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Reason for The Saudi Shift

By Scott Sharon

These days the United States excels in alienating its allies. The NSA leaks have managed to irritate its most critical allies, prompting re-evaluation of trade agreements and diplomatic relations. Even more ominous, however, is the growing divergence between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. In response to the laundry list of qualms the Kingdom has with U.S.’s recent engagement with Iran, lack of intervention in Syria, and stagnant progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, Saudi Arabia recently indicated there would be a “major shift in US-Saudi relations.” The Saudis introduced this change when they rejected a long-coveted seat on the UN Security Council a few weeks ago, citing Syria and the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the main reasons for their 180-degree turn. Saudi Arabia had been jockeying for a seat on the Security Council, and their sudden rejection of the generous offer was not only a shock, but an embarrassment.

In the words of Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin SuItan, what exactly would a “major shift” mean?  Richard Murphy served as a political director to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1960s and as ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s. In an interview with World Policy Journal, he said there was no reason for a major change in relations: “I don’t know what he meant by ‘major shift.’ We [the United States] are there for their security and are a major arms supplier.” While issues over Syria and the lack of progress on the Palestinian front have frustrated the Kingdom, Murphy said the underlying factor has always been Iran. 

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-led monarchy, has feared the prospect of Iranian-Shiite hegemony. According to the former ambassador, following the revolution Saudi Arabia was fearful of an Iranian attack on its oilfields in the Eastern Province. This concern led the U.S. to sell its Early Warning Aircraft System (EWACS) to the Saudis, despite reluctance from Israeli officials. The ongoing civil war in Syria is the most current example of the proxy war between Iran and the Kingdom, as Iran supports Hezbollah and is the stalwart ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia funds the Sunni rebels. President Obama’s recent engagement with President Hassan Rouhani over Iran’s nuclear program is necessary for America, but Saudi Arabia does not see any good that can come of it. “Obama didn’t get anywhere when he extended his hand in Cairo in 2009,” remarked the ambassador. While any communication between the U.S. and Iran may be a good sign, Saudi Arabia views any diplomacy with Iran as wasteful at best, and foolish at worst.

“An ancient Sunni-Shiite confrontation is not in America’s interest,” stated Ambassador Murphy. Yet he continued to cite the need to engage Iran, extolling the benefits America would reap if a nuclear deal could be achieved with Iran--especially at a time when it still struggles to find its voice in this most volatile of neighborhoods.

The Obama Administration’s policy of vacillation on the matter of Syria has also angered the Saudis.  When asked what the Kingdom could do in response to a lack of U.S. intervention in Syria, Murphy speculated Saudi Arabia could feasibly supply large arms shipments to the Syrian rebels, including groups linked to Al Qaeda. This comes after Washington warned Riyadh to about sending weapons to the opposition when there was no guarantee it would end up in moderate hands. But this act of defiance reflects the frustration Saudi Arabia exhibits toward its Western ally. “They have accepted the U.S. role as a superpower, and if we don’t do anything, we’re viewed as having ulterior motives.”  The United States government’s choice not to immerse itself in another Middle Eastern conflict while leaving Assad in power might ultimately prove the right decision. However, to Saudi Arabia, it’s another example of the world’s superpower skirting its international obligations.

What else would Saudi Arabia do to defy its powerful ally?  Its decision to refuse a highly coveted seat on the UN Security Council was a public denouncement of the ineffectiveness of the world body, but the ire was clearly directed at the U.S. Murphy was shocked when he heard the outrage: “I was as surprised as the current Saudi diplomatic corps that they refused a seat on the Security Council.” When asked about the frightening prospect of the Kingdom launching its own nuclear weapons program as a counter to Iran’s, Ambassador Murphy suspected that Saudi Arabia would purchase nuclear weapons on the black market as a shortcut to developing their own enrichment program. Worst yet, there is the possibility that the Kingdom could cancel major defense contracts and hurt American businesses at a time they can least afford it. In regards to Middle East peace, Saudi Arabia has expressed discontent at the lack of progress the Obama Administration has shown in pushing the peace process and prodding Israel. When asked if the Saudis could respond with sending more arms to Hamas, Murphy said it is not likely but they will continue to cite the lack of progress on the ground as a recruiting tool for terrorism throughout the region.

In the end, Ambassador Murphy claims this rift is temporary. “It is not easy for one country to be dependent on another.  Sometimes it becomes humiliating.” When asked whether the recent comments made by Prince Bandar are reflective of the lowest point in U.S.-Saudi relations in years, he affirmed. “The relationship is under stress.” That being said, the U.S. should negotiate with Iran, no matter how skeptical the Saudis may be. In addition, the  Security Council needs to enforce the resolutions regarding Syria, and the U.S. ought to invest more in furthering Israeli-Palestinian peace. Though the Saudis will gripe publicly and acquiesce privately, the U.S. must pursue an agenda that maintains world order rather than Saudi deference. 

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Scott Sharon is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Secretary of Defense]

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