With Syria in flames and Iran continuing its nuclear development, two Saudi princes have grabbed headlines criticizing Obama administration policies in the Middle East. What does this mean for the future of the bilateral relationship?
In the Middle East, events seem to shift as often as the Arabian sands. Rulers rise and fall, wars come and go, and firm alliances are often hard to achieve. Thus, the longstanding relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been one of the key driving forces in the region, an alliance based more on common interests than common ideals or ways of life.
The course of this relationship has not always run smooth. The presence of American troops and contractors on Saudi soil has been a source of consternation for those who frown on such things happening on holy Islamic land. The OPEC embargo in the 1970s revealed some distance between the two allies, while the Persian Gulf War opened the door for enhanced military cooperation in defense of the Kingdom and neighboring Kuwait. Another low was reached after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
Despite these occasional bumps in the road, the alliance is still about as much of a sure thing as one can get in that volatile region. However, some recent events and comments made by Saudi officials are causing analysts to conclude that the long-time friends have suffered a falling out. How serious the rift is will no doubt continue to be a topic of debate among Washington policymakers, but there is ample evidence to support the fact that not only the words being used by American and Saudi officials, but also their inherent interests seem to be diverging.
The major areas in which the two countries currently disagree were all lined out by Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud in his speech last week at the annual conference of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. To clarify, simply being a Saudi prince does not necessarily put a person at the center of policymaking in that country. As the ever helpful Wikipedia tells us, “The [House of Saud] is estimated to be composed of 15,000 members, but the majority of the power and wealth is possessed by a group of only about 2,000.”
What caused people to pay special attention to Al-Faisal’s remarks is that he was the head of Saudi intelligence for a quarter century leading up to 2001. He has also served as ambassador to the United States and United Kingdom, and he worked with the CIA and Pakistani intelligence to funnel Saudi money to the mujahedeen rebels in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of that country in the 1980s. Thus, the BBC noted that while Prince Turki Al-Faisal “does not speak officially for the [Saudi] government…his words are closely listened to in Western capitals.”
In his speech, Al-Faisal first criticized U.S. policy with regard to Iran, believing that the Obama administration’s focus on the diplomatic path and hesitancy to engage militarily would have negative results. “Alas, with [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu observing Mr. Obama’s lamentable conduct in Syria, he may opt for a unilateral strike [on Iran’s nuclear sites]; in spite of the dire consequences. The Iranian leadership will welcome such a strike and may provoke it.” He was especially concerned about recent U.S. efforts to reach out (however tentatively) to the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. “After Rouhani’s sweet talk and Obama’s open arms approach to him, the Iranian people will certainly rally behind their leadership.”
That kind of rhetoric was tame compared to the dressing down Al-Faisal gave to the U.S. on the issue of the Syrian conflict. “The shameful way that the world community accepts the impunity of the butcher of Syria is a blot on the conscience of the world,” he declared. “The dithering of leadership in the West and the callous, cynical, and cavalier attitude in supporting Bashar by Russia and China are a stigma that they will bear forever.”
But the Prince was only just getting started. Next, he had some choice words regarding the last-minute Russian-brokered deal aimed at disarming Assad of all his chemical weapons. “The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious, and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people.” (Perhaps he has been comparing notes with Sen. John McCain?) I’ll give bonus points to his royal highness for using the word “perfidious” rather than its more everyday cousin: “dishonest”.
Al-Faisal also criticized the U.S. for withdrawing some of its financial aid to Egypt after the recent military coup…err, government transition. “Saudi Arabia unconditionally authorized $5 billion dollars in grants, loans, and deposits to Egypt’s emerging government, which stands in stark comparison to the conditional loans that the US and Europe have promised and keep threatening to freeze.”
Then there was the country of Bahrain, where protests by the majority Shia population against the ruling Sunni regime caused Saudi Arabia to actually intervene militarily in support of the Bahraini government. For the Saudi leadership, a Shia-dominated state on its own doorstep is tantamount to an Iranian takeover, regardless of the specifics. “Let’s be clear, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will never accept that Iran take power in Bahrain,” Al-Faisal said. “This is a fantasy if anyone, including the West, believe that such an eventuality can happen on Saudi Arabia’s watch.”
Next, there was that old thorn in the side of every U.S.-Arab relationship: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For Al-Faisal, the most recent U.S. proposal is dead on arrival. “The Kerry effort to bring an accord during the next nine months, while laudable, is still a shot in the dark. If Mr. Obama dithers on what is needed to convince Netanyahu to reach an accord, as he is doing on Syria, there will not be one.” For the record, this was the second time he used the word “dither”.
Finally, why did the Kingdom recently decline a seat on the UN Security Council against the wishes of the United States? “The Saudi Foreign Minister, in 2008, when Israel launched its murderous assault on Gaza, called upon the SC [Security Council] to stop the attack and warned that if it fails to do so then, and I quote: ‘We will turn our backs to you’.” I guess we can now consider the Saudis’ backs to be turned.
Where to start? This is indeed a long list of complaints. It would appear that on practically every major foreign policy issue in the Middle East today, the Americans and Saudis have some kind of disagreement, and Prince Turki Al-Faisal isn’t the only one complaining. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s current intelligence chief, has reportedly been warning of a “major shift” in relations with the U.S., according to this article by Reuters. It turns out that his story is a rather fascinating one.
