High Time To Restart U.S.-Saudi Dialogue:
The Saudis’ concept of their security is naturally regional in essence, and this involves many intersections where the US and Saudi strategic and tactical lines cross. Neither country can afford to downplay the importance of regular coordination and exchange to reconcile their different views and search for common grounds. It will not help the regional objectives of the US or Saudi Arabia to continue the current path.
Riyadh followed with disbelief the recent zigzags of the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy.
In the case of Egypt, the US had always positioned Hosni Mubarak as one of its most reliable allies. Yet, the administration moved quickly to call for his departure. It supported the Muslim Brotherhood, turned a blind eye to the mounting rejection of its rule by a vast majority of Egyptians, but then quickly moved to wash its hands of the MB. It supported the new regime in Cairo, yet stopped sending some vital military assistance to the Egyptian armed forces. Ultimately, it turned the US into a laughing stock in Egypt after the milk and honey promised by the Obama “Cairo Speech” only a few years ago.
In Syria, the zigzag is no less dramatic. In dizzying succession, the administration went from supporting the “reformist” Bashar Al Assad, to calling for his resignation, to denying Syria’s armed opposition the necessary means to overthrow him, to giving a defacto free hand to Al Qaeda to spread its control over the Syrian opposition, to declaring an imminent strike was on the way, only to back down in a way that made Washington’s Middle East policy a laughing stock in the Middle East.
On top of that, no one in the region can understand the administration’s policy on Iran. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) does not look at Tehran’s policies from the sectarian angle as is often claimed in Washington. After all, the Saudi disagreement with Egypt’s Nasser in the 1960’s led to a confrontation with him even though he was a Sunni heading an Arab and Sunni country.
The real difference between the GCC and the Obama administration over Iran is that the GCC countries perceive that Iranian regional policies threaten their security. The nuclear program is merely a symptom of this threat, not its essence.
Iran interferes in Bahrain, Yemen, Sudan and Lebanon. It uses military force to capture the Arab island territories in the Gulf and is using military force in the continued slaughter of the Syrian people. But in spite of the GCC’s legitimate worries about Iranian regional and nuclear policies, the US sidelined its GCC allies in its current flattering of Iran. Washington apparently sees the priority as getting an historic “legacy” for Obama’s record before the end of his second term.
But Washington’s worries about Saudi policy are no less significant: the reported Saudi support for some radical Islamists in the Syrian opposition, Riyadh’s suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood and its involvement in toppling the MB rule in Cairo last summer, and the Saudi alleged involvement in instigating a Sh’ite – Sunni confrontation in the region.
This is only part of a “menu” of political and strategic disputes that are muddying relations between Riyadh and Washington to the point of ending the long-standing norm of coordination and convergence.
It is high time for both the US and Saudi Arabia to restart a transparent and frank strategic dialogue that focuses on the thorny issues that threaten their relations. These differences are far from easy or comforting, which is why they cannot be left to their own inertia at this critical juncture in the Middle East. The current path does not serve the interest of either nation.
Dr. Samir Al Taki