The United States has usually looked the other way or issued carefully calibrated warnings in human rights reports as the Saudi royal family cracked down on dissent and free speech and allowed its elite to fund Islamic extremists. In return, Saudi Arabia became America’s most dependable filling station, a regular supplier of intelligence, and a valuable counterweight to Iran. For years, it was oil that acted as glue for a bond between two nations that share few common values.
Today, with American oil production surging and the Saudi leadership fractured, the mutual dependency that goes back to the early 1930s, with the first American investment in the kingdom’s oil fields, no longer binds the nations as it once did.
But the political upheaval in the West Asia and the American perception that the Saudis are critical to stability in the region continue to hold together an increasingly fractious marriage. So when Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, on Saturday, the administration’s efforts to explain the relationship became more strained than ever.
In 2011, Saudi leaders berated President Obama and his aides for failing to support President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt during the Arab Spring, fearing Obama might do the same thing if the uprisings spread to the kingdom.
When Kerry warned the Saudis against executing Sheikh Nimr, he was ignored. “This is a concern that we raised with the Saudis in advance,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, acknowledged on Monday.
But that was about as strongly as the administration was willing to criticise the Saudis. Pressed to condemn Sheikh Nimr’s execution, officials urged calm on all sides. State department spokesman John Kirby urged the entire region to move on to the business of confronting the IS.