The Alliance That Dare Not Speak Its Name

The two most important words in President Barack Obama’s much vaunted speech on the Arab Awakening were the ones he did not say: Saudi Arabia. In a speech that proclaimed a dramatic reboot of American policy toward the Middle East, the absence of any direct reference to the state that is an irreplaceable U.S. partner on regional security and energy and uniquely relevant as the birthplace of Islam was striking.

But make no mistake about it: despite his reluctance to mention Saudi Arabia by name, the president’s words were aimed squarely at Riyadh. Proclaiming that “the status quo is not sustainable,” the president boldly endorsed a new democratic future for the Middle East and placed America unequivocally – and unconditionally – on the side of change. Even more remarkably, the president declared that support for regional reform “is not a secondary interest –  today I am making it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions.”

That posture will win plaudits among many around the world and along both ends of the political spectrum in Washington. If the soaring vision laid out by the president is implemented with the same force with which it was articulated, the shift would bring U.S. policy in the region into closer alignment with both American values and what appears to be the prevailing preferences of Arab populations for representative, responsible rule.

However, the speech will only exacerbate the fissures between the United States and Saudi Arabia that were triggered by the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq and have only worsened under the Obama administration, despite the president’s efforts to improve American relations with the Muslim world and promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Arab Awakening has inflamed this distrust: Saudi leaders are livid over the speed with which Washington sought to dispatch another old ally, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, in the wake of massive public protests. Under the blatantly specious auspices of a Gulf security pact, they dispatched security forces into neighboring Bahrain to help quell peaceful demonstrations by Shi’a Bahrainis who have long been politically disenfranchised by the ruling Sunni monarchy.

Although his speech declared that “we will keep our commitments to friends and partners,” the president’s speech did little else to assuage Saudi anxieties. Mr. Obama condemned the repression in Bahrain, although without referring to the Saudi role and in far less vehement terms than he criticized the actions of more convenient nemeses such as Libya, Syria and Iran. It was a flagrant and particularly unfortunate hedge for a speech that attempted to contrast American principles with Iranian hypocrisy.  Even Mr. Obama seemed uncomfortable with the artful avoidance, stumbling slightly over his lines at this point in the speech.

For their part, the Saudis are in no mood to pull punches, and have already begun to outline an approach to the region that is quite contrary to the vision laid out by President Obama. In a Washington Post op-ed piece several days ago, an influential Saudi analyst heralded Riyadh’s decision to embark on an “assertive” new foreign policy independent of Washington on the grounds that “there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability.” The oped cited the Iranian threat, an increasingly obsessive fixation for an aging and fearful Saudi leadership and a cynical appeal to American (and Israeli) security concerns.

President Obama’s speech forcefully articulated a vision of the Middle East that diverges dramatically from what the Saudis proclaim. In this respect – as a not-so-subtle shot across the bow at Saudi recalcitrance – the President’s speech worked well. However, it is worrisome that there was nothing in the speech that suggests that either he or his administration more broadly has begun to grapple with the central strategic uncertainty emanating from the Arab spring: how to advance America’s vital interests in the Middle East – interests such as advancing Arab-Israeli peace, combatting terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and ensuring the free flow of energy– without relying on autocratic allies. 

The Saudis are vital partners for any American administration: we have a long history of constructive cooperation, and they share many of our regional interests. Moreover, the current leadership is profoundly preferable to any alternative that might emerge from either violent regime change or a peaceful democratic transition, and its internal politics are unlikely to be moderated by any bumbling American attempt to influence them. Still, our differences are real and they are growing, a reality underscored by the president’s compelling call for protecting women’s and minority rights, an area where the Saudi record is particularly indefensible.

Through its rhetoric as well as its actions in Bahrain and elsewhere, Riyadh is staking out an activist stance to block any further advances in the movement for meaningful political change that has emerged across the region. That puts the Kingdom in diametric opposition to the approach articulated by the president today. Washington needs to begin mapping out how this will impact our shared interests on issues such as Iran and energy security.

In some areas, such as Iran and Iraq, this may entail a robust American effort to rebuld and reorient cooperation with Riyadh; in others, the administration needs to be ready to counter Saudi efforts, particularly where the Kingdom is attempting to sabotage peaceful transitions and democratic reforms. The administration needs to guard against ploys to undercut the President’s proclaimed agenda, including the fallacious argument that the Arab spring empowers Tehran. In reality, developments in Bahrain and elsewhere only confirm that continuing regional repression offers an opening rather than an antidote to Iranian influence. Finally, the Administration must carefully think through how to square the president’s call for efforts to promote reform across the region when we have neither the capacity nor the intention to do so with respect to our most important ally, Saudi Arabia.

Today’s speech signaled a mutual recognition of the manifest distance in the longstanding strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In private if not in public, Mr. Obama will have to address the Saudi elephant in the room.