Tensions in the Saudi-American Relationship

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor’s Note: Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in December 2010, commentators have regularly described relations between Washington and Riyadh as strained at best and near collapse at worst. The potential for regional democratization, disagreements over how to topple Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and—most importantly—the question of Iran seem to have divided the once-close allies. F. Gregory Gause, III, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a non-resident scholar at the Brookings Doha Center, argues that concerns of a split are overblown and that the U.S.-Saudi relationship still rests on firm foundations.

President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia in March 2014 seems to have alleviated, at least for the time being, the sense that the relationship was “in crisis.” And that sense of crisis, fostered more by the Saudis than the Americans, was always overblown. Riyadh and Washington have survived far worse periods of friction in their relationship, such as during the 1973-74 oil embargo and in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. All sorts of interests continue to tie the two unlikely allies together, from counterterrorism cooperation to containing Iranian regional influence. Most importantly, there is a strong sense on both sides that, no matter how uncomfortable each is with the other, neither has a better alternative partner.

Episodic feelings from the Saudi side that the relationship is in crisis are not accidental; they are structural. They are inherent in the very nature of an asymmetric alliance between a stronger power and a weaker power. Glenn Snyder, the late international relations scholar, encapsulated this dynamic in his reflection that the weaker power in such alliances is always caught between the opposing fears of “entrapment and abandonment.” In the past, when Washington was more bellicose toward Iran, the Saudis worried that they would pay the price of Iranian retaliation for any U.S. attack on Iran. Now, with Americans and Iranians sitting at negotiating tables with each other, Saudi elites worry that their interests will be neglected, if not actively sold out, by their U.S. ally. In October 2013, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Saudi Consultative Council, the appointed and non-binding Saudi version of a parliament, said “I am afraid there is something hidden…If America and Iran reach an understanding, it may be at the cost of the Arab world and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.”

The president’s visit to Riyadh was aimed at putting to rest those more extreme worries about American intentions and the trajectory of the new Iranian-American relationship. Given the exaggerations involved in imagining an imminent Tehran-Washington “grand bargain,” that was not difficult. But the visit did little to bridge the gaps between the United States and Saudi Arabia on two important issues, each of which will represent an ongoing challenge in the bilateral relationship.

The first issue is Syria, though the underlying dynamic here is Iran. Washington and Riyadh do not disagree on the ends. Both want Assad out. The disagreement is over priorities. For the Saudis, rolling back Iranian influence in the eastern Arab world is a major goal, perhaps the most important current goal in their foreign policy. Having failed to dislodge the Iranians in Lebanon and Iraq, Syria is their best shot. This is as important to Riyadh as the Iranian nuclear issue, and much more immediate. Syria has not only evolved into the major arena of regional international politics, but it also has become an emotional public opinion issue among Saudi Arabia’s Sunni majority. The Obama administration would also like to roll back Iran’s regional influence, but it is not going to let this stand in the way of a nuclear deal with Tehran, if one is available on acceptable terms. The Saudis are wrong to fear that Washington is cooking up a geopolitical grand bargain with the Iranians, one that trades Iranian nuclear restraint for American acceptance of a dominant Iranian regional role. But they are not wrong in thinking that the United States does not share their sense of urgency about getting rid of the Assad regime and thus beginning to roll back Iran’s regional influence.

The second issue is Egypt, though the underlying dynamic here is democracy. This is, in fact, a disagreement about ends. The Saudis have, in effect, declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood. They, along with their equally anti-Brotherhood neighbor the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have poured money into Egypt since the July 2013 military coup that overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammad Morsi. In March 2014, the Saudis formally labeled the Brothers a terrorist organization. In that same month, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain all withdrew their ambassadors from their Gulf Cooperation Council partner Qatar to pressure the new ruler there to reduce his country’s support for the Brotherhood. For the Saudis, democratically elected Sunni Islamists call into question their own claim to speak for Sunni Islam regionally and their contention that “real” Islamic governance does not require democracy. Thus, an Arab Spring that brought elected Islamists like the Brotherhood to power was both an immediate threat to Saudi foreign policy interests and a longer-term threat to their own domestic stability.

The Obama administration took a very different view of the Brotherhood’s electoral successes. It lifted the official ban on American diplomats having direct contact with Brotherhood members. It welcomed the free elections in Egypt that produced a Brotherhood majority in the (subsequently dissolved by court order) parliament and a Brother as president, as well as the free elections in Tunisia in which Ennahda (in effect the Brotherhood branch in Tunisia) won a parliamentary plurality. It criticized the Egyptian military’s decision to overthrow Morsi, while simultaneously twisting itself in a pretzel to keep from calling it a “coup” (which would have required an immediate halt to American military aid to Egypt). The administration saw the Brotherhood’s willingness to play the democratic game as an essential move if the Arab world were to have any hope of developing stable democracies. Washington would actually like to see the Arab Spring produce stable, democratic Arab governments, and such governments would naturally have to include Islamist parties. Saudi Arabia, of course, would not.

These two differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia, though important, do not constitute a crisis in their relationship. The two countries have agreed to disagree about plenty of things in the past, most notably Arab-Israeli issues, and there are still plenty more issues on which the two sides share important interests—counterterrorism cooperation against al-Qaeda, preventing even more chaos in Yemen, maintaining a roughly stable world oil market, and continued military-to-military cooperation (including U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia). Even on those two divisive issues, we have already seen some sanding down of the sharp edges. The Obama administration looks ready to deal with a Sisi presidency in Egypt, despite its misgivings. Saudi moves to give their internal security chief, Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, a bigger role in shaping the kingdom’s Syria policy could indicate that Riyadh is coming to share Washington’s fears about the threat of Sunni jihadist spillover from Syria. Prince Muhammad is in charge of internal security in the country. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who recently stepped down as head of foreign intelligence, had been in charge of the Syria portfolio and had moved Saudi policy in Syria toward greater support for Salafi, though non-al-Qaeda, fighting groups. Certainly, Saudi Arabia’s recent criminalization of their citizens’ joining foreign jihads is a clear sign of growing worries about blowback from Syria. Nonetheless, the two allies have important differences in their overall strategic views of the region that will continue to cause tensions in the relationship in the future.