02.12.2013 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Increasing strain in the US-Saudi Relations

saudi-students-usaOne of the most conspicuous features of the international system is the shifting nature of what are commonly called the “durable alliances.” Perhaps, it is for this very reason that state to state relations and alliances are more often characterized as artificial in the sense that they are durable as along as interests of two or more states happen to converge—hence, the axiom: there are no permanent friends or enemies in the international system; the only permanent thing is the state interest. 

Increasing strain in the US-Saudi relations gives, in the current political context, an ample illustration of this axiom. It was not long ago when the US and Saudia were seen coming closer as a result of the’ withdrawal’ of Qatar from ‘active’ international politics. But, now it is Jordan which seems to be willing to replace Saudia as the ‘front player of the US in the Middle Eastern geo-political game, thereby signifying that the degree of divergence of interests between the US and Saudia as compared to convergence of interests is increasing and declining respectively. 

Saudia’s refusal to accept a non-permanent seat in the UNSC is not what triggered tensions between them; rather, it is an effect of the already brewing lava among Saudi policy makers about certain newly formed policy stands of the US, especially towards Iran and Syria. Is, then, the US-Saudi alliance, based upon ‘oil’ going to fall apart? As a matter of fact, as we shall see later, that the United States moves towards relying more on domestic resources of energy is greatly affecting and conditioning its relations with the oil producing countries of the Middle East. It is for this very reason that the US has stopped ‘minding’ if China gobbles up Iraq’s oil. Let’s us assess realistically the US-Saudi relations against this backdrop. 

The US-Saudia alliance is usually analyzed as the one based upon two factors: oil dependency of the United States and Europe on Saudia, and the security imperatives and crucial interests of Saudia in the Middle East and its dependency on the US for the attainment of these objectives. The longstanding bilateral alliance has rested on the assumption that Saudi Arabia would supply oil and purchase American arms in return for a guarantee of security for the autocratic Saudi monarchy. However, as is becoming increasingly evident, it is these very factors which have now become the underlying cause of divergence of the otherwise ‘mutual’ interests. 

The strategic importance of the Middle East for the US, and the crucial significance of Saudia as a ‘reliable ally’ in the region provided the basis for the establishment of the so-called alliance between them. As a matter of fact, Saudia houses thousands of the US soldiers, that should be able to operate in ‘critical’ circumstances for securing ‘mutual’ benefits. Both of them have been closely co-operating, particularly since 90s, to achieve the shared strategic objective, i.e., establishing “Sunni hegemony” in the Middle East at the expense of the fall of “Shiite” regimes: Iraq, Iran and Syria.  While the US seems to have reached a ‘near-compromise’ situation with Russia on Syria; however, Saudia continues to expand its intervention against President Bashar Assad`s regime, funneling money and arms to hardliner Salafist groups across Syria.

This is how the US and Saudia are headed different ways in accomplishing their respective objectives. As a matter of fact, according to a report of Reuters,  Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan confirmed that his country’s decision last Friday not to accept a temporary seat on the UN Security Council was “a message for the US, not the UN.” But it has so far heeded the US warnings not to supply the rebels with certain weapons most notably portable surface-to-air missile systems, which could not only bring down Assad`s warplanes but also civilian airliners. However, Saudi Arabia can, under these particular circumstances, particularly in response to the seemingly US-Iran rapprochement, potentially end its ban on sending rebel groups these weapon systems and obscure the origins of the missiles in order to avoid direct blame for any of the havoc they cause. As such, similarly by supporting a new intifada, the Saudis can cause enough disturbance and disruption in the Palestinian territories. Riyadh has long been vocal about its frustrations with the lack of progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Palestine was also one of the top reasons stated in the official Saudi statement rejecting the UN Security Council seat. 

Is then Saudia planning to achieve its objectives by resorting to a new course of action, or is it planning to ‘coerce’ the US into action by pulling the ‘oil’ string, as if it were trying to replicate the Oil boom of 1970s? As is often argued that Saudia can cause many problems for the US and its allies in Europe by cutting back its production of oil which has been boosted to over 10 million barrels per day at Washington`s request, to make up for the fall in Iranian exports caused by sanctions. Saudia enjoys the revenues generated by higher production, but price hikes caused by tightening supply could more than compensate the kingdom. Meanwhile, a drop in supply will cause the price at the gas pump to spike in the United States endangering the economic recovery and having an almost immediate impact on the public opinion. The above cited Saudi intelligence chief alluded to this very factor in a very recent statement. He was reported to have said that the consequences of fragmentation of the US-Saudi alliance would be wide ranging, and would severely affect not only the purchases of the US arms by Saudia, but also, more particularly, oil sales. 

However, this line of argument seems to overemphasize the importance of ‘oil’ in keeping the alliance intact, especially given the fact that the US itself is in position of becoming the world’s largest oil producer in coming five years. According to a 2012 report of International Energy Agency, the increased oil production, combined with new American policies to improve energy efficiency, would make the US “all but self-sufficient” in meeting its energy needs in about two decades, and will become a net oil exporter by 2030. Strategically, it would reduce greatly the US dependence upon the Middle Eastern oil, and the ME oil export would be greatly re-routed to China and India, the emerging economic giants of the twenty first century. The US increasing ‘self-sufficiency’ is because of two prime factors: 1) resurgence of oil and gas production in the United States, particularly the unlocking of new reserves of oil and gas found in shale rock, 2) widespread adoption of techniques like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has also made those reserves much more accessible. In the case of natural gas, it has resulted in a vast glut that has sent prices plunging.

However, these new aspects of the US energy geo-politics should not be taken for granted. Prospects of self-sufficiency do not mean that the US would be insulated from energy prices, since those oil prices are set by global markets not by the US alone, and depend upon the balance between demand and supply. The US may somewhat become less vulnerable to price shocks and may be slightly more protected, but it would not give it the energy independence. But it cannot be denied that the near-self-sufficiency situation is likely to pave the way for re-configuration of the US relations with the Middle Eastern states.

The possible reduction of geopolitical risk in global energy markets as a result of America`s energy `independence` resulting in a weaning away from the volatile Middle East, could trigger a sharp reversal in the international oil price. (This scenario assumes, however, that Saudi oil production has not `peaked` between now and then). According to some experts, the geopolitical risk in current oil prices ranges anywhere from $20 to $30 a barrel. Such a large reduction in the oil price, should it occur, will exact a heavy toll on the budgets and economies of the Middle Eastern oil producers. Given their demographics, most of these countries will need to continue `pump-priming` their economies for the next decade at least to create jobs and provide social safety nets, and thus may be forced to depend more upon the US and the Western markets for their economic sustenance—hence, continued domination of the US, notwithstanding the fact that with the presence of the US in the energy market as an exporter rather than as an importer would also trigger intense competition for resources, which would create distance between the US and its so-called allied petro-states in the Middle East and gulf region, including Saudia.

 The gap between the US and Saudia is widening, and the “strategic alliances” has thus been pushed to its limits. The way things are unfolding, particularly, in and around the Middle East, with the seeming rise of Jordan as a new ‘regional power’, are likely to further damage the US-Saudia bilateral relations.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs. Exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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