The US-Saudi breakup that isn't

Maybe pleasing Saudi Arabia shouldn't be a high priority for the US anyway.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
In this June 25, 2013 file photo, US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, is greeted by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal upon arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's announcement last week that it refused to take a seat on the United Nations Security Council that it had campaigned long and hard for was the diplomatic equivalent of a baby throwing its toys out of a pram – an expression of displeasure, sure, but not one likely to garner much respect or support.

This week Saudi Arabia went further, claiming that it refused the position not as a sign of displeasure with the UN, but as a way of signaling its unhappiness with the US for refusing to toe the Saudi Arabian line on Syria. The Saudis have been desperate for the US to go to war with Syria (private Saudi money is one of the reason that jihadi opponents of Bashar al-Assad have been in the ascendant among the rebellion) and have also been unhappy at signs of a possible rapprochement between the US and Iran.

Shiite Iran is Sunni Saudi Arabia's great rival in the region, and while a negotiated solution to end sanctions against Iran in return for assurances that it won't be able to build a nuclear bomb is in the interests of the US and much of the world, the Saudis don't see it that way. They, like Israel, want Iran to be economically and ultimately militarily crushed – not freed of the shackles of sanctions.

Yet in some corners Saudi Arabia's anger at the US over Syria, over Iran, and over the American failure to pull out all the stops to save the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, is being treated as some kind of catastrophe. A column today from the Washington Post's David Ignatius is a case in point. Following a certain type of DC conventional wisdom, he writes that the US-Saudi relationship is "cracking up" and has reached "a dramatic tipping point."

What should worry the Obama administration is that Saudi concern about US policy in the Middle East is shared by the four other traditional US allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. They argue (mostly privately) that Obama has shredded US influence by dumping President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, backing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, opposing the coup that toppled Morsi, vacillating in its Syria policy, and now embarking on negotiations with Iran — all without consulting close Arab allies.

...The bad feeling that developed after Mubarak’s ouster deepened month by month: The US supported Morsi’s election as president; opposed a crackdown by the monarchy in Bahrain against Shiites protesters; cut aid to the Egyptian military after it toppled Morsi and crushed the Brotherhood; promised covert aid to the Syrian rebels it never delivered; threatened to bomb Syria and then allied with Russia, instead; and finally embarked on a diplomatic opening to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s deadly rival in the Gulf.

The policies were upsetting; but the deeper damage resulted from the Saudi feeling that they were being ignored — and even, in their minds, double crossed. In the traditional Gulf societies, any such sense of betrayal can do lasting damage, yet the administration let the problems fester.

Ignatius has all this badly wrong (starting with the description of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE as US "allies;" the US is not in a treaty of alliance with any of those states). While it's possible that the US could have helped Mr. Mubarak survive, perhaps by telling the Egyptian military the US would support the bloodbath that probably would have been necessary to save Mubarak's regime in February 2011, that would obviously not have served US interests. And while the US did in fact support the democratic election of Mr. Morsi in Egypt, the Obama administration's response to the military coup that removed him has been tepid – even as Saudi Arabia has emerged as a key financial backer of the new interim government, which it hopes will put the democracy genie back in the bottle for good.

Likewise the US response to the bloody repression in Bahrain, which the Saudis backed. Was the US unhappy about it? Sure. When you peddle global democracy promotion in public but have close relations with repressive monarchies, it puts you in an awkward position. But unhappy enough to do anything about it? No.

Finally there's the notion that Saudi Arabia's king and princes feel "double-crossed." This is a country that, after all, fueled the rise of the jihadi militants in Afghanistan that morphed into Al Qaeda; that allowed private donors to funnel financial support to Sunni militants during the US occupation of Iraq (who then attacked US troops); and has done more than any other nation to export a variety of Islam that is deeply hostile to US interests.

Meanwhile, the US has always looked the other way on Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses and medieval treatment of women in the interests of "friendship." The Obama administration has been happy to carry on that tradition. So Saudi claims of feeling "double-crossed" should be seen in context – an attempt to manipulate the US into behaving as Saudi Arabia wishes. But is it really going to amount to anything?

It's possible that Saudi Arabia will look to buy more weapons from others some day (Saudi Arabia's vast purchases of US weapons back into the 1950s have been a sort of guarantee of US support for the oil rich monarchy), but that isn't happening yet. Just last month, an $11 billion arms contract involving Saudi Arabia was announced by the Pentagon. The US and Saudi interest in a stable global oil market remains the same as ever (and no matter how much new oil and gas the US produces, it will still be interested in Saudi Arabia because of the effects its production has on the global price of petroleum products). 

And for all the bellyaching from Saudi Arabia about the US refusal to topple Assad by force, the Obama administration has given no signs that the days of Saudi Arabia's free pass on its repressive practices are coming to an end.

On balance, the interests the two sides have in common remain much stronger than the interests they don't. A breakup would certainly be interesting – and welcomed by fans of democracy promotion. But a catastrophic shift in the relationship doesn't seem likely yet, whatever the pundits say.

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