What to make of the anxieties surfacing in the press in advance of President Barack Obama’s stopover in Saudi Arabia? Is the US-Saudi “special relationship” really in trouble?

Officials say no, of course. But beneath the surface, the relationship is indeed marked by uncertainty. The rulers in Riyadh have come to question Washington’s commitment to the kingdom’s security, to Saudi primacy in the Gulf and to what has been one of the region’s most durable (and profitable) alliances.

Saudi trepidation is not entirely unfounded. Over the last three years, the two states have at least appeared to be at odds, with regard to the Arab uprisings and the resulting popular empowerment, intervention in Syria and how aggressively to crack down on Islamists, especially the Society of Muslim Brothers. Given the Saudis’ thin base of support at home and their need to oppress their way to survival, it is hardly surprising that Riyadh that has led the counterrevolutionary charge in the Arab world since 2011.

Most importantly, the Saudis fear that the United States, in negotiating with Iran over the future of its nuclear research program, is cozying up to their most powerful regional rival. For years, Saudi Arabia has made Iran the target of the worst kind of sectarian opprobrium, treating the Islamic Republic as a bogeyman to be exploited in the interest of keeping American leaders sympathetic. It hasn’t hurt the Saudi case that its most devoted supporters in the US are also closest to Israel, which shares a venomous view of Tehran. While it is unclear whether US-Iranian negotiations will yield anything meaningful, that the two are talking at all has shaken the kingdom.

Quietly, US officials have begun to wonder about the same things. Is the US-Saudi relationship one that should remain unchanged? These Americans understand that the Saudis have set a dangerous regional course, one that has bought only temporary favor for a military regime in Cairo, won precarious “victories” in Bahrain and Yemen, and left a trail of human rights abuses and political malfeasance. There is a belief in Washington that Saudi Arabia remains at least somewhat cooperative in matters of counter-terrorism. But Saudi Arabia’s aggressive expansion of the politics of irhab and its sudden acceleration of attacks on the Muslim Brothers is understood as double-edged — likely to deliver positive results in the short term but with catastrophic potential over time. After all, Saudi Arabia has been here before.

While American leaders ponder the reimagination of the “special relationship” in the distant future, the White House’s default position is to double down on the status quo, reassuring Riyadh that nothing has changed and supporting the regime by standard means — looking the other way while the regime terrorizes Saudi Arabian citizens, backs reactionary forces in Egypt and Bahrain, and abets violence in Syria. And, of course, avaricious arms merchants, with support from the Pentagon, continue to sell Riyadh billions of dollars in weapons.

Outside the circles of hawks and realists who are untroubled by Saudi Arabia’s bad behavior, more reasonable officials run up against a political inertia that claims the kingdom is the least bad Gulf partner in challenging times, and that even while Iran sits at the negotiating table, the Islamic Republic is doing more harm than good.

Meanwhile, US and Saudi leaders have long shared antagonism toward, or at least skepticism about, the democratic potential of Saudi Arabia itself. James Schlesinger, a secretary of defense under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford who passed away today, put it this way: “Do we seriously want to change the institutions of Saudi Arabia? The brief answer is no; over the years we have sought to preserve these institutions, sometimes in preference to more democratic forces coursing throughout the region. [The former] King Fahd [of Saudi Arabia] has stated quite unequivocally that democratic institutions are not appropriate for this society. What is interesting is that we do not seem to disagree.” While US officials are likely more open to the possibility today, there is so far little political will to encourage change in any meaningful way, and certainly not in public. The desire for autocratic stability in Arabia, embraced by old hands like Dennis Ross, has been replaced by the inertia mentioned above. Today, however, the stakes are higher, as a simultaneously emboldened and embattled Riyadh seeks to mold reactionary outcomes across the region, helping to push countries like Syria and Bahrain in terrible directions. While many observers would argue that supporting tyranny was never politically prudent for citizens in Arabia or for America, it is even more clearly the case today that the Saudis are the worst of the worst.

Among the cool heads in Washington, the prevailing view is that the United States is stuck, bound by President Obama’s minimalist approach to the region and the practical limits of American power. This is all true, of course. But these facts do not and should not mean that the US has to remain dedicated to its historical alliance with Riyadh, particularly as the Saudis and their proxies continue to poison regional politics.

How to cite this article:

Toby Jones "Stuck (or Not) in a “Special Relationship”," Middle East Report Online, March 27, 2014.

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