashogi in Al-Watan newspaper earlier this year, it has criticized Biden for his plan to divide Iraq into three parts. I believe the Saudis feel that they can proceed with business-as-usual with McCain but not with Biden, who is, paradoxically perhaps, more ideological when it comes to reforming Saudi Arabia’s regime.
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