The list of issues on which Saudi Arabia and the United States do not see eye to eye in the politics of the new Middle East is steadily lengthening – Iran, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq. Some issues like Iran or Syria are becoming major discords while on others the two countries are at odds with each other, for example, the turmoil in Bahrain or Egypt’s democratization. The Saudis feel cut adrift on the high seas and they see gathering storms on the horizon…
Riyadh is facing an altogether entirely new experience in the US’s Middle East’s regional strategies. These strategies have been pivoted on the ties with Saudi Arabia through the past seven decades ever since the then American president Franklin Roosevelt left the historic summit at Yalta with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill and headed for a secret rendezvous on the cruiser U.S.S. Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal in February 1945 with King Abdul Aziz (lbn Saud) where they reached an unwritten understanding that Washington would provide military security for Saudi Arabia and agreed to establish a military base ay Dhahran in exchange for secure access to supplies of oil.
The Obama administration has been taking a more strategic view of the US interests in the Middle East than any previous administration. Broadly speaking, the US interests in regional security and stability have not changed and its twin concerns still devolve upon the smooth unhindered flow of oil and gas to the world market and Israel’s security. But the means to achieve this end is changing. The forces unleashed by the 2003 Iraq war have transformed the region while the Arab Spring has brought to the fore the reality that it is not in the US’ long term interests to be seen as the protector of decadent authoritarian regimes.
The US’ unmatched military power has been rendered ineffectual in shaping the regional trends. Therefore, the accent on direct military presence or the propensity to militarily intervene is changing. Meanwhile, there is a nascent realization that excessive interference and the emphasis on military presence have become counterproductive and are coming at unsustainable human and economic costs.
This train of thinking is still nascent and incoherent and the first attempt to give a rationale to it would have been President Barack Obama’s address at the United Nations General Assembly last month. Indeed, it is probably premature still to predict how it is going to develop, especially under another American president. Nor is it anywhere near a situation of the US abandoning its regional allies or special relationships in the Middle East or turn its back on long-standing regional commitments such as its string of military bases. But the trend is discernably there – and it is conceivable that it will continue during the remaining term of the Obama administration and, perhaps, gather strength.
At any rate, the Saudis were badly shaken when they saw the trend tentatively surfacing two years ago in Egypt when the Obama administration stepped aside despite all urgings from the regional allies and refused to give a lifeline to Hosni Mubarak. Even more galling to the Saudis was the sight of the US administration openly establishing communication links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, this was seen in Riyadh with great uneasiness. As the well-known author and academic Vali Nasr wrote in the New York Times this week, Riyadh sees the Brotherhood as posing «the same degree of threat to Saudi Arabia’s stolid monarchy as Nasser’s secular populism had… the Brotherhood’s populist Islamism, which promises justice and equity, and empowerment of the individual in religion and politics, does resonate with the many unemployed and restless young Saudis».
The Egyptian knot
Nasr concluded, «In the coming years, the larger strategic challenge facing Saudi Arabia may not be Iran, as it has been, but the Brotherhood». On the other hand, the US could not but factor in that the Brotherhood has become a regional force already in the Maghreb and all across the Middle East whose time may have come. It appealed to Washington that and dealing with the Brotherhood as a legitimate entity on the Middle East’s political landscape is probably the best guarantee against the movement becoming more extreme and threatening the «Islamic legitimacy of all the Arab monarchies». Suffice to say, the Saudis, for their part, are incensed that Washington till to date refuses to welcome the military coup in Egypt, which they had supported, or condone the military’s repression of the Brotherhood.
It is becoming difficult to untangle this «Egyptian knot» in US-Saudi relations. The Saudis have defied the US and are bankrolling the interim government in Cairo, but it fails to impress the Obama administration which, on the contrary, has further suspended its aid to the Egyptian military and is sticking to its call for Egypt to return to «inclusive» democracy that allows the Brotherhood’s participation. The Saudis would have thought that the fear of driving the Egyptian military to diversify its sourcing of arms procurements would prompt rethink in Washington, but the Obama administration appears to be undeterred – so far at least – and seems estimating that in the long run establishing economic progress and political stability in the region would be the best way to ensure regional stability and security and that would be a good thing for the US’ strategic interests as well.
That is to say, the friction that has appeared in Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Obama administration has everything to do with that country's internal situation. The paranoia in Riyadh, in a nutshell, is over the spectre of the regional turmoil spilling over into Saudi Arabia itself at some point. The angst is of an existential character. The British author, Arabist and academic Christopher Davidson wrote recently that the Saudi monarchy’s «social contract with its people is now publicly coming unstuck, and on a significant scale». Two key points he made were that, firstly, time is running out for the strategy of buying off protestors with petrodollars; and, secondly, that the current level of social subsidies – record-breaking $500 billion – is unsustainable as it raises the break-even oil price for the Gulf Arab economies, including Saudi Arabia.
Davidson pointed out that the break-even oil price is now over $115 in Bahrain, while in Oman it touches $102. The International Monetary Fund has warned Kuwait to rein in spending on welfare and public sector jobs. Thus, he concluded, the old time-tested divide-and-rule measures like stoking sectarian tensions and blaming foreign meddling isn’t working anymore and are having a «demonstrable impact» on the Saudi regime’s legitimacy and «it could come part even sooner than many believe».
