The recent letter from Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the head of Saudi intelligence and former longstanding Saudi ambassador to Washington who has spearheaded the Kingdom’s hard line towards Syria, in many ways only underscores the slow drift apart in recent years in the historically very close relations between Riyadh and Washington.
The Saudi displeasure with recent US policy towards both Syria and the opening in relations with the new Iranian government is abundantly clear, even if not necessarily new. The letter, and that the Saudis opted to make it public, however, does carry the echoes of earlier near-ruptures, the US handling of post-invasion Iraq to mention but one.
*** But at the end of the day, this most recent strain in US-Saudi relations also raises the question of what the alternatives are for the Kingdom to its deeply rooted economic and military ties to the US; more to the point, it also raises a question of whether the turn in US policies and a public rift between Riyadh and Washington is not swaying US policy as much as it may be leaving the Saudis looking more vulnerable and operating with a weakened hand in what is obviously a highly volatile part of the world. ***
Years of Drift in Relations
The Saudis and Americans have long cooperated closely in regional policy, and never more so than in the extremely close cooperation and intelligence sharing in the War on Terror in the aftermath of 9/11. But more recently since the start of President Obama’s Administration, relations between the two countries have been increasingly strained.
The two countries have worked very closely together in bringing the Europeans on board with the economic and financial sanctions against Iran, on the one hand, but the Saudis never quite understood the US Iraq policy in effectively putting its northern neighbor into the Iranian sphere of influence.
The Saudis were taken aback by the US response to Egypt, the downfall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and in allowing the rise of the Moslem Brotherhood, against whom the Saudis have had a decades-long disregard. A red line was finally crossed for Riyadh when the US hesitated over its response to the street demonstrations in Bahrain, and the Saudis finally took to the uprisings there with a firm hand by sending its troops across the causeway to shut down the protests.
The ties between the US and Saudi Arabia have also been weakening on the energy front. The bulk of Saudi exports shifted a few years ago to China, Singapore and Asia in general from the US and Western destinations. In the meantime, the US has had a slow but massive increase in domestic energy production capacity through shale oil.
Seeing the opening left between Washington and Riyadh, Moscow has been trying to improve its relations with Riyadh for some time now, but the Al Saud will never warm up to the Russians. Instead the shift in commercial and even some military relations has been to China. For Saudi Arabia to purchase even a limited amount of arms from elsewhere than the US or Britain and France is remarkable in light of its past history. That said, the US still maintains its presence off the horizon but huge military presence and rapid access to Saudi military bases if the need arises.
Along the same lines, the extreme alarm signals on an Iranian rapprochement should also be taken with a grain of salt. Saudi Arabia does not want a nuclear Iran, period, nor a weakened Western position in the negotiations with its rival across the Gulf. On the other hand, Riyadh would not mind a deal that actually curtails Iranian nuclear development for obvious reasons.
By the same token, while there is a lot of coverage of Iranian-Saudi hostility, there has also been an outreach, albeit a modest one, from the new President Rouhani government to Riyadh that was welcomed. Iranian officials have made recent state visits to Riyadh. Behind the scenes, there is commerce between the countries, and in fact a Saudi food production company was allowed to purchase a smaller Iranian company for several hundred million dollars.
Iran has also been a silent observer at recent Gulf Cooperation Council meetings as just one other expression of the slow thaw in Iranian-Saudi relations. But most astonishing of all, we understand a Saudi defense attaché has been seconded to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the most militant group in the country.
So at least for now, it would seem the noises of renewed Saudi alarm should be taken more as warnings to Washington to stand firm in their negotiations with Iran rather than the mark to a serious rupture in relations. For the Saudis, the testing would include maintaining the Iranian sanctions that has eroded the Iranian economy and currency to the degree it has in bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table over the nuclear weapons development.
On that front, interestingly enough, the US soft pedal in the Mideast is drawing equal alarm from the Israelis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And that, in turn, is pushing the Israelis and the Saudis even closer than ever, albeit in behind the scenes cooperation.
In the near term, neither the Saudi nor the Israeli protests are likely to have much impact on the movement in US-Iranian negotiations. It will be interesting, though, to see how the strain in US-Saudi relations spills over into the Western and Saudi handling of the Syrian policy, both in terms of the arms flow to weakened rebel forces and the possible diplomatic talks with the besieged but still standing Bashar al-Assad regime. Any sense the US is pulling away from Riyadh could undermine the Saudi dominant influence on the Arab League and Syria’s neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon.