Citizens International

How damaged are US-Saudi ties?

by Robert Kennedy


Tensions high between long-time allies, but is the “special relationship” really in serious trouble?



Doha, Qatar – It was one of the most important bilateral meetings of the 20th century when an American president invited an Arab king aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal in February 1945.

The leaders of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union had recently planned the future of the post-war world at the Yalta conference, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was keen to secure a US foothold in the Middle East.

On the deck of the US warship, the American crew set up a tent with rugs, cushions, and a decorative chair for King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman al-Saud, since the Bedouin warrior preferred the outdoors to the confinement of a small cabin.

Abdul Aziz and Roosevelt discussed many things, including US access to Saudi ports, the construction of American military bases, and Saudi support for a Jewish state in the Middle East. Saudi’s copious crude oil was also a hot topic.

Nearly 70 years later, the warship meeting continues to generate great geopolitical repercussions, with the US providing security assurances to the House of Saud, and the Americans receiving tanker after tanker full of the crude it so deeply desires.

But recent fissures in the “special relationship” have some questioning whether the two sides are at an irreconcilable crossroads.

Saudi Arabia in recent weeks has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with US policies, including the decision not intervene militarily in the bloody Syrian civil war.

Moves by Washington to ease 34 years of animosity with Saudi’s regional rival Iran, and US acquiescence to Israel’s continued expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories have also frustrated the kingdom.

Saudi’s chief of intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was quoted as saying the status quo could force the country to “shift away” from the United States.

Saudi Arabia also rejected a two-year term on the UN Security Council citing a lack action over Syria. “This was a message for the US, not the UN,” Bandar reportedly told European diplomats on the decision to renounce a seat.

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Riyadh last week and met King Abdullah in apparent move to smooth things over.

“This is a deep relationship and it has endured now for more than 70 years, and it will endure well into the future,” Kerry said at a press conference.

His counterpart, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, was equally diplomatic. “It’s only natural that our policies and views might see agreement in some areas and disagreement in others.”

Beyond the niceties in front of the cameras, some pundits suggest the United States’ unilateral moves in the Middle East have angered Saudi leadership to the point where Riyadh needed a public outburst to regain Washington’s attention.

Deepening tensions

Saudi-US disagreements are nothing new, analysts point out. Relations have been marked by oil embargoes, US weapon export restrictions, and ongoing Saudi concern for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

After the September 11 attacks ties frayed publicly as 15 of the 19 hijackers held Saudi passports, and the US began accusing Riyadh of exporting extremism.

The next flare up was the 2003 Iraq War, with Saudi Arabia warning Saddam Hussein’s removal would allow Iranian influence to grow, the exact scenariothat has come to fruition.

But what is new this time, observers say, is the United States’ reaction to the Arab Spring uprisings in the region, particularly in Egypt, where Saudi Arabia’s long-time ally Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011. Some have suggested the US pressed Mubarak to do so.

“The argument could be made there’s something new here, and that this may be harder to smooth over,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, told Al Jazeera.

“The Arab uprisings brought on this new gap; disagreement on the role of democracy and whether the US should be supporting these regional changes.”

US acceptance, however reluctant, of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt also riled the House of Saud. So too has Washington’s post-coup criticism, albeit subtle, of the Egyptian military after Mohamed Morsi’s removal.

But analysts say this summer’s decision by Washington to back away from attacking Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria over alleged chemical weapons use against civilians finally forced the Saudi’s hand.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, was the Americans apparent inability to follow through on their commitment to do something about the Syrian regime and chemical weapons,” Gerd Nonneman, dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, told Al Jazeera.

Hamid agreed that Syria is a main factor after Assad’s regime recaptured territory from Saudi-backed rebels in recent months, and there’s “a new sense of urgency and concern whether Syria has been lost”.

Thaw with Iran

Seeking an ease of crippling economic sanctions over its nuclear programme, new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made overtures that US President Barack Obama accepted, with the leaders speaking by telephone in September in the highest-level contact between the two countries since 1979.

While negotiations remain early days and recent face-to-face talks in Geneva failed to bear fruit, the US move towards Iran has infuriated Saudi Arabia.

“It is a major point in the current friction – the fact that the Americans didn’t consult them [Saudi leaders], as they see sufficiently, before moving in this direction,” Nonneman said.

Saudi Arabia has overreacted to the discussions as the US and Iran are focusing only on a narrow nuclear deal, not full-blown détente, said Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

But even so, any rapprochement between Tehran and Washington should be accepted by the Saudis, despite longstanding animosity between the regional rivals, said Nonneman.

“They’ve always seen them [Iran] as a geopolitical challenger and at times ideological challenger, but they have been able to work out a modus vivendiwith them [in the past]. So there is absolutely no reason why that kind of pragmatic adaptation cannot return,” he said.

Serious break?

While much has been made about Riyadh’s rumblings, all analysts interviewed agreed there was virtually no chance of a major split in Saudi-US relations. One reason: economics is still a considerable factor binding the two tightly together.

Trade continues to boom with US goods and services exports to Sauditotaling $17bn in 2011. A key component of US exports is weaponry, with Saudi purchasing 84 F-15 fighter jets for $29.4bn in 2011. Multi-billion dollar arms deals don’t appear to be drying up anytime soon.

Going the other way, meanwhile, is crude oil – and lots of it. In 2012, 15 percent of Saudi oil exports went to the United States, according to the US Energy Information Administration, making it the second-largest petroleum exporter to the US behind Canada.

So is Saudi seriously considering a break with its long-time patron?

Despite the discord, when it comes to regional security in the tumultuous Middle East, the United States is “the only game in town” for Saudi Arabia, said Hamid.

“I think what the Saudis are trying to do is get the US to be more considerate of its interests and preferences. But if the US doesn’t become more considerate, I don’t think we’ll see a fundamental shift, because that’s not an option right now,” Hamid said.

Nonneman concurred, saying the Saudis may explore “complimentary relationships,” but at the end of the day, Riyadh needs the US’ military might.

“The al-Saud have always looked to the hegemon of the day – that is the United States … The Saudis are not going to simply drop that.”

Joshi was equally certain that all is fundamentally well in the so-called special relationship.

“The day that Saudi Arabia stops buying US weapons and tries to kick the US out of the Gulf, that is the day we can talk about a breakdown in relations.”