There’s no easy way to describe US-Saudi bilateral relations. In the past, Riyadh used its relations with the US to push forward its regional and global agenda. In return, the House of Saud proved to be fairly beneficial to US special interests, providing the American economy with cheap oil since the 1940s.
In addition, Saudi Arabia has played a pivotal role in the US fight against communism, by assisting pro-American militants in Afghanistan in their bid to overthrow the secular government, backed then by the Soviet Union. However, this very assistance resulted in the rise of such groups as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, leading to the tragic events of 9/11 in New York and Washington. Upon Riyadh spending millions of dollars to sponsor militants and terrorists fighting the USSR in Afghanistan, Washington was so grateful that it was willing to hand over anything the House of Saud demanded. It would play the role of Saudi “bodyguard”, bullying all of its regional rivals and enemies, and Iran in particular.
But in recent years the extravagant behavior of the Saudi royal family and the outbursts of anger that it frequently shows, with them demanding Washington to intervene in Syria, Iraq and Egypt have become a burden to the United States. While Riyadh declares its commitment to the fight against terrorism, it carries on supporting terrorist organizations that are now threatening the security of both the US and EU. At this point, the US cares less about cheap oil, so the Obama administration allowed the House of Saud to become a burden upon US foreign policy for nothing. This fact can partially be explained by the expensive gifts Riyadh has been providing to members of the Obama administration. It’s enough to remember a massive gold chain that Saudi King Abdullah handed over to Barack Obama in the summer of 2009 during his visit to the Saudi capital. Or one can mention the corruption scandal that affected the Clinton Foundation.
It would only be logical for Washington to seek cooperation with Tehran which works regionally against terrorist groups with a number of US leading policymakers. In addition, Iran is closely linked to the Shia population of Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and may affect the policies that these states pursue regionally. In addition, Iran has a much more secular society than Saudi Arabia, where medieval practices still dominate public life.
A pivotal role in Obama’s decision to choose Tehran over Riyadh has been played by the events of 9/11, where were planned and staged in Saudi Arabia. Tehran, in contrast to Riyadh, was the sole capital of the Muslim world where people gathered spontaneously to honour the memory of victims of these dreadful attacks.
In a bid to answer the question; “is Saudi Arabia a US ally?” CNN would note that the inconvenient reality is that over the past two decades, the two sides’ interests have simply diverged in fundamental ways. The broad trade-off between access to Saudi oil in exchange for a US commitment to its security from external threats has broken down, and even though the Obama administration has sold almost 95 billion dollars in arms to the Saudis, on core issues such as Syria, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egypt and democratization in the region, there are major differences. The perception that the United States is withdrawing from the region, the Iranian nuclear deal and what must appear to the Saudis as US acquiescence in a rising Iran have combined to create a foundation of suspicion and mistrust.
At the same time CNN argues that the bilateral relations between Riyadh and Washington are too important for the latter to turn its back on them. It notes that The United States may increasingly be weaning itself off Arab hydrocarbons, but the rest of the world isn’t. And since oil still trades in a single market, a disruption in supply will impact the economies and markets around the world, including the United States.
So the mouthpiece of Western special interests comes to the conclusion that stability in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf is still a vital American interest. And Saudi Arabia with all its imperfections is still the key element in that.
Riyadh has been anticipating the meltdown of US-Saudi relations for a while, which is why the Saudis have taken every step to ensure Hillary Clinton’s victory in the recent presidential election. However, when Donald Trump came out on top , Riyadh found itself in a state of shock. At that point experts began wondering if there was a single chance that US-Saudi relations would improve under the new US president?
Clearly, the Saudis are looking past Barack Obama to the next administration and doubtlessly hoping for a different kind of president. For this reason, immediately after the announcement of the presidential election results, Riyadh urgently sent a special mission to Washington, headed by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. To assist them, they dispatched former head of the General Intelligence Service and former Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Washington and London Abdullah bin Faisal, who was supposedly acting on his behalf in a bid to promote the thesis about the urgent need of Washington’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal.
However, this deal is not the only matter that bothers Riyadh, since The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) bill that has recently been adopted by American lawmakers can make the Saudis pay dearly for their involvement in the 9/11 attacks. On top of that, the United States’ position on the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria may actually change under the new president, which will eventually undermine the position enjoyed by Saudi Arabia in the region.
There’s new rules in Saudi-American relations, and both sides will not expect much from each other (at least initially) and will continue to disagree on the majority of issues. Sometimes those disagreements may become serious, when security matters come into play, but one can be sure that they will look for a compromise as soon as their interests intersect…
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”