The U.S. has had a close relationship with Saudi Arabia for more than 70 years. However, the 9/11 attacks, human rights concerns, U.S. oil development and diverging interests in the Middle East have strained this relationship.
A group of four experts debated what should be done about this tense alliance under the motion: "The special U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship has outlived its usefulness."
For the motion: Madawi Al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, and leading authority on Saudi Arabia's history and politics. And Mark P. Lagon, a Centennial Fellow and distinguished senior scholar at the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Against the motion: F. Gregory Gause, who is a John H. Lindsey Chair and head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University. And James Jeffrey, a Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute and a former ambassador to Ankara and Baghdad.
Opening arguments: For the motion
One thing Americans need to remember is that what happens inside Saudi Arabia has implications in the U.S. and the rest of the world as well, said Madawi Al-Rasheed.
When the "special relationship" between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia was formed there were two key issues: oil and security.
During the cold war Saudi Arabia's oil wealth and strategic location made it a useful ally. And after 1979 when the main ally of the U.S., Shah of Iran, toppled America had to find a new one, Al Rasheed said.
"The special relationship meant that the U.S. offered Saudi Arabia uncritical, unequivocal, and unconditional support for more than seven decades," said Al-Rasheed.
America's support of the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia today is against national interests as the regime oppresses its people, marginalizes women, discriminates against religious minorities and interferes in domestic affairs, she said.
"Unconditional U.S. support legitimizes the regime and authoritarianism, and makes the U.S. vulnerable to accusations of double standard," Al-Rasheed said.
Opening arguments: Against the motion
If this debate focused only on arguments concerning values the opposing side would win, since it is clear that Saudi Arabia does not share values with the U.S., said Gregory Gause, arguing the focus should instead be on interests.
"The Middle East is a very strategic area. It's in flames right now. And having a relationship with a stable country in the Middle East that has influence in Syria, in Yemen, in other parts — in Iraq, in other parts of the Middle East that are in flames we think is actually very useful to the United States," Gause said.
It wouldn't be accurate or fair to pin all of the jihadist movement on Saudi Arabia as many countries have had citizens join ISIS, including the U.S. And in fact, while ISIS has shared beliefs with Saudi Arabia the terrorist group is in opposition to its society as a whole, he said.
So sustaining our relationship with Saudi Arabia is essential not only because of its strategic positioning but because it is an ally in the fight against terrorist movements. "What we cannot do is make the argument against al-Qaeda and ISIS within their own intellectual framework, and the Saudis can do that," Gause said.
To listen to the debate, click the audio player above.
• Post-election: Trump closes companies tied to Saudi Arabia
• MPR News Presents: The tide may be turning against ISIS
• Intelligence Squared: Statistics and experiences clash in debate on bias in policing
• Experts debate: Is giving President Trump a chance open-minded or dangerous?
MPR News presents offers speeches, documentaries and debates — airing weekdays from noon to 1 p.m.