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Mr. Obama goes to Riyadh: Why the United States and Saudi Arabia still need each other

Bruce Riedel

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has been deteriorating since 2000 due to serious and fundamental differences on Israel, democracy, Iran, and other issues. President Barack Obama’s visit next week can help contain these differences and emphasize common interests but it won’t restore the relationship to its glory days.

A long history of ups and downs

The U.S.-Saudi alliance dates to 1943, when the future Kings Faysal and Khalid visited the White House at the invitation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The two young princes agreed to accept American security assistance in return for continued Saudi preference for American oil companies’ access to the Kingdom. The deal was formalized on Valentine’s Day 1945, when King Ibn Saud and Roosevelt met face-to-face on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. The King and the President hit it off well, despite deep disagreement on the future of Palestine.

The next six decades had ups and downs, but the countries grew steadily closer together. Faysal would impose the 1973 oil embargo on Richard Nixon for supporting Israel in the October war, but it began Saudi-U.S. cooperation on the Arab-Israeli peace process. Khalid would partner with Jimmy Carter to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. King Fahd would turn to President George H.W. Bush to fight Saddam Hussein and liberate Kuwait. The 1980s and 1990s saw unprecedented cooperation between the two countries.

It began to go sour in 2000 when President Bill Clinton failed to get both a Syrian-Israeli peace at the Shepherdstown peace conference and a Palestinian-Israel peace at Camp David. Then Crown Prince Abdullah felt Clinton failed to push Israel hard enough to make territorial concessions. The Saudis believed a Syrian deal was especially ripe in 2000 and would have weaned Damascus away from Iran, isolated Hezbollah, and paved the way for a Palestinian deal.

Abdullah was the de facto regent by then, due to Fahd’s poor health. He was bitterly disappointed when President George W. Bush sided with Ariel Sharon in 2001 during the second intifada. Abdullah read Secretary of State Colin Powell the riot act when the two meet in Paris, accusing Bush of complicity in war crimes. Abdullah refused to meet Bush or visit Washington despite the pleading of both Bush’s, father and son. Abdullah was only partially appeased when George W. Bush publicly called for a Palestinian state. In private the Saudis doubted he really meant it.

9/11 made it all worse. Americans rightly asked why 15 Saudis attacked America and why Osama bin Laden hated America. The ideology of al-Qaida has its roots in the Saudi Wahhabi framework. The Saudis were in denial about al-Qaida until it attacked the Kingdom in 2003. Only when Riyadh was attacked did the Saudis begin to take concrete action against the group.

For their part, the Saudis could not understand why after 9/11 Bush attacked Iraq. Iraq had nothing to do with bin Laden or al-Qaida. They were happy to see Saddam go, but wanted a pliable Sunni general to replace him—not a Shiite elected by majority rule. The Kingdom is an absolute monarchy, and democracy in a major Arab country is a potential existential threat to a monarchy if the democracy works. Saudis might some day want the vote.

Worse, elections in Iraq handed Baghdad to the Shiites. For the Saudis, that was the equivalent of giving Iraq to Iran. Abdullah was aghast at what he saw as Bush’s naiveté, and it remains a source of Saudi distress today.

The Obama years

Obama made Riyadh his first stop on his first visit to the Middle East in 2009. The meeting with King Abdullah went poorly, but Obama promised to address the Palestinian issue. Then the Saudis believe he caved to Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Saudis felt disappointed again.

The Arab Spring made it much worse. Abdullah wanted Obama to fully back Hosni Mubarak—not abandon an old ally. Democracy in Sunni Egypt was even worse than democracy in Shiite Iraq. If Egypt could be a quasi-democracy, why not Saudi Arabia? That was a challenge to the essence of the Gulf monarchs’ existence.

If Egypt could be a quasi-democracy, why not Saudi Arabia? That was a challenge to the essence of the Gulf monarchs’ existence.

Even more difficult for the Saudis was the idea of political reform and some democracy in Bahrain. If a Sunni monarchy was threatened by a Shiite majority on the other side of the King Fahd causeway from the Kingdom’s oil-rich (and Shiite-majority) Eastern Province, the source of the House of Saud’s money was at stake. Washington was openly sympathetic to reform in Bahrain, so Riyadh and Abu Dhabi sent in armored personnel carriers and troops. They are still there. The counter revolution triumphed, at least for now.

Egypt was next. Riyadh knew General Abdel Fatah el-Sissi well, since he was the former military attaché of Egypt to the Kingdom. Prince Bandar, formerly ambassador to Washington but in 2013 the head of Saudi intelligence, had his candidate for the new Mubarak. When el-Sissi seized power, King Abdullah endorsed his coup in less than five minutes; now the Saudis bankroll his dictatorship.

New king not like the old

Abdullah was a fairly cautious and risk-averse leader. King Salman is much more bold and aggressive. He has snubbed Obama once, gone to war in Yemen, executed dozens of accused terrorists, and built a broad 34-nation Islamic military alliance against Iran. Salman just visited Cairo promising billions in aid and investment and a bridge linking the two countries across the Strait of Tiran.

King Salman is much more bold and aggressive.

The Wahhabi clerical establishment is pressing Salman to be even tougher on what it calls the “satanic Safavid Iranian” regime (the Safavid dynasty introduced Shiism to Iran). One hundred and forty clerics with longstanding and deep ties to the King sent a petition to the King this month urging an “ideological” struggle with Iran across the Islamic world. 

In it together

Despite all these differences, Saudi Arabia and America are not getting divorced. We still need each other. Obama and Salman still have areas of common interest and agreement. Obama has sold $95 billion in arms to the Kingdom. Both are determined to fight the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef is a proven good partner for security cooperation with America. The two countries should enhance cooperation to combat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has grown dramatically during the war in Yemen.

Washington and Riyadh can also cooperate on curbing Iranian subversive activities especially in the Gulf states. There is a serious risk that Iran will step up support to subversive activities now that it has more oil income. 

Despite all these differences, Saudi Arabia and America are not getting divorced. We still need each other.

Syria is also on the agenda. The Saudis want a clear commitment to removing Bashar Assad. They believe the civil war can only be resolved by Assad’s departure. 

Bringing peace to Yemen should be a very high priority. Washington has been Riyadh’s silent partner in this war providing critical assistance. The war has already cost the Kingdom billions. It has had a devastating humanitarian impact in Yemen and border regions of Saudi Arabia. Deputy Crown prince Muhammad bin Salman says it’s time for a political process. He’s right. 

Muhammed bin Salman also says the Saudis want U.S. involvement in more, not less, “policing” of the region. Yemen is a good place to try joint approaches. Indeed, Washington and Riyadh have a common interest in minimizing Tehran’s future influence in Sanaa which requires persuading the Zaydi Shiite Houthis that they don’t need Iranian support to have a good share in politics in Yemen.

The Kingdom is in the midst of a generational change in leadership, the first in more than half a century. It’s a major challenge for an absolute monarchy. There is more political activity within the royal family since 1963. Low oil prices make the changes even more complex. Obama is right to keep working the Saudi leadership despite our differences. In a Middle East in chaos, the Kingdom is a major player. 

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