Old friends US and Saudi Arabia feel the rift growing, seek new partners

As the U.S. goes ahead with de-freezing its relations with Iran, the yawning gap between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. continues to widen.

US President Barack Obama's April visit to Saudi Arabia was overshadowed by Riyadh's doubts about Washington's commitment to their security

US President Barack Obama’s April visit to Saudi Arabia was overshadowed by Riyadh’s doubts about Washington’s commitment to their security and political interests

While in their recent meeting, John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart looked forward to taking their bi-lateral relations to the next level, Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his attempts at pacifying the House of Saud turned out to be a “glorious” failure of diplomacy.

The “dry reception” Obama received in Riyadh clearly reflects the mood. The House of Saud is unhappy with the way the U.S. handled Iran and Syria, and withdrew from Yemen, all of a sudden, leaving the Saudis “in lurch” and forcing them into a sort strategic partnership with one of their historical competitors, Turkey.

The “bad mood” scenario seems to be unsettling the old “friends” and paving the way for “new friendships.” A gradual, historical and important development is in the offing. Eight decades of strategic ties between Washington and Riyadh are undergoing a fundamental change. It is not that the two countries will suddenly throw away all bonds of friendship and turn into all-out enemies. But the strong and strategic bond between them is gradually changing its terms.

While Saudi Arabia and the U.S. tend to blame each other for various ‘disasters’ their policies have caused, one of the main reasons for their estrangement is the oil factor. Gradual reduction of the U.S dependence on Saudi oil and the falling position of Saudi Arabia in the management of global oil market – which was evident recently through the failure of the Qatar meeting – have caused another bond of alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia to lose steam.

Although the Obama administration has sold almost $95 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia, the two countries differ on core issues such as Syria, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Riyadh’s strong view that the US is withdrawing from the region, the Iranian nuclear deal and the US “acquiescence” in a rising Iran have created suspicion and mistrust forcing Saudi Arabia to review its foreign policy. Its outreach to Turkey and Egypt is a sequel to this.

As far as the U.S. position is concerned, its increasing “tilt” towards Iran is perhaps the result of the “widely held belief”, based on recent “revelations” among policy makers about the role Saudi Arabia has played in fomenting jihadist conflict in the Middle East as well as promoting numerous extremist outfits.

These facts have only very recently been confirmed by former Democratic Senator Bob Graham who was entrusted with preparing the report on the infamous 9/11 attacks. The former US official has declared that the documents he was working with contained information on Saudi Arabia’s training of the terrorists who committed these horrendous attacks. Moreover, on April 18, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications and Speech-Writing Ben Rhodes announced that the creation of al-Qaeda was sponsored by funds allocated by the Saudi government and Al Saud royal family members.

For the U.S., therefore, Iran appears to be a better choice as a ‘regional ally’ and a means to pressure Saudi Arabia. That the U.S. is ‘cultivating’ Iran is evident from the way Tehran has been offered a more active role, within the framework of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in the resolution of regional crises during the past months. This will form the basis for shaping new security arrangements in the region. Without doubt, the crisis in Syria is at the heart of the building process of this new order.

That the House of Saud is extremely unsettled by these developments is evident from the emphasis it placed on the need to counter regional “mischief-makers” in the final statement of the Istanbul summit of Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The final statement of the summit has at least three paragraphs against Iran and one against the Lebanese resistance-militant movement, Hezbollah.

Of course, the final statement was not read out due to opposition from certain members and Iran’s threat and pressure, but the mere inclusion of these paragraphs in the final statement was enough to prompt Iranian president and foreign minister not to take part in the final session.

This approach contradicts the policy the U.S. is following vis-à- vis Iran. The crucial question, therefore, for the U.S. is how to strike a balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. can, by any means, reconcile them. What it can do, and is already trying to do, is to keep a calculated distance from Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. cannot altogether abandon Saudi Arabia. Abandoning would imply creating a huge gap between the U.S. and most of the Gulf region– a gap that Russia and China can potentially fill to the disadvantage of the U.S. The risk, therefore, is too high.

And the U.S. seems willing to take the risk only to the extent of forcing Saudi Arabia into changing some of its policies, especially the support it continues to provide to some extremist groups in Syria and Yemen. Hence, an overwhelming projection in the U.S. regarding the House of Saud’s role in fomenting extremism in the region and beyond.

While some tend to believe that the U.S.-Saudi relations will normalize following the installation of new government in the U.S., it is highly unlikely to happen, given that neither can the U.S. reverse its relations with Iran to the pre-deal scenario nor can it afford to keep itself militarily engaged for too long a period in wars that the House of Saud has triggered in the Middle East.

Dynamics of their relations are changing and are likely to change further in the near future, where we might see renewed emphasis within Saudi Arabia on re-defining relations with Russia as well as Israel. Better relations with Russia would allow it to counter the pressure coming from the U.S. and Israel would help the House of Saud maintain a strong position vis-à- vis Iran in the region.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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