A remarkable interview was given to CNN last week by Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who was head of the Saudi intelligence from 1977 to 2001. It is no secret that Saudi relations with the USA have soured during the presidency of Barack Obama. In a bid to restore warmth in the relationship, Obama visited Riyadh on April 21, 2016 to attend a GCC Summit. But Turki said that Saudi relationship with the US had changed forever, and would not return to what it was even under a new US President. Turki said that there was going to be a “recalibration” of Saudi relationship with US, namely, “how far Saudi Arabia could go with its dependence on America and the steadfastness from American leadership.”
For the last eighty years, the US and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed a close relationship. Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia by an American company in 1938. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter in the world and possesses one quarter of the world’s total oil reserves. Oil was obviously the reason why the US needed a close relationship with Saudi Arabia. It gave an assurance that Israel would not commit aggression against Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia adopted a pro-West posture during the Cold War and was strongly opposed to the spread of Communism. Like the USA, it was critical of radical Arab and other regimes in the region. The US appreciated the influence that Saudi Arabia wielded not only in the Gulf region but also beyond in the Islamic world. The main Saudi investments abroad are in the USA. Thus, the bilateral relationship has been based on economic and geostrategic considerations.
Lately, strains in the bilateral relationship have developed because the two countries are so different in their political systems and priorities. Liberal opinion in the US has become critical of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Many US circles blame Saudi Arabia for the rise of extremism in Muslim societies through the spread of its Wahhabist ideology. Both the US and Saudi Arabia had supported the Jihad against Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It was their common support for Jihadis including Osama bin Laden that would unintentionally fan Islamist extremism and terrorism.
Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on 9/11 led to the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. That in turn gave more motivation for Islamist extremists. The US and others have been particularly alarmed by the rise of ISIS (Daesh) in Iraq and Syria. Looking for scapegoats, some US circles criticise Saudi Arabia for its alleged spread of the ideology that led to such extremism. Saudi Arabia has been frustrated by such criticism, particularly when Al-Qaeda has targeted Saudi Arabia itself, and Daesh is seen as an enemy by Riyadh.
An important reason for Saudi disenchantment has been the nuclear deal with Iran, which has released billions of Iranian funds. These funds could be used by Tehran to further its expansionist designs. Iran’s influence has grown in the Middle East with the coming to power of a Shia regime in Iraq. Iran is the main military supporter of the Alawite regime in Syria in its war against the Sunni majority. In Lebanon, the pro-Iran Hezbollah has become a power broker. Bahrain is facing opposition from the majority Shias aided by Iran. In Yemen, Iran has supported Shia Houthis who toppled the elected government, which forced Saudi Arabia to intervene militarily in that country. The bottom line is that Saudi Arabia is engaged in a power struggle with Iran. The US itself had been at daggers drawn with the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran but the nuclear deal has reduced Western pressure on Iran.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies fear that during Obama’s presidency, the US has pulled back from the region, giving more space to Iran. In a magazine interview, Obama accused some countries, including Saudi Arabia, of being “free riders” in the sense that they wanted the US to take military action against regimes they did not like, while not doing much themselves. This led to an open letter by Prince Turki to Obama in which he pointed out how Saudi Arabia had played a leading role in several critical areas. The Saudis also accuse the US of “abandoning” an old ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt during the Arab Spring.
In 2013, Obama backed down from taking military action against Assad though the latter had crossed a “red line” laid down by Obama. Saudis are angered by the current US Congress bid to allow legal proceedings against Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in 9/11 terrorism. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia has threatened to take out over $ 750 billion of its assets in the US. Obama has said he would use his presidential veto to block such legislation by Congress. On his recent visit to Riyadh, Obama was given a cool reception. King Salman did not receive him at the airport and the Saudi TV did not give live coverage to his arrival.
He had a two-hour long meeting with King Salman and later said that the talks had cleared up misperceptions among allies and insisted that the US and Gulf partners had “tactical differences” but similar goals. Obama pledged at the Summit “to use all elements of our power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies.” He said the US shared the Gulf countries’ concerns about the destabilizing activities by Iran. “Even with the nuclear deal we recognize collectively that we continue to have serious concerns about Iranian behaviour.” He also raised the issue of sectarianism which fuels Islamist militancy and said “the prosperity and stability of the region depends on countries treating all their citizens fairly.”
King Salman responded later by pledging the “desire and commitment” of GCC countries to continue developing their ties with the US. The renewed US commitment to their security must be satisfying to the Gulf States. Military and intelligence cooperation between them continues, aimed at countering Islamist militant groups. Under Obama, the US has sold more US military equipment to Saud Arabia than ever before. Obama’s visit to Riyadh might reverse the decline in relations with Saudi Arabia.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.