On the 28th of March, 2014 Barack Obama payed an official visit to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia to meet Saudi King Abdullah. During the meeting at the king’ desert camp outside of Ryiadh, Obama has tried to ease the tensions between the two States, which have aggravated since the outburst of the Syrian conflict.
Grounds of Saudi-US relations
Formal diplomatic relations were established in 1933 between the two States. However, real bilateral alliance and partnership came in life only after the historic meeting of F.D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz on the U.S. Navy Cruiser Quincy in 1945. Despite fundamental differences between the two States – Saudi Arabia being an Islamic, Wahhabi absolute monarchy, and the U.S. a secular democracy-, the partnership seemed stable until the 1990s, as it relied on reliable oil supply from Saudi Arabia to the USA, and the promise of regional security provided by the latter. This has changed since the end of the Cold War, and even more since the inauguration of the first Obama administration in 2009.
Troubling Regional Affairs: From Still Waters to Mistrust
According to Simon Henderson, a fellow at the think tank The Washington Institute: “Ever since Washington withdrew support for President (Hosni) Mubarak of Egypt in 2011, Abdullah and other Gulf leaders have worried about the reliability of Washington’s posture toward even longstanding allies“[i].
Next to tensions due to the Arab spring movements, two main areas of US (non-)activity provoke tensions today in the US-Saudi relations. First of all, the Syrian conflict has given a chance to Saudi Arabia to reaffirm his leading position in the region. It is in its utmost interest that the Assad regimes ends up defeated, as it relies on the sect of Alawites (a Shiite sect), and on help from Iran and the Hezbollah, who therefore enjoy a considerable influence in the direct proximity of the wahhabite (sunni) Saudi Arabia. As it is, in order to stop the spill-over of the Syrian conflict in Lebanon and stop Iranian influence via the Hezbollah, Riyad has already granted three billion dollars to the Lebanese army.[ii] Still, this is no match for Hezbollah, and Saudis would expect direct US intervention in the conflict in order to put down Bashar Al Assad. Even after the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, US intervention has not been set in place, which has increased Saudi frustration. In November 2013, Saudi Arabia officially rejected its UN Security Council Seat, referring to the inability of Western States to tackle the Syrian issue.
However the Syrian conflict is just the close projection of the competition with Iran: Syria is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – it is rather a question of geopolitical influence, than anything else, whose troops will win in the end. Should Hezbollah and Iran save the Assad-regime, the Sunnis of the region will be in a grave danger and Saudi Arabia will have no chance to have a direct influence on the region. Iran is a regional rival, and a Shia power, which makes an alliance between the two States impossible.
As Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, has put it, the West’s engagement with Iran has “made Riyadh even more concerned about the rise of Iranian and Shia power from Lebanon, to Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and even Yemen”.[iii] Accordingly, Saudi Arabia would expect the USA to choose a hardline diplomatic approach towards Iran. However, concerning the latter, Iran is only a problem of nuclear proliferation and a potential threat to Israel. Therefore, the US only aims to make a nuclear deal with Iran. This has become possible with the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on 14 June, 2013, who presents a more flexible position than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did. This is extremely frustrating for Saudi Arabia, who would wish to profit from it long-standing alliance with the US to counterbalance Iran.
In this situation Saudi Arabia feels betrayed by its American ally. As many journalists present a turning point in Saudi-US relations, we should examine if there is a real divergence of interests which would result in a shift from an important partnership to negligence, or even hostility between the two States.
A Change in the American Approach
As we speak today, one fundamental element of the Saudi-US partnership has certainly changed and that is US dependency on oil. US domestic production of oil has rocketed in the last 10 years, and now is superior to the import, which makes the US independent from its former main importer, Saudi Arabia, and makes it less implicated in the region.
Source: Energy Information Administration Short Term Energy Outlook. Chart by Daniel Wood.
In addition, the shift from a Middle-Eastern-European-centred foreign policy to an Eastern-Asian one, promoted by the Obama administration is increasingly endangering the implication of American forces in the region, which were supposed to promote regional security and stability. As it is, an increasing passivity from its American partner is endangering more than the regional influence of Saudi Arabia.
The Underlying Factors: The Legitimacy of the Al-Sauds in Danger
So why is it so essential to Saudi-Arabia that its Sunni influence should be recognised in the whole of the region – even if it is only realisable with exterior help?
As Paul R. Pillar points out, “… it is not for nothing that the Saudi king calls himself the custodian of the two holy mosques. Protection of Sunni brethren is part of upholding the claim to legitimacy (…) [so the] stake in another country’s sectarian conflict is related to the peculiar nature of the al-Saud family’s claim to legitimacy and to political power. It is a claim based on religion, and not at all on popular sovereignty.”[iv]
In the region, the Shiite Iraq and Iran pose a real danger to Sunni minorities, and Saudi Arabia poses in the role of the protector of these minorities. Moreover, in some countries such as Syria, Shiite minorities dispose of a strong political and economic capital, which enables them to dominate the Sunni majority. These two phenomena endanger Saudi influence in the region, which is based upon religious grounds.
