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U.S.-Saudi Ties Go From Bad to Worse

February 1, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

For almost 70 years, the foundation of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy rested on the kingdom’s relationship with the United States. America guaranteed Saudi securityimages during a famous 1945 meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. That commitment had stood the test of history.

The past three years, however, have brought enormous turbulence to the Middle East, and the Saudis have found Washington’s response increasingly worrisome. Saudi rulers are questioning America’s reliability as an ally and protector. They see the U.S. gradually relinquishing its pre-eminent role and allowing revolutionary Iran to expand its sphere of influence. As a result, the Saudis have launched a risky new foreign policy, one that discards the low-key, risk-averse, quiet diplomacy of previous years in favor of an assertive, high-risk, high-profile effort to shape the outcome of the many crises in the region.

Until recently, the Saudis had felt well-protected under the American security umbrella. The 1945 deal, reaffirmed by every president since FDR, dictated that the Saudis guaranteed vital oil supplies and the U.S. promised protection and a measure of stability. When Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi forces into Kuwait in 1990, the U.S sent more than half a million American military personnel into Saudi Arabia to prevent an Iraqi invasion, followed by a war that pushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait. America was a trusted and reliable ally, whose strategic objectives seemed to line up neatly with the Saudi’s.

It all started changing after the Arab uprisings toppled strongmen who had been allied with Washington. The Saudis and other American partners were troubled to find America turning its back on stalwart allies. They found it deeply disturbing when America refused to support Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and became downright alarmed when the U.S. tried to do business with the Muslim Brotherhood after one of its leaders, Mohammed Morsi, became president.

But the defining turning point for Riyadh came last August, when President Barack Obama announced he had decided to bomb the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after Assad crossed Obama’s “red line,” using chemical weapons in his fight against a domestic uprising. Riyadh favored American intervention, but when Obama backed away from that position, the Saudis, who had already started growing restless with Obama’s policies, decided to take matters into their own hands.

Even before the Syria decision, Saudi Arabia had expressed frustration with Washington in the strongest of terms. The Saudis now have a long list of complaints against U.S. foreign policy, and they are voicing them in an uncharacteristically open manner.

At the forefront of the Riyadh-Washington dispute stands none other than Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., a longtime resident of Washington and now the kingdom’s intelligence chief, who told European diplomats as far back as October that Washington was wrong in its approach to Syria and that Saudi Arabia would start arming Syrian rebels while scaling back cooperation with the U.S.

Then relations became even worse.

When the U.S. led world powers in making an interim deal with Iran over its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia, which had once famously asked the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” and attack Iran, now spoke bitterly about the American approach to Tehran. A senior adviser to the royal family complained, “We were lied to, things were hidden from us.”

At last week’s meeting in Davos, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief, fulminated against Obama’s handling of the Middle East. “It’s not just about Iran [and] Syria,” he said. “It’s the sense of no direction.”

While the U.S. focuses on diplomacy, Bandar has engaged in a risky push to help the Syrian opposition topple the Assad regime. A victory by Assad is seen as unacceptable by Saudi Arabia, which sees Syria as a key element of Iran’s strategy to achieve regional hegemony.

The Saudis have repeatedly said they would like the U.S. to lead a much more forceful push to stop the carnage in Syria and bring an end to the Assad regime. Speaking at a Davos meeting, Turki argued that the U.S. should go to the Security Council and “get a resolution that forces should be deployed to stop the fighting in Syria.” If that fails, he said, the U.S.should press for the creation of humanitarian corridors to keep Syrians from starving to death.

Bandar has started funding Syrian rebels, with full knowledge that the strategy could backfire. The opposition now includes powerful elements with strong links to al-Qaida, which the Saudis fear, although apparently not as much as they fear a victory by Assad and Iran in Syria.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is opening its checkbook and sending eye-popping sums of money to bolster other key forces in the region. They recently announced an aid package worth $3 billion to the Lebanese army, an amount that nearly doubles that country’s entire defense budget. The aim of the aid is to shift the balance of power in Lebanon, where the most powerful military force is Hezbollah, a Shiite militia built by Iran and currently fighting on Assad’s side in Syria.

Saudi Arabia has also gone out of its way to boost Egypt, providing $5 billion in aid to the military-dominated regime that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt is another place where Saudi and American goals have diverged, as Washington seeks reconciliation while Riyadh supports the crackdown that seeks to destroy the Brotherhood.

The Saudis now find themselves facing a triple threat. First, they worry about Iran, their traditional Shiite Persian enemy, whose political ideology calls for spreading Islamist revolution to other Muslim countries. Iran’s recent resurgence in light of the interim nuclear agreement makes it appear as a rising threat to the kingdom. Second, the Saudis worry about the Arab uprisings and their ability to disrupt the status quo in the kingdom and in the region, while raising the strength of organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which the royal family rightly sees as a threat to its rule over much of the Arabian Peninsula.

The third threat is America’s apparent retreat from its position of dominance and full engagement in the Middle East. That makes the Saudis feel vulnerable, as they see Iran seeking to fill the void.

Saudi Arabia is still the world’s top oil producer and will control excess supplies, with a huge impact on oil prices, for many years to come. The U.S. has been key to the kingdom’s defense, but the Saudis have been—and remain—vital to America’s strategist interests. If the relationship is permanently damaged, America will have much to regret.

Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. 

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Frida Ghitis

Jan 31, 2014

Related link – http://tinyurl.com/kv9g36n

 

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