US President Barack Obama phoned King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to “reiterate the firm commitment of the US to its friends and allies in the (Persian) Gulf” – and to soften the impact of the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.
No further details of the conversation have been made public, though it is clear that reports of the death of the 80-year strategic relationship between the two countries have been exaggerated.
The potential for significant change is certainly there in the longer term. For now, though, diplomats and analysts agree, Riyadh’s choices are limited.
There is no doubt that there is irritation and anger at what may be the start of a rapprochement between Iran and its “Great Satan, America, according to Saudi officials, private individuals and foreign observers. Obama is the object of mistrust and contempt. Yet the sour mood long predates the Geneva deal and is neither directly nor exclusively about the nuclear issue.
It takes insights into psychology as well as international relations to get the measure of this Saudi sulk: words like neglect, abandonment and encirclement come up again and again. Obama, said a respected liberal writer, “is selling us cheaply”. A well-connected Saudi analyst spoke of the US using allies “like prostitutes” and then dumping them.
The big picture is that the Saudis have spent the last three years defending the status quo against the turmoil of the Arab spring. King Abdullah was horrified when Obama (belatedly) dropped Hosni Mubarak and embraced the Muslim Brotherhood until Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the Egyptian military. (The Brotherhood portrays a conspiracy for which the Saudis and Emiratis paid the bills. That ignores the millions of Egyptians who loathed Morsi.) But the Saudis were certainly delighted to see Egypt’s first democratically elected president off and reward the generals who dispatched him.
In Libya it was the hyper-wealthy Qataris who, with NATO, backed the anti-Gaddafi rebels and promoted Islamist groups the Saudis fear. Tunisia’s deposed dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, has been allowed to live in gilded exile in Jeddah. Only over Bahrain – where Shia protestors challenge another repressive Sunni monarchy – were the Saudis proactive. But that is in their backyard, close to the oil-rich (and Shia) Eastern Province.
King Abdullah was quick to call for the downfall of Bashar al-Assad, in 2011 and allowed sectarian incitement and weapons deliveries in support of the Syrian rebels. Now Prince Bandar bin Sultan, his flamboyant intelligence chief, is financing co-ordination among Islamist brigades opposed to al-Qaeda. Interestingly, that is said to worry Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister and rising royal star, who fears a repeat of the “blowback” that brought Osama bin Laden’s Saudi fighters home after the officially sanctioned jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Syria is in some ways a Saudi proxy war with Iran – which is backing Assad to the hilt along with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Unease in Riyadh exploded in August when Obama leveraged the Damascus chemical attacks into a deal with the Russians – abandoning the punitive air strikes the Saudis were rooting for.
Last month’s decision by the 90-year-old king to forgo the Saudi seat on the UN Security Council was an impetuous expression of the darkening mood. Saudi complaints that they were not informed of the progress of talks with the Iranians echoed their public anger over the CW deal.
Saudi diplomacy has traditionally favored the murmured aside and the quietly proffered chequebook. The current levels of noise reflect profound discomfort at incipient geopolitical changes – as well as capriciousness and rivalry in the palaces of Riyadh. Still, there have been worse moments, including with President Kennedy in the 1960s. As the US academic Gregory Gause has noted: “The rhetorical volleys of the past few months are minor compared to the most serious episodes of tension between the two allies: the oil embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia in 1973 to protest [against] American support for Israel during the Yom Kippur war, which sent a permanent shock through global oil markets, and the aftermath of September 11, 2001.”
Worries are growing about future US energy dependence and a strategic pivot to Asia. But the oil is still flowing and the defense relationship remains strong – and to mutual benefit. The notion that China or France can replace the US is – for now – fanciful nonsense. And Americans will vote for a new president in 2016. “Obama will go,” one Saudi commentator quipped, “and our old guys will still be here.” But a raw nerve has been painfully exposed.
By Ian Black for The Guardian