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Published on: March 25, 2014
The Saudi Summit
Why Obama Won’t Give (or Get) Much in Saudi Arabia

President Obama will have his hands full in Riyadh later this week working with the Saudis in light of recent policy differences. Unlike Lehman Brothers, however, the U.S.-Saudi relationship really is too big to fail.

As President Obama heads off to Riyadh this week—the last stop, on Friday, of a Europe-heavy itinerary—he should be a happy guy. Unlike his relationship with Vladimir Putin (or Lehman Brothers), the U.S.-Saudi relationship really is too big to fail.  Key linkages—billions in recent U.S. weapons sales, counter-terrorism cooperation, and all that oil—will keep Riyadh and Washington together for some time to come, whether each side, deep down, really likes it or not.

At the same time, he should be worried, too. Conflicting interests and views concerning Egypt, Syria, Iran and Palestine have created big rifts in the relationship. Unless the President is prepared to alter his approach to these issues—and be more careful about what he says to journalists about supposed Saudi difficulties with accepting “change”—the best he can do is contain the damage. Even this won’t be easy.

In recent years, the list of issues on which U.S. and Saudi leaders don’t agree has gotten pretty long. Riyadh opposed Mubarak’s fall; after an initial hesitation, we sounded like we welcomed it. They saw the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood government as a threat; we were prepared to live with it. They fully supported the Egyptian military coup and backed it with billions; we waffled and conditioned our military assistance to Egypt. They backed the Khalifa family in Bahrain; initially we supported reform in their backyard. They remain worried that a Shi’a government close to Iran rules just across their border in Baghdad; we enabled it. Indeed, the Saudis see the Middle East as a struggle between good Sunnis and Bad Shi’a; we refuse to take sides.

Stripped to its essence, the diverging nature of U.S.-Saudi interests reflects a fundamental question. The Saudis wonder and worry about the broader U.S. commitment in the region, specifically our willingness to stand by our friends and our determination to oppose our adversaries. Not surprisingly, the Israelis worry about much the same thing. Long gone are the Bush 41 days when, according to the Saudis, Washington said what it meant and meant what it said.

The Saudis are hardly innocent bystanders in this new dysfunctional relationship, and of course they hardly reflect American values. Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian state opposed to fundamental internal change. It harbors its own anti-American and anti-Semitic fundamentalist currents. And for far too long, Saudi money has funded extremist Islamic schools and movements in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond. There’s also little doubt Riyadh would like to keep the U.S. dependent on hydrocarbons for years to come, a goal shared by several other major oil exporters.

Still, interests are interests, and clearly the Magic Kingdom—along with the other monarchies—Jordan, Morocco, even Bahrain (where the U.S. 5th Fleet drops anchor) represent rare continuity and stability in a region convulsed by turmoil. Does the U.S. Administration really want a new version of the so-called Arab Spring to spring up in Saudi Arabia—along with the disruption almost certain to follow in oil and financial markets, let alone the opportunities for Iranian mischief?

At the moment, the issue isn’t oil so much as it is Syria, Iran and Palestine. On each of these core issues, the Saudis see confusion and lack of resolve on America’s part. This only adds to the perception that Barack Obama has a view of the region in which the United States will play a less central role, leaving a vacuum for Iran, extremists of both Sunni and Shi’a varieties, and the migrating mess from an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian issue to fill.

Sadly for the Saudis, the President won’t be able to answer the mail satisfactorily on any of these issues. Forget his distraction with Ukraine or the fact that he cares more about his own political legacy – improving the fortunes of America’s middle class—than his Middle Eastern one. To deal with Saudi concerns on these issues, Obama would have to be risk-ready rather than risk averse; and he’s anything but.

In Syria, horrified that the President didn’t enforce his own red line on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the Saudis see a burgeoning civil war that is exporting radicalism, creating a base for al-Qaeda spinoffs in Syria and Iraq, and that is bucking up Hizballah and Iran. They want a more muscular U.S. policy—in effect Obama’s active help in getting rid of Assad, which despite all that has happened remains the policy of record. But the President, wary of militarizing the U.S. role in Syria and getting dragged into a proxy war with the mullahs—or with Putin, for that matter—simply won’t oblige.

On Iran—the Saudis’ biggest preoccupation—they see a risk-averse Washington determined to preempt an Israeli strike against Iran and reluctant to undertake U.S. military action, even en extremis, to stop Iran’s nuclear program.  But more than that, the Saudis worry that even apparent and temporary progress on the nuclear issue will lead the United States and Iran to a broader, if implicit, alignment at their expense.  In other words, to get—or appear to be getting—a deal on the nuclear portfolio, the Saudis worry that Obama will turn a blind eye to all of Iran’s regional mischief-making as a price. As Riyadh sees it, the mullahs are trying to encircle Saudi Arabia; and worse, they worry that Washington refuses to see this for highly narrow and self-interested reasons.

The Saudis have good reason for their worries. The fact is that Iran—unlike Saudi Arabia—is a serious regional power with ambitions to dominate the Gulf and stir up trouble among Bahraini and Saudi Shi’a.  It is doing so even now with its al-Quds force, and it is also doing so in Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern flank. The President’s expressed view, again to journalists, seems to be that Iran is a rational actor with a return address—in other words, a place one can do business. Whatever concerns President Obama may have about Iran’s future regional ambitions, he’s worried even more about how to defuse the nuclear issue so as to avoid the need for a wrenching decision on his watch—either to abide it or destroy it. And that means talking to Iran—which the Saudis have referred to as a snake whose head needs to be cut off—not confronting it.