In fact, a recent paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace underscored that the US administration will be best advised to anticipate social and political turmoil in Saudi Arabia. To be sure, the Saudis feel embittered that the Obama administration’s keenness to be on the «right side of history» in the emerging new Middle East is only encouraging restive populations across the Arab world, which in turn would incite unrest closer to home.
However, the unkindest cut of all has been the growing evidence that the Obama administration is not buying into the Saudi thesis in Syria and Bahrain, Riyadh is fighting against the proxies of an expansionist Iran. Just as the Iran bogey is important for Israel to relegate the Middle East peace process to the backburner, it is important for the Saudi regime to keep up the crackdown on the Shi’ites in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, who are in reality the victims of a vicious sectarian strategy rooted in Wahhabism.
The Saudi leadership feels annoyed that the Obama administration did not launch a military attack on Syria last month, it has turned its back on the promise to equip the Syrian rebels with heavy weapons to overthrow the Assad government and is instead working with Russia to open the diplomatic and political track via Geneva 2. The Saudis are working overtime to ensure that Geneva 2 does not take off and are making a renewed attempt to rally the regional Arab allies, as evident from the latest move to convene a foreign-minister level meeting of the Arab league at Cairo next Monday.
This comes amidst a gradual mellowing of the western perceptions of the Syrian regime, thanks to the excellent cooperation it extends to the United Nations over the destruction of the chemical weapons as also due to the growing evidence that the Syrian government forces are the only credible bulwark against the ascendance of al-Qaeda in that part of the region.
All in all, therefore, the US-Saudi relationship is entering uncharted waters. There have been reports that the Saudi leadership is contemplating a «major shift» away from its decades-old cooperation with the US and that the decision not to occupy the seat in the UN Security Council sets the tone for a radically transformed Saudi foreign policy. The reports mention that Riyadh intends to distance itself from the US by exploring amongst other things military relationships that would give higher priority to Saudi defence and other interests. The shift is reported to be toward a more proactive foreign policy.
Arguably, such a proactive policy has been under way for some time already, as evident in its interventions in Yemen and Bahrain and its unilateral moves to keep the regime change project in Syria going despite the growing signs of western disenchantment. Drawing on the relative success of the Saudi enterprises in Bahrain and Yemen, it is entirely conceivable that the Saudis would sidestep the Geneva 2 proposal and instead push for a regional initiative on Syria by providing economic, political and military cover and rallying its GCC allies and Jordan and Egypt within the framework of a collective security framework.
It could be an initiative in the direction of local interventionism through a revitalized Arab alliance, which will signify a shift away from the historical dependence on the US military presence. The raison d’etre would be that that only through such a regional alliance can the Saudi regime and the Gulf Arab regimes prioritize their survival – by making themselves assertive, less dependent on Western support and insulating themselves from the fallouts of the forthcoming US-Iranian rapprochement.
However, in essence, it will amount to a gambit of circling the wagons rather than embarking on a strategic defiance of the US. The Saudis would know that an Arab collective security framework is unrealistic and far-fetched and there is a criticality about continued US support. Meanwhile, several questions arise.
For one thing, the jury is still out as to how far the GCC intervention in Yemen or Bahrain will prove an enduring success. In Bahrain, repression has become the order of the day, while in Yemen Saudis have merely replaced an unpopular ruler with his deputy. These are temporary palliatives imposed by the Saudis without taking into account the wishes of the people in those countries. Again, the Saudi approach will be, arguably, to militarize conflicts (such as in Bahrain or Syria) whereas, this approach will surely draw international opprobrium and may well prove to be inadequate in stemming the tide of change.
The Saudi regime’s only real advantage is that it possesses unmatchable financial clout but on the other hand there is no region-wide acceptance as such of Saudi Arabia in a leadership role. There are misgivings among the GCC states about the Saudi interventionism in Bahrain. Indeed, the Saudi regime is neither a role model to inspire the Arab nation – in fact, its image in the region is very poor – nor is it contemporaneous with the spirit of the times. The regime looks ridiculous when defiant groups of educated women mock at it by insisting on the right to drive motor vehicles.
In the ultimate analysis, Saudi Arabia’s main trump card is its capacity to sponsor ‘jihad’ abroad. It has a proven capacity for producing militant cadres for its covert interventions in foreign countries. The Saudis have so far got away with the strategy of pushing militant Islamism beyond its own borders. The strategy so far worked, but increasingly, the international community is becoming weary of it. This is where Syria becomes a test case.
Nonetheless, what finally broke the camel’s back was probably the spectacle of direct contact between the US and Iran, especially the phone conversation between Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. A shell-shocked Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal hurriedly left New York without even delivering his customary speech at the UN General Assembly. The US Secretary of State John Kerry has since called on him at his private villa in Paris to mollify him and to urge Riyadh to reconsider its UN decision. Kerry later put a brave face on the US-Saudi rift by claiming he has «great confidence» that the two countries «will continue to be close and important friends and allies that we’ve been».
But Kerry has a point insofar as there are conflicting Saudi positions, reflecting the deep internal divisions within the regime. Thus, it stands to reason that Riyadh has not yet formally notified the United Nations of its intention to refuse the membership of the Security Council. These are still early days and it is only in January, after all, that the day of reckoning actually arrives for the newly elected members to take their place at the famous horseshoe table of the Security Council. We haven’t heard the last word on the Saudi temper tantrum.