Until recently, the strategic alliance with Riyadh has been one of the cornerstones of US policy in the Middle East. Relations between the US and Saudi Arabia were governed by the ‘Quincy pact’, which was signed in 1945 between US President Franklin Roosevelt and the founder of the modern Saudi state, King Abdulaziz, on board the USS Quincy.
Essentially, the ‘Quincy pact’ contained just two provisions: the US would guarantee the security of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi royal family would guarantee the energy security of the US by way of uninterrupted oil supplies. The US troops that were stationed in the kingdom as a result of the pact, were only withdrawn in 2002.
In the 1960s, the range of common interests shared by Washington and Riyadh widened significantly. The US found a partner in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in its fight against the left-wing Arab nationalist movement, the leader of which at that time was Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. An even closer rapprochement took place between Riyadh and Washington at the beginning of the 1980s as a result of the support given to the Mujahideen, which had come together to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia also helped Washington strike a blow at the Soviet economy by increasing its oil production and knocking down the price of oil on the world market. With Saudi Arabia’s help, the US managed to achieve three important goals simultaneously: it weakened the geopolitical positions of the USSR, undermined the influence of the left-wing Arab nationalists (the Nasserists and the Ba’athists), and created a counterbalance to the Iranian fundamentalists that had come to power following the overthrow of the Iranian monarchy in 1979.
The turning point in the strategic partnership between the US and Saudi Arabia came in August 2013, when Barack Obama refused to send US warplanes to bomb Syria at Riyadh’s insistence. One of the reasons for this refusal was the White House’s unwillingness to become a hostage to the interests of the Saudi family.
Obama’s recent statements, as quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg, show the depth of the differences between Washington and Riyadh. In particular, the US president noted that Saudi Arabia needs to learn how to get along in the region alongside Iran and, more importantly, share the neighborhood with it. This clearly suggests that Washington will not protect Saudi Arabia, as it has done before, in the event of a conflict with Iran and will not take an openly pro-Saudi position.
Obama also touched upon the negative influence of Wahhabi Islam on stability in Asia. «In the 1990s», he said, «the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family».
Jeffrey Goldberg writes that in response to his direct question about whether Saudi Arabia is an ally of the US, the American president said with a smile: «It’s complicated». Obama also nonchalantly referred to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf as «free riders».
Riyadh reacted immediately and Prince Turki al-Faisal’s response to Barack Obama was an emotional one: «No, Mr. Obama, we are not ‘free riders’. We initiated the meetings that led to the coalition that is fighting Fahish (ISIL), and we train and fund the Syrian freedom fighters, who fight the biggest terrorist, Bashar Assad and the other terrorists, Al-Nusrah and Fahish (ISIL). We are the sole funders of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Center. We buy US treasury bonds, with small interest returns, that help your country’s economy…»
Prince Turki al-Faisal was most offended by the fact that the US president likened the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has «80 years of constant friendship with America», to Iran, the leaders of which continue «to describe America as the biggest enemy». The former head of Saudi intelligence did not even mention all the services that Saudi Arabia has rendered to America. Just after the start of the Arab Spring, Riyadh signed contracts with Washington for the purchase of weapons amounting to almost $60 billion, essentially paying off its debt to the US military-industrial complex.
It is clear that throughout its close relationship with Washington, Riyadh never grasped the most important thing: America does not have permanent friends, just permanent interests. All of Washington’s former friends that were subsequently betrayed by America – Marcos, Suharto, Saddam Hussein, Mubarak – experienced this first hand.
Faced with this against the background of the Syrian crisis, the Arabs cannot help but take note of Russia’s loyalty to its allies. As someone close to the Saudi establishment, Abdulrahman Al Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya television, which is funded by the Saudi royal family, published his response to the US president in the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat: «Obama’s expression of disgust at the Middle East is not political. The Russians who have dreamt since the time of the Tsars of gaining access to warm water have begun to swim in it. All senior leaders in the region have been forced to go to the Kremlin during the past two years because of the deliberate absence of the Americans. These leaders have built multiple relations with Moscow; a matter that did not occur to anyone and that has not happened before».
It all suggests a change in the paradigm of US policy in the Middle East. The US is no longer dependent on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf and the centre of gravity of US policy is moving from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific Region, which promises to make the 21st century a century of American-Chinese rivalry.
America is gradually moving away from the Middle East, leaving others with the weight of the problems it has created but has left unresolved.
In the Arab world, the voices of those who welcome this fact are increasingly being heard. The well-known journalist and editor-in-chief of the Rai al-Youm newspaper, Abdel Bari Atwan, writes: «America is tired of the Arabs and their petulant antics and is looking for less ‘high maintenance’ friends elsewhere – such as Africa and Southeast Asia. In our opinion this could be very beneficial for the Middle East which will revert to self-reliance, develop greater regional tolerance and co-operation (rather than rushing to war), evolve diversified economies, better welfare provision and greater harmony and happiness all round».