Finally, on Israel-Palestine, the Saudis, authors of what they believe to be the only real solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue—the 2002 Arab peace initiative— have long been dismayed by America’s, and now Obama’s, unwillingness to get serious about the peace process. And let’s be clear what getting serious means to the Saudis: Pressuring Israel to accept a Palestinian state on the basis of the June 4, 1967 borders with a capital in east Jerusalem, consistent with their 2002 plan.

But on this one too, Riyadh is likely to be disappointed. With all of the abrasive issues in play between Washington and Riyadh, it’s far better that there is some semblance of a peace process right now than not. Obama can tell King Abdallah that he’s trying, whereas his predecessor could not. But the Saudis will not be much propitiated by this line of argument. They know that Obama isn’t ready right now to fight with Israel over the peace process, especially with the midterm elections drawing nigh. And they should know, too, that the peace process as currently constituted still isn’t ready for prime time.

Still despite all their diverse troubles, the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship is likely to endure. Divorce isn’t an option. Couples therapy is unlikely to work. But mutual dependence will prove its mettle. The relationship will remain troubled but still at least clingingly functional in a region where that may be the new norm in America’s ties with all its Arab (and perhaps even its Israeli) allies.

Aaron David Miller is a Vice President and Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is the author of the forthcoming The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    On what planet does somebody who can write, “Unlike his relationship with Vladimir Putin (or Lehman Brothers), the U.S.-Saudi relationship really is too big to fail.” reside? To paraphrase Stalin: The Saudis! How many divisions have they got?

    • PKCasimir

      All you have to do is to look at the title of his forthcoming book to know where he resides – in that bizarro world of the professional State Dept. functionary who never defends America because he doesn’t believe in it. In their view, America is always at fault.

      • Andrew Allison

        It depends on what you mean by the word “professional” I’ve come to the conclusion that if there are any professionals, in the sense of knowing anything about foreign policy, left at State they are not being heard. Prof. Mead please note.

        • El Gringo

          Absolutely. There are many intelligent professionals at State who are deeply knowledgeable about foreign policy. Unfortuantely, their voices are rarely heard. Stovepiping has become endemic in the foreign policy establishment. The White House relies exclusively on a very few appointed officials who in turn rely exclusively on a very few favorites who ignore information that does not conform to their narrow world view.

  • Anthony

    “…This, as it happens, is more or less the position of the Obama administration. The first post-imperial American presidency since world war II telegraphs nothing so much as exhaustion with world affairs. Obama essentially wants regional powers (such as Japan in Asia, and Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East) to rely less on the United States in maintaining local power balances.” Additional background to Friday’s Riyadh visit as highlighted by author.

    • Andrew Allison

      I beg to differ. IMNHO, the Obama administration telegraphs nothing but utter incompetence in the arena of world affairs, as elsewhere. The, perfectly sensible, desire for regional powers to look after their own interests should not be confused with the gross failure to look after those of the country of which he is President.

      • Anthony

        You may beg to differ as is your prerogative but quote belongs to Robert Kaplan and his insight provides perspective – and Andrew I am done here.

  • Fat_Man

    Why do we need the Saudis? We have plenty of oil here. What we need to do is build the Keystone pipeline, drill on federal lands, straighten out Venezuela, and strangle the last environmentalist with the entrails of the last lawyer.

    The Saudis are the worst. They do nothing but spread terrorism and ignorance. Best we throw all of them out of the US and tell them not to come back.

    • cammo99

      The fact is we built the Saudi oil machine with the Brits why shouldn’t we take advantage of purchasing barrels of oil from them if they will deliver them more cheaply and in enough quantity to keep prices from rising in this country?
      Obama promised to pass what essentially is a fart tax on carbon emissions, good luck on the keystone deal or fracking in NYS the politicians haven’t figured how to impose eminent domain on it so the savings goes in their pocket yet until then development will be at best limited. And the Suadis are trying to buy into American development too. With our national debt growing at a trillion a year we will be giving it away and our grand kids can go back to burning whale blubber.

  • El Gringo

    There are no permanent friends only permanent interests. Just because American interests have aligned with Saudi interests for so many years does not mean they are friends. The U.S. has an interest in stable oil supplies and the House of Saud has an interest in making barrels of money and that’s about as far as it goes. The fact that 15 of the 19 highjackers on 9/11 were Saudi should have proven that long ago.

    Why should the U.S. be involved in a war between the authoritarian Shia administration of Iran that is bent on religious imperialism and the autocratic Wahabi administration of the Saudis who are also bent on religious imperialism? If the Middle East is determined to fight its own Thirty Years’ War then the U.S. would do well to get shot of it.

  • michael

    Its time we (America) step back and allow these factions (Sunni,Shia) to find voice outside of our picking sides. For most of us questions as to how we got here or how they got to the point of enemies. More important is why we have to be the middle man in this great divide? If we step back maybe this will force them to reconcile there differences with one another. For to long we have giving aid and comfort to crimes and criminals that we shouldn’t have and this president at this time has changed coarse and we must see it through.

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