The U.S. and Saudi Arabia: friends, not dependents

If it isn't postponed, Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Riyadh will be considered the most important visit the U.S. president makes to Saudi Arabia since he took over as president.

There has been much speculation over the subjects to be raised during the visit, which may include Syria, negotiations with Iran over its disputed nuclear program, and the funding of a Russian arms deal with Egypt.

Despite that, the White House has said little on the matter. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice briefly spoke about some issues, including Gulf security. She said Obama will seek during his visit to voice commitment to the Gulf’s security.

Obama possibly wants to reassure the Saudis that the U.S. will not give up its long commitment to Saudi Arabia’s and the Gulf’s security. This commitment was established by former American president Dwight Eisenhower, and became known as the Eisenhower Doctrine. King Saud traveled to Washington to meet with Eisenhower following this famous declaration in 1957.

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The Saudi-American relationship, which goes back to 1933, is almost the only constant such relationship in the region. Both parties have got used to crises between them, testing the relationship between the two countries – and Obama’s era is no exception.

Differing policies

Obama’s policies have differed from Riyadh’s over several issues concerning Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Iran. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is a brave man who has taken huge domestic and foreign decisions.

Who would have thought that Saudi tanks would cross the bridge to Bahrain to support the regime there after the kingdom felt the threat of Iran’s orchestrated change amidst the fires of the Arab Spring across the region? Who would have dared to declare his support for the corrective movement in Egypt, or ‘coup’ as the Egyptian opposition calls it, and decidedly support Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi? Who can tolerate the most dangerous confrontation the region has known and continuously support the Syrian revolution for three years and take a stance opposing Hezbollah’s and Iran’s forces? Who would have thought that Ali Abdullah Saleh would exit power in Sana’a within the context of an agreement engineered by Saudi Arabia for the sake of establishing a moderate popular regime?

The U.S. disagreed with Saudi Arabia’s stances mentioned above, except over Yemen. And reality says that the U.S. is aware that the friendship is not a dependency. Any lack of confidence may be due to the feeling that president Obama chose the policy of isolation and of exiting the region. Therefore, Obama does not have the right to decide on behalf of the Saudis how to run their affairs and defend their existence. Even with these several disagreements, Saudi Arabia is aware that the relationship with Washington is a strategic, and not a tactical issue and that it must not be given up.

Iran issue

What’s left is the issue of negotiations with Iran over its disputed nuclear program. President Obama has been enthusiastic about it while Saudi Arabia doubts these negotiations will succeed. But in this case, everyone must give negotiations a chance. Saudi Arabia wins if Washington succeeds at correcting Iran’s policy and pushing it towards moderation, abandoning the possibility of militarization and confrontation. There’s not a lot of hope of that – but who knows, we might be mistaken.

Finally, American interest in Saudi Arabia’s internal stability is understandable considering the kingdom’s weight. Saudi Arabia has succeeded at overcoming the war of terrorism with al-Qaeda. It has also proven it’s stronger during the phase of Arab Spring disturbances, and capable of organizing its internal affairs. In that, Saudi Arabia has proven more capable than its American friends thought it would be.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on March 25, 2014.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

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