Prince Bandar is seen as a foreign policy hawk, especially on Iran. The Sunni Muslim kingdom’s rivalry with Shi’ite Iran, an ally of Syria, has amplified sectarian tensions across the Middle East. A son of the late defense minister and crown prince, Prince Sultan, and a protégé of the late King Fahd, he fell from favor with King Abdullah after clashing on foreign policy in 2005. But he was called in from the cold last year with a mandate to bring down Assad, diplomats in the Gulf say. Over the past year, he has led Saudi efforts to bring arms and other aid to Syrian rebels.
Now, that is some diplomatic intrigue if ever I’ve heard it. The BBC provides its own assessment of this foreign policy “hawk”.
Prince Bandar has a reputation of being somewhat at the megaphone end of Saudi communications. Despite spending 22 years as Riyadh’s ambassador in Washington, he has a penchant for making overly dramatic gestures and statements that in the past have led to his exclusion from the inner circle of Saudi policy making. It is not clear whether his words carried the full backing of King Abdullah, now nearly 90 years old, who retains ultimate authority.
While it is true that King Abdullah is the one ultimately in charge, it seems that when Prince Bandar speaks, we probably ought to listen. If he is important enough to get called in from the wilderness to the very center of Saudi power, then I would take whatever he has to say pretty seriously. Still, the BBC article also points out that, “Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, was sitting comfortably next to his US counterpart, John Kerry, first in Paris on Friday and then on Tuesday in London as they worked on finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict.” Apparently, there was not enough of a “major shift” to keep these two men from working together.
All of this could easily lead a person to wonder, what is really going on here? Is there some deeper explanation for Saudi Arabia’s behavior? The BBC has stumbled upon the answer in its excellent analysis. “Ever since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, Saudi-Iranian relations have ranged from uneasy accommodation to downright vitriolic. As the Middle East’s two heavyweights, Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia vies with Shia-majority Iran for power and influence. Syria has effectively become their proxy battlefield, with each country arming the opposing side.”
Predictably, this is not really about Saudi concern for the poor Syrian civilians, though you’d have to be pretty hard hearted not to feel sympathy for the millions who have been killed, injured, displaced, or otherwise affected by the Syrian civil war. It is not about diplomatic semantics or who is shaking hands with who. At the end of the day, it comes down to the hard reality of geopolitics. (Geopolitik – What a wonderful word the Germans have given to us!)
Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposite ends of the Middle Eastern spectrum. Iranians are Persian and Saudis are Arab. Iran has a majority Shia Muslim population, while Saudis tend toward a very strict form of Sunni Islam. (The war in Iraq showed us what an important distinction this is.) Just as importantly, Saudi Arabia is the strongest remaining bastion of traditional monarchy in the region, while the current Iranian regime stems from a revolution that overthrew a Western-backed monarch. On the other hand, both countries possess some of the world’s richest energy resources, but even this commonality makes them competitors as much as friends.
Saudi Arabia and Iran both see the Middle East as their own sphere of influence. Along with Egypt and Turkey, they are the biggest and most powerful nations in the region. Unlike Egypt and Turkey, they each seem to have a key religious motivation behind their desired influence: Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest sites in Islam, while Iran is the largest Shia nation and center of Shia learning. Much as the U.S. and Russia divided up the globe into spheres of influence during the Cold War, these two Middle Eastern states wish to do the same on a smaller scale now.
Keeping this in mind, it is easy to see why even the slightest opening of relations with Iran by the United States could be seen as a threat. In the minds of Saudi Arabia’s leaders, any gain for Iran is a loss for themselves. The dramatically different uprisings in two regional countries – Syria and Bahrain – perfectly highlight Saudi Arabia’s antagonistic relationship with the Iranians. The Assad regime has long been an ally of Iran’s, and the Iranians have been not-so-secretly aiding him during the civil war. The Saudis have given their full backing to the resistance, made up of mostly Sunni Muslims fighting the Shia-dominated regime.
In Bahrain, I have already highlighted how Saudi Arabia is concerned that the majority Shia population will gain more power through what have mostly been pro-democracy protests. It is not hard for the Saudis to look at what happened in Iraq and conclude that putting the Shia majority in power will lead to Bahrain becoming an Iranian proxy state. The United States, on the other hand, is not entirely comfortable with Saudi tanks rolling into Bahrain to break up primarily peaceful protests.
The video above is the opening scene of the 2007 movie “The Kingdom”, admittedly with less than perfect quality. It gives a (very) brief history of U.S.-Saudi relations.
There is one other strain on the U.S.-Saudi relationship that was pointed out in the BBC article. “[The Saudis] know that the U.S. is due to become self-sufficient in energy, thanks to shale gas. That means that in future years Saudi Arabia’s swing producer role within Opec oil cartel will decline in relative importance for Washington.” Yes, the very foundation on which this bilateral relationship was built – the American thirst for oil and the huge Saudi oil reserves – could be crumbling a bit. While America is not yet at the point where it can bid adieu to Saudi oil, the increasing shift to domestic energy sources will logically decrease the importance of Saudi Arabia in American eyes.
Fear not, Saudi-U.S. “shippers”! The common security and economic interests on which this alliance rests are not going away any time soon. Even if we do seem to be upsetting the Saudis left and right, we at least haven’t gone so far as to bug King Abdullah’s private phone like we did to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Well, at least we haven’t gotten caught doing that yet.