Saudi Arabia

Saudi-US Relations: “Storms of the Desert”: Analyst

US_SaudiThe Saudi foreign policy is mostly labeled with its dependence on “cautious alertness” and by its nature, it tends to adopt mysteriousness and vagueness, as Saudi diplomacy usually resorts to secrecy and avoiding confrontation, hence it is very close to equivocation and far from directness.

The Saudi leadership believes that this method is the safest in dealing with its direct regional surrounding which is occupied with conflicts and very far from stability. This is why it has always settled for opening the way for its long-term ally, the United States, to take the initiatives and follow up its agenda in the Middle East under Saudi agreement in most of the cases.

In fact, the Saudi-American relations were established during World War II, and on the 18th of February, 1943, US President Roosevelt announced that “defending Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States”, while the US oil companies have paved the way for the establishment of these relations ten years before Roosevelt announced about them, when “Standard Oil of California” company gained the franchise for drilling for oil in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Followers of Washington-Riyadh relations agree on considering that the meeting between US President Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdul Aziz bin Saud on the cruiser “Quincy” during his return from Yalta Summit (February 1945) with Stalin and Churchill established the bases for a strategic deal based on guaranteeing the flow of Saudi oil to the United States and its allies in return for Washington’s protection of the Saudi regime.

US and Saudi flagsFor the past 70 years, the equation of protection in return for oil with fine prices was implemented. Even though these relations faced some disagreements and tensions, but these cases were not essential. According to Diplomat and former US Ambassador to Riyadh during the first Gulf war, Chas Freeman (1989-1992), who was also known for his strong ties with US foreign policy institutions, he said:”In the past, we’ve been able to rely on them (Saudis) at a minimum not to oppose US policy, and most often to support it…”

However, these days this harmony no longer exists in the same form and it seems more shaky. Lately, loud complaints by significant Saudi officials were heard because the interests of the strong alliance between the two countries have become at stake. This urged US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to make an urgent visit to Riyadh in November where he met with King Abdullah, Foreign Minister Saud Al-Fayssal, and a number of Saudi officials; but it is doubtful that Kerry had succeeded in putting a limit to this deterioration in the relations between the two countries.

David Ignatius wrote in Washington Post about the crackup in the Saudi-US relations, considering that “it has been on this way for more than two years, like a slow-motion car wreck…” – this includes some exaggeration – however, US researchers go far beyond that as they consider that the state the relations between the two countries have reached is the result of a long path of mutual disappointment, which has started with the end of the cold war and included some harsh stops for both parts. “September 11” was one stop for the Americans, while the Iraq invasion in 2003 and its results – according to the Saudis – like the handover of power there by the George Bush Administration to the Shiite majority, was most likely the greatest strategic relapse for the kingdom in the past decades.

Undoubtedly, Riyadh was not pleased with the Bush Administration’s adoption of the call for spreading democracy in the Middle East, as this tackles a sensitive issue for the Saudis. Yet, this call got wide US promotion specially after the “September 11”, and by that aversion between the two allies started increasing.

On the regional clash in the east, Iran was the opponent which the Saudis tried to limit its power and put an end to its expansion in a region which they consider of direct closeness. In Lebanon, the Saudis supported “March 14” alliance to win the parliamentary elections for two consecutive times (2005 and 2009), and their prime concern was to suppress “Hezbollah”, Iran’s ally which took advantage of the Lebanese balances to win the right of “Veto” in the Lebanese government after Doha agreement. Later, “March 14” alliance found itself outside the government which was formed by Prime Minister Najib Miqati. In Iraq, despite all Saudi efforts, they failed to impose their choice of appointing Iyad Allawi as Prime Minister, even though his bloc in the Iraqi parliament was the biggest one. However, his opponent Nouri Al-Maliki, who is close to Tehran, is still in his position since the 2010 elections.

In the Palestinian field, King Abdullah sponsored “Mecca agreement” between “Fatah” and “Hamas”, and one of the goals of this agreement was to keep “Hamas” away from Iranian influence. However, the agreement fell within months, after “Hamas” took over power in the Gaza Strip, which made it more attached to its relation with Iran.

All these attempts failed on the regional level. The Saudis have been facing failure since around eight years, while Iran was succeeding, according to US expert on Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Affairs, Gregory Gause.

Following the “Arab Spring” developments at the beginning of 2011 which changed the balance of power in the region, the Saudis did not hide their rage, and their focus was on Egypt more than Tunisia, for the fall of Moubarak was an irreparable loss for the Saudis who considered that his regime had a certain weight which they needed to balance power with the rising Iran.

The gap was expanding more between Riyadh and Obama Administration. The Saudis had serious reasons for their concern from this administration, as in their opinion, it miscalculated the dangers of the “Arab Spring” and its outcomes. Moreover, it does not take into consideration their (Saudi’s) benefits when dealing with the developments. The Saudis can never imagine that the destiny of the Bahraini King “Al Khalifa” would be similar to that of Moubarak, because any possible political change in Bahrain would be a loss for Saudi Arabia in the face of Iran; not to mention its direct repercussions on the Shiites in the eastern part of the country who will revolt against Al Saud if the revolution in Bahrain succeeded.

