December 17, 2013

Understanding Saudi Anger

Lately Saudi Arabia’s leaders have seemed to take pleasure in making their American friends squirm. The most recent example of this was featured in newspapers across the country on Monday when Prince Turki al-Faisal publicly and harshly criticized the Obama administration’s policy toward his region. Prince Turki’s attack gave special weight to two highly controversial foreign policy topics: the diplomatic breakthrough with Iran and the failure to forcefully intervene in Syria. Although it is not surprising that Riyadh has a different set of priorities than Washington on these issues, the volume and openness of these complaints are virtually unprecedented in the history of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Should U.S. policymakers worry? Will op-eds one day be published that ask “Who Lost Saudi Arabia?”

The drivers of the dispute between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are rooted in the Saudi fear that the regional security architecture that underpins the Kingdom’s existence and power is becoming dangerously fragile. Those fears are not unfounded; President Obama’s decision to pursue diplomacy over Syria’s chemical weapons instead of using military force to enforce the president’s “red line,” seen from a Saudi perspective, does seem to cast some doubt on America’s commitments to the security of other states in the region. It raises the unpleasant question: will Uncle Sam be there for me when I need help? In addition, Riyadh worries that the success – so far – of diplomacy between Iran and the U.S. heralds a geopolitical rapprochement and eventual realignment between Washington and Tehran that could leave the Kingdom on the outside looking in.

If Saudi fears are legitimate, however, their implied and explicit threats to fundamentally change the nature of their country’s relationship with the United States are unrealistic and counterproductive. The reality is that change is coming to the region whether leaders in Riyadh, Manama, and Kuwait City like it or not. The chaos and energies released by the Arab Awakening will continue to shake Syria and much of the region to its foundations, and the re-emergence of Iran from international isolation is a very real possibility. Instead of criticizing American Middle East policy, the Saudis should recognize that the United States remains their best and most capable friend, and that Riyadh can only maintain a measure of its current geopolitical position with active American engagement and assistance.

Over the past year, CNAS’s Middle East Security program has been examining the regional challenges facing Saudi Arabia and the region from several angles, with a strong focus on the implications and intricacies of the recently-negotiated interim deal with Iran. Two of the program’s experts, Colin H. Kahl and Jacob Stokes, also wrote on earlier Gulf discontent in a piece published at Defense One. In that piece, they made it clear that Saudi Arabia does not have a great deal of room to “pivot” to any other country or group of countries as a replacement to the U.S. alliance.

Looked at through that lens, it becomes clear that although Riyadh’s preferred way of doing business is certainly coming down around its ears, it also faces tremendous opportunities to secure its place in the region’s power structure. And those opportunities, from maintaining its clear military advantage over Iran to making the Gulf Cooperation Council a truly integrated and consequential actor, can be best accomplished with American help. The two countries still share many interests, and can act together to ensure that even an Iran completely freed of sanctions does not dominate the Gulf region and the Middle East.

To be fair, the Obama administration needs to improve its side of the relationship. Much of the current Saudi angst stems from inadequate communication between Washington and Riyadh, and U.S. leaders have perhaps needlessly blindsided the Saudis in key decisions regarding Syria and Iran. The key moving forward is to reassure the Kingdom and other Gulf states of Washington’s enduring commitment to the security of the region. Secretary of Defense Hagel’s recent speech at the Manama Dialogue represents a good start. If the Obama administration follows this up with sustained and frank discussion with its Saudi allies – behind closed doors – much of the current turbulence in the alliance will be resolved, and the two countries can get back to working on issues of mutual concern.

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