"Made in California, USA" -- these were the words engraved on the handcuffs around my wrists as I sat in the cement corridor at Dammam Mabahith prison. I was 14 years old. My youngest brother Kamil spent a day there and he has been back behind bars there many times. He is still there.

Those words shaped my teenage perception of the United States. America was helping the Saudi Monarchy put me in jail. Eighteen months before and during the first uprising in Saudi history in the winter of 1979, U.S.-made airplanes, and most likely flown by American pilots, hovered over our city and I played cat and mouse with them. They used their powerful spotlights to illuminate the entire neighborhood. The next day, two of my cousins lost their lives shot dead by Saudi forces. These memories will never escape me.

For decades, the U.S. helped its Arab dictator allies crush their people’s aspirations for freedom and greater participation in political and economic power. The red scare was used until the Soviet Union collapsed, only to be replaced by another scare, this time Islamic extremism and terrorism.

Even before I was born, the U.S. helped dictators block the natural evolution of history where the people’s share of power becomes greater. That was clear in the CIA- and the U.K.-backed coup that toppled the secular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. 

What would the world look like if Mosaddegh was never overthrown? What shape would the global landscape take if the U.S. never helped any of its favorite dictators oppress their people?

I think I would never have been arrested at such a tender age. Many of my relatives would not have died, jailed and tortured. I would not have had to live in exile for the last 30 years, and I would not have missed my mother’s last years.

My story is not unique to other countries in the Arab and Muslim world. The one-sided U.S. policy toward our countries has not changed much in the past 60 years. It should change and it will not be the end of the world.

In my country, the U.S. focused on a sole player: the Saudi ruling family. The U.S. not only ignored the rest of society but also aided the monarchy’s efforts to crush and silence opposition, including the secular and forward-looking. No matter what type of opposition it was, the U.S. found a good reason to dismiss it. A U.S. official once told me that a woman’s rights activist was too confrontational and that King Abdullah was doing a great job with reforms.

For decades, the U.S. enjoyed unfettered access to the Saudi state’s power centers, and never thought to use it to empower the country’s people. The U.S. did not use its vast influence over Saudi leaders to advance human rights or end wealth inequity. A great example of this happened 30 years ago this month, after U.S. forces led the liberation of Kuwait. At that moment, the U.S. was at the peak of its influence on Kuwait’s rulers, the Al Sabah clan, which it reinstated to power. At that time Kuwaiti women were not allowed to vote or run for elections. The George H.W. Bush administration did not even think a second to ask the Al Sabah ruling family to allow women to vote. It was just a matter of asking and nothing more, but they did not. If they did, the answer would have undoubtedly been yes.

Now that the Biden administration is rethinking its Saudi policy, it is finding that Saudi strongman Mohamed bin Salman has all but eliminated U.S. access to the Saudi state except through him. MBS, as he is known, has grabbed all centers of power in his hand. This is a direct result of empowering a dictator who then usurps all the power for themselves. Dictators are jealous creatures, and they do not like to share, not even with those who brought them to power.

It is time that the U.S. normalizes its policy with the Saudi state. The U.S. needs a policy that actually includes the populations of our countries in its plans. When the U.S. supported the Shah against the Iranian people, it lost Iran, maybe forever. But when it ended its unwavering support for the apartheid in South Africa, the sky did not fall, and the U.S. still had an ally in South Africa.

MBS is not the only choice for Saudi Arabia. Neither is the Saudi ruling clan. Even if the Al Saud were to disappear tomorrow, that land and its people would go on, and they might be better off without those U.S.-made handcuffs that have shackled them for decades.  And then, the U.S. would also be no longer guilty of supporting oppressors. 

Ali Al Ahmed is the Director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs