Regional challenges demand stronger Saudi-US partnership
There has been an avalanche of commentary openly questioning the need for a US partnership with Saudi Arabia
The decades-old US-Saudi partnership faces one of its most turbulent moments. From Congress voting almost overwhelmingly to sustain Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) law to the deepening domestic criticism in the US on the Yemen campaign, Washington and Riyadh’s common strategic bonds are severely strained by both growing differences and a souring populist mood in America.
There has been an avalanche of commentary openly questioning the need for a partnership with the Kingdom. Despite their reservations on Iran, a number of members of Congress are openly questioning the level of security commitment the US provides to the Kingdom. The White House has been a lukewarm partner. While exercising a veto of JASTA and supporting Saudi Arabia’s security requirements, President Obama is openly skeptical about the broader relationship and its value.
Electoral politics haven’t helped with both Donald Trump and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at times directly referencing Washington’s differences with the Kingdom. A number of US media outlets have further created an echo chamber for this autumn of discontent.
At this critical moment, as Washington and Riyadh confront deepening challenges from Syria to Iran, the current dark political malaise surrounding the relationship distracts from the pressing challenges facing both states in the region. The recent US strike on Houthi positions, after the militant group launched an attack on the US navy off the coast of Yemen, is a reminder of the real dangers facing Washington and Riyadh.
Yemen’s challenges are not purely a problem from the Kingdom, but for both the broader region and the US. The commentary that Washington faces a moral dilemma in Yemen for supporting the GCC intervention is a distraction from the real issuesAndrew J. Bowen
One shouldn’t approach these challenges with closed eyes. Yemen’s challenges are not purely a problem from the Kingdom, but for both the broader region and the US. The commentary that Washington faces a moral dilemma in Yemen for supporting the GCC intervention is a distraction from the real issues.
Iran’s regional play
Since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the US navy has faced increasing harassment from both Iran and its supported proxies in the region. This month’s Houthi directed actions against the US underscore this challenge. This behavior is further met by Tehran’s expansion of its ballistic missile program.
Iran has been equally as well a dubious partner in fighting ISIS. More broadly, Ayatollah Khamenei has shown no deep desire to find common ground with Washington and its regional partners on regional challenges.
As members of the Washington policy community have continued to debate whether there are “reformers” in Iran, the Iranian leadership has aggressively pursued its own strategic interests and has shown no interest as President Obama advocated of “sharing” the region with its neighbors. For Tehran, the “deal” was about economic returns not strategic compromises.
In the setting months of Obama’s presidency, Syria has become simply a casualty of the nuclear deal. Equally, as well, the White House has been too overly accommodating of Iran’s complaints that the economic returns from reaching the JCPOA haven’t materialized enough. The new US Treasury OFAC guidance, released last week, sets a bad precedent that Washington is somehow responsible for economic outcomes never agreed in the deal.
It is then this strategic environment that Washington and Riyadh need to remain focused on addressing.
While certainly the American public mood (riled by the populism of Donald Trump) is sour and restless, the partnership between the US and the Kingdom can weather this storm. However, this will require renewed leadership in the White House and Congress.
JASTA, a poorly thought-out piece of legislation, can’t become a roadblock to addressing deeper challenges both states face. When Congress reconvenes after the election in November, an opportunity exists to lay this bill to rest.
Regional challenges from Yemen to Syria and Iran’s aggressive footing require a deep partnership between Washington and Riyadh. It is one thing to ideally long for a day where Washington can work with both Riyadh and Tehran to address common challenges, but that day hasn’t come. Iran’s still an adversary for the US and arguably, a number of segments of Iran’s political elite still view Washington as an adversary. It’s naïve to ignore this darker reality.
The next US President has an opportunity to strengthen the partnership. After almost eight years of mistrust, both Washington and Riyadh have a moment to turn the page. Hopefully, this moment is seized upon and not missed.
Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Global Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.