Based on that, the Saudi leadership did not accept the modest US criticisms to the Bahraini authorities’ oppression of the peaceful protests by the Shiite majority under Saudi support. The Saudis also felt frustrated from the stances of Obama Administration and found them to be an additional evidence that this administration did not take into consideration the particularity of Bahrain for Saudi Arabia due to its closeness, as it falls only 25 kilometers away from the eastern region.

Meanwhile, the post Moubarak era did not come out with any agreement between the Saudis and the US on Egypt. Instead, the two parts found themselves standing in two opposite locations to the extent that “Stratfor for Intelligence Studies” group put the variance between the two countries on the Egyptian crisis in the context of the Kingdom’s deviation from the US policies and the historical track.

Riyadh was surprised with Obama Administration’s support to the “Muslim Brotherhood” after the fall of Moubarak and considered it a great sin because of this group’s threat to the Saudi Monarchy in case it reached power. This threat is on one hand due to the existence of some radical forces inside the kingdom that support the “Muslim Brotherhood”, and on another hand because the “Muslim Brotherhood’s” rule in Egypt is a challenge for the Saudis because they present Islam in a different form. On this point, former official at the National Security Council, Denis Ross considered that “Saudi Arabia has two major enemies in the region, they are: The Muslim Brotherhood and Iran”.

Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that Riyadh and its Gulf state allies stood firmly in support of the temporal Egyptian caretaker government, and when Washington cancelled the military maneuvers with Cairo after Mursi’s ouster and cancelled its 1.3 million dollar military aid, the Saudis and their Gulf allies rushed to present a 12 times as much amount aid for Egypt.

Only in Syria, from all the “Arab Spring” countries, where the peaceful protests supported and approved by Riyadh. However, this contradicted with Saudi scholars’ Fatwas which prohibited demonstrations and were widely promoted on Saudi media to delegitimize any public movements whether inside the kingdom or outside it, like Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia, under the claim that these demonstrations cause riot and sabotage public and private properties.
With the transformation of the peaceful protests in Syria to a military insurgence, the kingdom was in the lead of supporting this choice and adopted clearly the call to topple Assad’s regime militarily.

It is not hard to know the secret behind the Saudi interest to work with all its power against the regime in Syria. The Saudi leadership had seen that the developments in the country were a historic opportunity to compensate for its consecutive losses during the past decade, specifically what it considered a strategic loss in Iraq for the benefit of Iran. Moreover, it saw that making a change in Syria would turn the regional equation, and Iran would then lose an important fulcrum which would affect its connection with “Hezbollah” in Lebanon and the resistance movements in Palestine. Additionally and most importantly in the Saudi calculations is that they will not be alone in confronting the Assad regime, but rather a number of regional and western countries, on top of which is the United States, will be on their side; not to mention that a Saudi lineup in such a confrontation would trigger the fanaticism of a large group inside Saudi Arabia which will stand by the Saudi ruling family under sectarian slogans: “Supporting the Sunni majority in Syria against the rule of the Alawi minority.” This reached the extent that Sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan, former Head of the Supreme Judicial Council and the current Advisor at the Royal Bureau, announced (not to say issued a Fatwa) at the beginning of the Syrian protests that it is legitimate to kill third of the Syrian people (nearly eight million) to save the two thirds.

The Saudi leadership found in President Obama’s threat against Assad regime over the nuclear attack on Damascus suburbs (last August) the perfect opportunity for a direct American military involvement to topple the regime in Syria. It put a lot of hope on the level President Obama could reach, and the Saudi frustration and bitterness was as far when the Americans and Russians reached an agreement that commits the Syrian regime to get rid of its nuclear arsenal.

Here is where the Saudi loss seemed double, as the nuclear agreement did not only form a lifeline for the Syrian regime from a US strike, but it also made it an international partner, as it was regarded as the local side which will supervise the implementation of the agreement after the grip was tightened around it in the previous phase of the conflict and it was abandoned by many western and regional countries who put President Bashar Al-Assad’s withdrawal as the first condition for finding a solution for the Syrian crisis.

After announcing about reaching the Geneva agreement (November 24) on the Iranian nuclear file between P5+1 states and Iran, the Saudi frustration towards Obama Administration reached its utmost. This was not merely related to signing the agreement but to the way it was reached, as it was prepared under complete secrecy by launching side negotiations between the US envoys and their Iranian counterparts through several rounds that lasted eight months before finally signing the agreement in Geneva.

What might have also enraged the Saudi leadership and added to its bitterness was that it found itself like a betrayed husband, as the secret negotiation process between the Americans and the Iranians took place behind their backs. What was more infuriating was that the negotiations were held nearby, specifically in Oman. This country is considered their partner as it is a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Despite that , neither the US ally nor the Gulf partner bothered to inform the Saudis about the negotiations, they were rather treated like all the other countries.

Source:Al-Manar Website

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