Saudi-U.S. relations: changing dynamics

Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi
Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
12 min read

Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia has diversified her foreign policies by shifting its focus from the West to the East as a response to changing international and regional situations. This is partly a means to neutralize the western political pressure; and partly because Asian economies, especially China and India, have developed rapidly, consequently needing more crude oil.

As Saudi leaders take popular sentiments into account, it will become more difficult for the governments to disregard the reactions of domestic audiences on important economic and security issues in order to satisfy the policy demands of the United States.

Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi

Yet, Riyadh has three main foreign policy objectives; (1) maintaining a strategic partnership with the United States, which is fundamental to its security; (2) maximizing its global and regional political influence through its financial and Islamic ‘soft power’; and (3) maximizing the economic and geopolitical benefits from being the most important oil producer in the world, de facto leader of OPEC and the “central Bank” of the world’s oil market. However, the current unwritten security architecture “oil-for-security” between Riyadh and Washington has become more complex and sometimes contradictory due to many domestic, regional, and international factors.


Bumpy Road

From the beginning, the 9/11attacks have put a strain on this relationship and complicated the Saudi calculations. It caused both Riyadh and Washington to re-evaluate their ‘special relationship’. In addition, the rising anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, as a result of the unpopularity of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine, has further strained the U.S.-Saudi relationship. However, the relations have improved somewhat since 9/11 but, nevertheless, Riyadh and Washington differ, often widely, on preferred strategies in the Gulf region. In this regard a secret document sent by a U.S. Mission in Saudi Arabia, and leaked lately by “WikiLeaks” summaries the Saudi American differences in three issues: (a) The U.S. reluctance to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories. (b) Similarly, in the Saudi view, the American ignored advice from the Saudi King regarding the Iraq invasion and the post-invasion period (c) Finally, the U.S. debate over whether and how to engage Iran has fuelled Saudi fears that a new U.S. Administration might strike a “grand bargain.”

Adding to the complications, the strain on the relationship with the U.S. was further exacerbated during the protests across the Arab world in the spring of 2011. These differences surfaced strongly in 2011 due to the Saudi king’s anger at Washington’s response to uprisings across the Arab World, especially its abandonment of Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president, who was a long-time Saudi and U.S. ally. The relations between the two countries strained more over how to deal with the situation in Bahrain, as Bruce Riedel, one of America’s leading experts on U.S. security, South Asia, and counter-terrorism, noted that: “In Bahrain, the Saudis showed clearly their view that opening the door to political pluralism will doom a monarchy.”

The Iranian Factor

The current Saudi calculations are driven by a deep fear and suspicion of expanding Iranian influence. Saudi leadership has begun to look at all regional security issues through the prism of their fears about growing Iranian influence. They see Iran’s activities as dangerously provocative, not only in Iraq, but also in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, Yemen, parts of Africa, and Southeast Asia. Indeed, the perceived Iranian “threat” moved again to Riyadh’s top list of priorities. James Smith, the current United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, in a speech at 21st Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference last October summarized the Saudi thinking by saying “Saudi Arabia looks at Iran a little differently than traditional American thinking (...) [they see that] Iran has a coherent strategy for destabilization in the region starting in Baghdad, extends to Damascus the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, Bahrain the Eastern Province (...) So Iran is a very real threat to them. It is the existential threat.”

Concerned about a possible rise in Iran’s regional influence and a decline in the status of the so-called moderate Arab camp, the Saudis are pursuing an active diplomacy (Syria is a good example) aimed at leveraging the changes in the Arab world in their favor. From the Saudi point of view, the inability to coerce Iran looks like U.S. weakness. However, the Americans see the problem through different lenses. Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, wrote recently an article in the Foreign Policy magazine put his argument bluntly saying: “The yawning gap in our views of Bahrain reflected a more general disconnect between Washington and Riyadh on regional order. Saudi Arabia’s hostility toward the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and its coordinated efforts to block change in the Gulf and in allied monarchies across the region, works directly against the stated American goal of promoting reform.”

Long Term Implications

These developments could have very serious implications in the long term. The first issue, deterioration of the U.S.-Saudi relationship could cause Saudi Arabia to consider nuclear proliferation to deter foreign aggression independently of U.S. security assurances. According to Thomas Lippman from the Middle East Institute in Washington, this scenario would only be likely if the Saudi leaders completely lost confidence in the U.S. promise of protection during crises.

