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US-Saudi Relations: Where to?

The last few years have been a watershed in the ties of the two close allies: Saudi Arabia and the United States. The question now is: Are there structural reasons in the future course of the two countries, defined by their interests and outlooks, which may end the tension between them? Is it simply a glitch caused by subjective views and policies in the two countries?

To locate the answer it is worthwhile to examine three particular moments in the Middle East during the last few years: The Arab Spring, the rise of political Islam and terrorism, and the Iranian nuclear deal.

In all three moments, Saudi Arabia and the US took divergent paths. Even in their joint fight against ISIL, Riyadh, which is indeed threatened by the terrorist group, has differed from Washington on how it sees this fight and how it links it to the internal situation in both Syria and Iraq. And even in the case of Iran’s nuclear deal, which Saudi Arabia endorsed half-heartedly, the two countries seem to have differed in the overall context in which the deal should be placed.

In these cases, where differences may look “partial” or like technicalities, the views of Saudi Arabia and the US reflect the fact that the two countries see things from totally different perspectives.

The chain of events in the region has torn the gloves off for disputes between the two governments. The restraint of each was already weakened by the end of the Cold War era and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The fact that those differences have burst out into the public theatre was distended to happen anyway. However, the spectacular way in which those disputes have manifested themselves was exacerbated by lack of sensitivity on both sides and by the blunder of invading Iraq.

In the case of extremism, the priority for Riyadh was to confront Iranian expansion through whatever force that can fight it. But it became obvious later that without finding a political solution in both Iraq and Syria, the problems of violent radicalism will not go away. In fact, placing the issue of the rise of Jihadism in a political context in both cases proved to be a reasonable point of view. The experience of Iraq supported this view, as al-Qaeda was replaced by ISIL as a result of the absence of a political solution in Baghdad. However, the Saudi approach could have been tempered by playing a more proactive and realistic role in the efforts to reach a political solution in the two countries.

The area of compromise between the US and Saudi Arabia could have been to agree to work together towards a political solution. Riyadh, however, saw the situation as a zero sum game, while Washington ended up with its “ISIL First” tactical approach.

For those who criticize Saudi Arabia as a “Wahhabi” country, it should be understood that this is the way it is. We cannot remake a country according to our own taste and preferences. The central issue is how to integrate a culture within the diversity of the global mosaic and how to resist any external imposition by this culture on the external world or vice versa. Gradual socio-economic reform moved Europe from the dark ages when religion was abused to modernity.  

The same “disconnect” between Washington and its allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, occurred in the case of the nuclear talks with Iran. The Obama administration did not consult with regional powers transparently enough while engaging in the secret talks with Iran. It did not heed Saudi concerns relating to Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising. Prior to that, the Bush administration did not heed Saudi advice not to invade Iraq.

Briefly, what we have already seen was a deterioration of relations between two allies induced both by objective shifts on the ground, related to the content of their relations, and by subjective decisions made expressed through policies. This deterioration was not inevitable. It could have been mitigated through deliberate efforts from both sides.

The issue now is where is this old alliance heading? And here again, we see clearly that this question cannot be answered in the laboratories of “pure thought”. Rather, the answer will be shaped by the hammers of events occurring on the ground where the ties between the two allies are constructed, and by the recent history of their regional moves and differences of perspectives and the search of both to find grounds to compromise.

On the first plane, which is how things will evolve in Saudi Arabia and in the Middle East, we clearly see that the Kingdom is heading toward a totally different terrain in terms of its revenues and economy. The technology of shale oil and gas is in fact creating a structural shift in the global energy market. It more or less puts the brakes on pricing energy through its increasing participation in supplies.

While the price of crude now is almost half what it was in the spring of 1974 (inflation adjusted), the needs of the Saudi government have tripled. In mid-1974, oil prices hovered around the $11 level. Now crude is sold at $7.5 (in 1974 dollars).

The reform process should have started in the Kingdom in the early 80s, particularly as the Iranian revolution appeared to represent a profound change in the region’s strategic map. But it did not. It was not necessary to wait for a young Prince with a vision to do what should have been done decades ago.

But this reform will have a far-reaching social impact, which may lead to incidents that could impose themselves on the picture of the US-Saudi alliance. Habits are addictive. Dismantling an old social contract is way more difficult than establishing a new one.

Moreover, as regional events have subjected US-Saudi relations to their harshest test ever, the surprises in the Middle East are not over yet. The most obvious dimension of the regional transformation process that we currently see is the question of governance. Wherever there are troubles, there is either no governance structure or a weak central government with limited reach. But the issue of governance is just one face of a more profound and expansive malaise in the cultural, economic, and social lives of most of the regional countries.

The case of Syria or even Egypt has already proven that strong and oppressive central governments are not solutions to the issues of stability and development. So long as the cultural, economic, and social roots of the regional crisis are not tackled upfront, the convulsions we saw will continue and may very well be channeled into radical religious networks and sectarian conflicts, if only for lack of other ideological frameworks.

Both countries see the whole transformation process differently. The US set itself up for one disappointment after another, as it saw the whole process of regional transformation from the perspective of its own way of thinking and values. The Saudis also set themselves up for disappointments, since they saw the process from their own strategic obsession with the Iranian threat.

On the side of the US, lack of consistency seems to present the ties between Riyadh and Washington with another major test. From the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was followed by Iran’s intervention there to kill Americans and then to de facto control the country, until signing the nuclear deal with that same Iran, which considers the US an unwanted power in the Middle East, one can lose track between the many zigzags of US Middle East policies.

In between, the US considered Mubarak a close ally then asked him to step down; considered Assad a reformer, then asked him to step down, before changing its mind and working with the Russians to preserve him on top of Syria; turned the page with Qaddafi, promising a new start after the settlement of the Lockerbie bomber case, and then it bombed him to death; considered Iraq’s former PM Nouri al-Maliki the “best option we have”, as VP Biden said, then worked to get him to step down; and imposed severe sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program, before signing a deal that allows Tehran to continue the very same nuclear program at the condition of only refraining from taking the final step towards making the bomb.

Naturally, the US has its own calculations to serve its proper interests. But it will remain a puzzle to many that Washington can change directions this fast, all the while preserving a fixed set of the same interests, or that it can sacrifice its net of alliances this easily.

For better or worse, the US has to determine clearly where it stands, and not try to have the cake and eat it too. Predictability in international relations is as important as trust. If a country is not predictable, how could it be trusted? Furthermore, changes within any given country happen according to actions by indigenous forces and not according to any wishful thinking in Washington or anywhere else.

What is needed now, urgently in fact, is that the US specifies to its allies in the Middle East, in the clearest terms possible, where it stands on the many pressing regional issues. In the particular case of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has had its share of reactive steps and even mistakes sometimes. A candid dialogue between the two sides should start once the new administration assumes power in Washington.

This dialogue should clarify the exact position of the new administration on pressing regional issues as they currently exist and as they may evolve. There is no room for deception or double talk between allies. The limits of the two countries’ divergences and convergences should be laid out in advance, and each has to act accordingly. An alliance does not mean always having identical views; it is also a mechanism to manage differences in a way that does not cause damage to the main interests of either of its parties.

US-Saudi relations are either going to improve or deteriorate even more. The turmoil in the region and the importance of the two countries does not support any assumption that these relations will remain static while standing on shifting sands. It is now that a foundation for the future of the two countries’ ties should be established in a flexible way to accommodate for differences as well as for agreements.   

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