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U.S.-SAUDI ARABIA: Agreeing on Less and Less

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Sep 14 2011 (IPS) - Accumulating strains between the United States and Saudi Arabia are steadily weakening one of the world’s longest lasting and most effective bilateral alliances, according to observers here.

The latest point of contention – Washington’s opposition to this month’s anticipated bid by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for statehood – is only one of a number of issues, ranging from how to react to the so-called “Arab Spring” to the price of oil, that threaten the relationship.

“We’re seeing an increasingly transactional relationship,” according to former ambassador Chas Freeman, who served as Washington’s top diplomat in Riyadh during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.

Washington has been losing credibility with the Saudis since even before the 9/11 attacks when Israel ignored President George W. Bush’s pleas to ease its repression during the second Palestinian intifada, Freeman noted. He spoke at a forum on U.S.-Saudi relations here Monday co-sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center (GRC).

Prof. Gregory Gause, a prominent Saudi expert at the University of Vermont, agreed. “The relationship is now based more on common interests than on a shared worldview,” he said. “What keeps it together is the lack of an alternative.”

The increasingly fraught relationship was brought home once again Monday when Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence forces who also served as ambassador here from 2005 to 2007, published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Veto a State, Lose an Ally”.

If Washington does not support the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership, “Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically,” he wrote.

A veto, he warned, would not only “have profound negative consequences” for U.S.-Saudi relations but would also “undermine (U.S.) relations with the Muslim world, empower Iran and threaten regional security”.

U.S.-Saudi relations date back to the 1930s, but became much stronger during World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt declared Saudi Arabia’s defence a “vital” U.S. interest, and the early days of the Cold War. Ties have always rested primarily on a basic bargain of security for oil.

With the exception of Riyadh’s participation in the Arab oil embargo during the October 1973 war, the two countries have cooperated closely on a range of issues, particularly during the 1980s when Saudi Arabia helped finance the so-called “Reagan Doctrine” whose aim was to overthrow purportedly pro-Soviet governments in Central America, southern Africa, and Afghanistan.

In the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia served as the launching pad for the U.S.-led campaign to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and Washington maintained a not insignificant military presence in the kingdom until shortly after 9/11.

But the relationship suffered a number of blows in the first years of the Bush administration.

In addition to then-Crown Prince Abdullah’s disappointment with Washington’s inability to rein in Israeli actions in the Palestinian Territories, the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals created a storm of negative publicity, especially about the degree of private Saudi backing for Al-Qaeda and other violent Islamist movements.

Adding to bilateral tensions was the Bush administration’s failure to respond positively to Abdullah’s plan for peace with Israel that was adopted by the Arab League at its Beirut Summit in 2002, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The invasion was strongly opposed by Riyadh which feared – correctly, as it turned out – that Saddam Hussein’s removal would significantly enhance Iran’s regional power and influence.

Of the three post-9/11 issues, only one – cooperation on counterterrorism and related efforts to defeat Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist movements – has seen significant improvement in bilateral relations, according to both sides.

“They’re not just killing terrorists… but they’re also attacking the ideology of terrorism,” according to Freeman. “It is one area of the relationship that has been flourishing.”

The other issues remain serious points of contention, however. While President Barack Obama has repeatedly praised the Arab Peace Initiative, as the Abdullah plan is now known, he has been unable to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to accept it as a basis of negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We were full of enthusiasm” for Obama’s election and his initial policy statements,” said Abdulaziz Sager, GRC’s chairman and founder. “Somehow today, unfortunately, by saying the U.S. will veto Palestine (at the U.N.), that has created a lot of disappointment.”

At the same time, Obama’s plans to withdraw all but a few thousand U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year is seen by the Saudis as likely to consolidate Iran’s influence over its western neighbour, whose Shi’a-led government has shown little interest in reconciling with its Sunni minority, and beyond.

“There is no more buffer state in Iraq,” noted Mustafa Alani, director of the GRC’s Security and Terrorism Studies programme, who said Tehran posed both a “strategic threat and an internal threat” to the Saudis.

To these strains, new ones have been added as a result of this year’s “Arab Spring”.

Abdullah is reported to have been personally appalled by Obama’s pressing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign, and Washington and Riyadh clashed publicly over the crackdown by Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy against its majority Shi’a population, especially after as many as 2,000 Saudi and Emirati troops were sent to shore up King Hamad.

That operation was seen as the most dramatic example of what analysts have described as Riyadh’s “counter-revolutionary agenda” in the Gulf, if not the wider region.

“The United States has had a very ambiguous position (on the Arab Spring), and I think the relationship with Saudi Arabia has not helped,” said Marina Ottaway, a democratisation specialist at Carnegie.

“The differences (between the two countries) …on the direction political evolution in the Arab world should take …are sharpening,” according to Freeman, who also expressed concern about the impact of growing Islamophobia in the U.S. and the West on relations with Riyadh.

Moreover, the budgetary drain caused by Saudi Arabia’s multi-billion- dollar aid packages to shore up fellow-monarchies and other conservative regimes in the region, as well as the 130 billion dollars in new domestic subsidies it announced earlier this year to pre-empt internal demands for change, is likely to translate into higher global oil prices, according to Gause.

“Oil is one thing that could lead to more tensions in the future,” he said.

Most observers note that Riyadh’s continued reliance on U.S. arms sales – it agreed in principle late last year to buy at least 60 billion dollars in advanced military aircraft over a 20-year period – as well as its continuing purchase of dollars shows that some of the relationship’s fundamentals remain very much in tact.

But Washington should not be over-confident, according to Freeman, who noted that Riyadh is increasingly looking eastwards, particularly in its commercial relations.

U.S.-manufactured products and other exports now claim about half of the Saudi market share, less than they did a decade ago, and East Asia now accounts for half of all Saudi trade.

China overtook the U.S. as Riyadh’s top oil customer at about the time of the Iraq invasion which also coincided with the withdrawal of all U.S. soldiers from the kingdom.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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