Saudi Arabia has been throwing a diplomatic temper tantrum lately, threatening a “major shift” away from the U.S. over differences on Iran, Syria and other issues. The Obama administration can relax.
Trouble has been brewing in this relationship for years. Saudi Arabia was aghast at President Barack Obama’s support for the 2011 Egyptian revolution, which overthrew another old U.S. ally, former President Hosni Mubarak. It was aggrieved, too, at the lack of U.S. support for that year’s Saudi-led intervention to put down a pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain.
More recently, in July, the Saudis took issue with U.S. criticism of the military coup that toppled Egypt’s freely elected Muslim Brotherhood regime. While the Saudis pledged billions of dollars of support for the thinly disguised junta that took control in Cairo, the U.S cut aid to undermine it.
Now the Saudis are fretting that rejuvenated U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy might lead to a wider rapprochement at their expense. Above all, the Saudis have lost patience with Obama’s hesitance in arming the rebels who are fighting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, an Iranian ally. The final straw appears to have been U.S.’s decision to cancel planned missile strikes to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons, and Obama’s support for a Russian-backed disarmament plan and peace talks.
This list of grievances has led the Saudis to direct a series of angry gestures at Washington, beginning with their refusal to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month. Then last week, in an unprecedented step, Saudi Arabia rejected the offer of a prized seat on the UN Security Council. This week, the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, reportedly told European diplomats that the kingdom would stop cooperating with the Central Intelligence Agency in Syria, and would work with Jordan and France instead.
Other Saudi officials have said the country will no longer feel constrained to arm only moderate, U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, and hinted that it would look for new suppliers for its own weapons needs, other than the U.S.
Saudi Arabia is shooting itself in the foot. Spurning a seat on the UN Security Council has deprived it of an important platform and will make no difference to Russia’s and China’s support for the Assad regime. Nor will refusing to cooperate with the U.S. make Obama fall in line with the Saudi goal of an absolute rebel victory in Syria. Instead, the White House probably will become even more skeptical of the increasingly fragmented Islamist opposition forces and of Saudi Arabia’s reliability as a partner in Syria.
Second, many of the Saudis’ fears are absurdly inflated. For instance, if Obama’s intention had been to strike an easy deal with Iran, he could have done so long ago. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has authorized the country’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, to seek a possible agreement on the nuclear program -- nothing more. The U.S. won’t reopen its embassy in Tehran any time soon, nor hand over control of the Persian Gulf to the Iranians as it did in the days of the shah. Saudi Arabia’s paranoia in this regard says more about its insecurities than it does about U.S. intentions.
Third, Saudi leverage over the U.S. is limited. Consider its threat to look for other allies. True, the kingdom has in the past successfully played its friends against one another. In the 1980s, for instance, when the U.S. Congress blocked the sale of F-15 fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom bought British Tornados instead.
That approach probably wouldn’t work today. After the British Parliament’s vote in August against military intervention in Syria, the U.K. is, if anything, cagier about Syria than the U.S. France, another traditional Saudi partner, has even suggested that Iran might be brought into next month’s peace talks in Geneva.
Some Saudi commentators, such as royal adviser Nawaf Obaid, suggest that Saudi Arabia might look to Arab allies to shore up its security. This is fanciful. Earlier Saudi efforts to bring fellow monarchies Jordan and Morocco into the Gulf Cooperation Council failed miserably, as have all efforts at political union. And even if they agreed on policy, the Gulf militaries would struggle to work together in a war. Greater Arab cooperation might supplement U.S. power, but can’t supplant it.
Where the Saudis have leverage, it is hard for them to use it without hurting themselves. Only last year, Saudi Arabia and U.S. intelligence services worked closely to foil an al-Qaeda bomb plot in the Arabian Peninsula. Ending such cooperation would make the Saudis more vulnerable, even as al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates are gaining new footholds.
Simply put, only the U.S. -- which still has about 20,000 troops stationed in the Middle East -- can guarantee Saudi Arabia’s security against major threats. As the region becomes more unstable, this dependence is rising. No surprise, then, that the Saudis didn’t let their anger get in the way of a $6.8 billion arms deal to purchase advanced U.S. bombs and missiles, the details of which were revealed this week.
So what does all this mean for the future of the alliance? It has survived far greater strain, including the periods after the 1973 oil embargo and the second Iraq war. Those tensions never stopped the U.S. from stepping in when Saudi Arabia felt existentially threatened, as it did in Gulf War, and when the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz has been in danger.
The common interests that bind this diplomatic odd couple aren’t about to vanish. The shale revolution and resulting fall in U.S. dependence on Gulf energy will probably dilute ties over the longer term. Yet the U.S. will continue to have a strong interest in stable world energy markets and, consequently, in ensuring stability in and around Saudi Arabia. Nor will the shale revolution dissipate the need for cooperation in other areas, such as counterterrorism.
The U.S. shouldn’t allow hollow Saudi threats to deter it from pursuing its regional diplomacy by. It is understandable that U.S. partners want to be consulted and forewarned on matters that affect their security. But when they oppose diplomatic solutions or demand unrealistic terms, they shouldn’t be allowed to act as spoilers.
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