What can the Saudi-U.S. relationship achieve?
Some of the elements that have characterized the U.S.-Saudi relationship for many years have changed
The ties between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are more resilient and in better shape than what a few gloomy reports and analyses in American media might suggest. Yet, ahead of King Salman’s visit to Washington to meet with President Obama on Friday, it was no secret there were some important differences on key regional issues between the Saudi government and the current U.S. administration.
Leaders on both sides have always managed to overcome inevitable divergences. In fact, previous visits by Saudi kings to the U.S. often occurred during periods of serious tensions in the bilateral relationship. For example, in April 2002 the late King Abdullah (at the time de facto regent) met with George W. Bush in Texas. This was only eight months after 15 Saudi nationals were directly involved in the Sept.11 terrorist attacks and when the image of Saudi Arabia among Americans was at its lowest ever.
King Abdullah returned three years later during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which the king himself and various senior Saudi government officials had strongly warned the Bush administration against. It ''would not serve America's interests or the interests of the world'', King Abdullah said in early 2002.
A transformed region
Part of the challenge to make the best out of the relationship is that the region itself has been transformed dramatically. The more stable and predictable Middle East of the 1990s no longer exists. Iraq, one of the three Gulf giants and key piece of the Gulf’s balance of power together with Saudi Arabia and Iran, is in shatters.
Some of the elements that have characterized the U.S.-Saudi relationship for many years have changedManuel Almeida
The hangover of the invasion of Iraq not only affected the region and opened the doors to Iranian control in Baghdad, but also had a profound impact in the way the current administration perceives America’s regional role.
The four goals above all seem to define the current U.S. engagement in the Middle East: the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda; the nuclear deal with Iran; the commitment to the U.S. military presence in the Gulf, but without enough political backing so far to have the desired stabilizing effect; and not to become embroiled in the region’s intricate conflicts.
Beyond these goals, the Obama administration has never really devised a Middle East strategy, to the desperation of regional partners and most of Washington’s close observers of the region.
Then the Arab uprisings and the unprecedented levels of turmoil and violence in the Middle East have come to magnify the feeling of insecurity, not only among the Saudis. The Syrian tragedy in particular became a perfect storm, affecting neighbouring states, igniting radicalism and tensions across the region, all in the face of Washington’s passivity. In the meanwhile, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, still bent on exporting the revolution, are playing a prominent role in various regional crises.
A need for a tangible achievement
Some of the elements that have characterized the U.S.-Saudi relationship for many years have also changed. In the late 1930s, an American company started to export oil from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and the Saudi oil industry would grow exponentially to become the key source of oil imports for the U.S. Today, the U.S. shale revolution has made the U.S. energy-independent.
However, contrary to what some peculiar voices have argued ahead of King Salman’s visit, the list of strategic interests shared by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is still a long one. The global oil market is deeply interconnected and its stability is a shared interest. Saudi Arabia remains Washington’s key security partner in the Gulf. A member of the G20 and key member of the GCC, Riyadh continues to be a very attractive market for American companies. The U.S. is Saudi’s major weapons supplier, it can play a key role in assisting Saudi efforts of economic diversification, and many Saudis continue to eagerly invest in the U.S. market.
Nevertheless, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia should now work closely to achieve something tangible that could reinvigorate the alliance and help invert the current negative tide in the Middle East.
Among the various pressing regional issues addressed in the meetings between King Salman, President Obama, and other officials from both sides, was the nuclear deal with Iran and its consequences, the IRGC’s activities in the region, the Syrian conflict, the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen, and the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda.
While Syria, safe zones and an agreement that involves Assad’s departure should be an absolute priority, this is perhaps the toughest aim to achieve. In the meantime, closer Saudi-U.S. collaboration on other issues could go a long way in putting an end to conflicts and reducing tensions. This would require boldness and political will from Washington and a willingness to think strategically beyond the nuclear deal.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.