It is not only outside Shiite power that endangers Saudi dominance. Competition from within the Sunni community can be even more dangerous. This reflects in the decision of Saudi officials on the ban of the Muslim Brotherhood, on the 4th of March, 2014.[v] The Saudi decree takes the Muslim Brotherhood under the same nomination as a terrorist group, such as Al-Qaeda or Hezbollah, banning even the expression of support towards its ambitions. This seemingly exaggerated decision might originate from the lack of legitimacy of the aging Al-Saudi family. The Muslim Brotherhood bases upon much the same values, however promotes a more egalitarian model of society than the strictly closed Wahhabi Saudi order, therefore offering a tempting alternative to this latter. The Muslim Brotherhood “embodies a combination of religious commitment to Islam (on the Sunni side) and pursuit of political power through democratic means. This combination presents the greatest possible challenge to the legitimacy of the ruling Saudi family.”
Facing strong competition from the inside, as from the outside, it is quite clear that the Al-Saudi family has to regain its powerful US ally in order to maintain its presence in the region as in its own country. Efforts have been made from the Saudi side, especially concerning the Syrian conflict to create the most favorable conditions to this re-rapprochement. Firstly, following Western accusations of Saudi support of radical groups in Syria, Saudi-Arabia has introduced a ban on Saudis travelling to Syria to join jihadist movements, such as the Jabhat al-Nashra or the Abdullah Azam Brigade, which claim worldwide jihadist aims. This has an even more symbolic importance if we take into account the fact that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were of Saudi nationality, which has provoked some tensions in the bilateral relations of the two States, who have been working closely ever since on fighting Al-Qaeda. Secondly, to reaffirm the Saudi position on the side of the USA, the hardline former director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who has opted for the armament of Syrian rebels, has been replaced by Youssef Al-Idrissi in February 2014.[vi] Furthermore, the responsibility to outline Syria policy was handed over to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef who gained reputation by working closely with the USA in tackling the Al-Qaeda challenge.
Conclusion: Is Saudi Arabian Power in Danger?
Despite the stability of the common cause of fighting Al-Qaeda, it is now quite clear that Saudi-Arabian-US relations have fundamentally changed. This was provoked by an inevitable shift of interest of US, and its ambition of a greater independence of oil sources. If Saudi-Arabia wishes to maintain its regional prestige it has to take into account a possible passivity from the US in the years to come, which it has not assumed until now.
However, contrary to a Western journalist’s approach, this might not necessarily lead to a decline of Saudi-Arabian influence. The country is extremely rich in resources, and despite some dysfunctions in its system, its economy is perfectly healthy, with a constant GDP real growth rate (3,8% in 2013)[vii]. Saudi-Arabian influence might be reduced, but it will certainly not vanish from the map.
Anna Laura Magyarlaki
Anna Laura Magyarlaki is a Hungarian undergraduate student in the Eastern European campus of Sciences Po, Dijon. She is particularly interested in questions of energy supply, economic development and human rights in developing countries.
[i]KUMAR SHEN, Asish : “Proxy war between Iran, Saudi Arabia playing out in Syria: Sectarian tensions entangling Middle East a worry for U.S”., Washington Times, 26.02.2014. Available at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/feb/26/proxy-war-between-iran-saudi-arabia-playing-out-in/#ixzz30eu4tcyV
[ii]GHATTAS, Kim: “Saudi Arabia ‘to give Lebanon army $3bn grant’”, BBC News, 29 December 2013.http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25544352
[iii] KUMAR SHEN, Asish : “Proxy war between Iran, Saudi Arabia playing out in Syria: Sectarian tensions entangling Middle East a worry for U.S”., Washington Times, 26.02.2014. Available at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/feb/26/proxy-war-between-iran-saudi-arabia-playing-out-in/#ixzz30eu4tcyV
[iv] PILLAR R. Paul: “What the Saudis fear”, The National Interest, 11.03.2014 available at: http://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/what-the-saudis-fear-10040
[v]KIRKPATRICK D., David: „Saudis put terrorist label on Muslim Brotherhood“, The New York Times, 07.03.2014, available at:http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/08/world/middleeast/saudis-put-terrorist-label-on-muslim-brotherhood.html
[vi]ENTOUS, Adam and KNICKMEYER, Ellen: “Saudi Arabia Replaces Key Official in Effort to Arm Syria Rebels: Frustrated Kingdom Sets Out to Assuage U.S. Worries on Extremists in Three-Year Conflict”, The Wall Street Journal, 19.02.2014. Available at: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303775504579392942097203608
also see: MCDOWALL, Angus:Fears of Syria militancy expand influence of Saudi prince, Reuters, 21.02.2014. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/21/us-saudi-princemohammed-insight-idUSBREA1K0MW20140221
[vii] data from the CIA – The World Factbook