Secondly, in the event of a nuclear breakout by Iran, Saudi Arabia would feel compelled to build or acquire its own nuclear arsenal. Riyadh’s view that the Iranian threat is serious and immediate was recently expressed by diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published recently by the Guardian newspaper that revealed Saudi King Abdullah had privately warned Washington about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Indeed, last summer in an interview with Haaretz newspaper, the former senior U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross confirmed for the first time that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has explicitly warned the U.S. that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will seek to do so as well. Ross’ direct quote of the Saudi king appears to be the first public confirmation of the Saudi position and the threat of a Middle East nuclear arms race if Tehran acquires a nuclear bomb. At present there is no solid evidence that Riyadh has taken firm steps to go down this route, nor is there any evidence of Saudi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, as Saudi leaders take popular sentiments into account, it will become more difficult for the governments to disregard the reactions of domestic audiences on important economic and security issues in order to satisfy the policy demands of the United States. Consequently, a close relationship with the United States may no longer be sustainable, or it might come at a cost of losing significant domestic support. Either way, as the American expert Amy Myers Jaffe argues; the payoff from cooperating with the United States may decrease, making alternative policy choices more attractive. This has been an important factor in pursuing the relations with China, India, (and even Russia) in order to assure the Saudi public in regard to the balanced foreign policy of their countries.

No crises

Against this strategic backdrop, currently there is no substitute for the American defensive umbrella in the Gulf region and there is no evidence which suggests that the US-Saudi relationship will sour in the near future. Despite tensions, there is no crisis in the relationship. Plans are proceeding for the United States to sell Saudi Arabia tens of billions worth of arms over the coming years. Indeed, Saudi Arabia was the biggest arms buyer among developing countries, concluding $ 33.7 billion in weapons deals in 2011, including the $ 30 bn contract to buy 84 new F-15 jets and to modernize 70 existing F-15s, according to the latest U.S. congressional report. U.S. advisers also helping the Saudi Interior Ministry build a 35,000-man “special facilities security force.” Washington and Riyadh have coordinated the efforts to manage a transition of power in Yemen. Both countries currently share similar concerns about Iran and Syria, and seek to calm oil markets to prevent further pressure on the global economy.

In this context, the $ 30 bn deal is unique and very significant for several reasons: (a) The Obama Administration hopes the proposed sales of the largest arms contract in American history to Saudi Arabia, will help ‘sustain long-term relationships to ensure continued U.S. influence for decades to come. ‘(b) The deal could prevent Saudi Arabia from pursuing other means (nuclear option) of strengthening its security and will lock Riyadh and Washington into a close military relationship for at least another decade. (C) And, arms purchases from the U.S. are central to Saudi Arabia’s strategy of asserting its military leadership in the Gulf and confronting Iranian influence. Indeed, the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in a recent report outlining how this arms deal would help advance U.S. national security interests, argues that the United States shares critical strategic interests with the Saudis which ‘shape the proposed Saudi arms sale. ‘These interests include addressing Iranian threats in the region, securing Gulf energy exports critical to world economy, and easing the U.S. defense burden in the region.

In the economic realm, last year the United States was the largest trading partner for Saudi Arabia (if we exclude the European Union as a group), although China is catching up quickly and competes for first place strongly. The U.S.-Saudi trade relationship has grown considerably over the past few years as the total two-way trade in 2012 reaching almost $ 74 billion. Oil remains an important part of U.S.-Saudi bilateral economic relationship. With the Kingdom exporting around 1.4 million barrels per day (in 2012) to the United States, it is by far Saudi’s largest oil market.

As for the future, it may carry a lot of surprises, perhaps the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. At the moment, the United States’ policy in the Middle East is under review; consequently all possibilities could be on the table. In this context, it would be contrary to Riyadh’s practice to put all its eggs in one basket. Thus, the kingdom will work in two parallel routes, strengthening its military capabilities, particularly the air force and navy, and aggressively seeking to develop economic and political ties with Asia, especially China and India. The bottom line: The current security architecture “oil-for-security” which characterized the U.S.-Saudi relations for decades might not be sustainable.

Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst and the author of the forthcoming book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He is also Al Arabiya’s regular contributor with particular research interest in energy politics and political economy of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Middle East-Asia relations. The writer can be reached at: Twitter: @nasertamimi and Email: [email protected]

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending