News / Middle East

Column: Saudi Tiff with Washington Latest of Many

FILE - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin greets Head of Saudi Arabia's National Security Council Prince Bandar bin Sultan.FILE - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin greets Head of Saudi Arabia's National Security Council Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
x
FILE - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin greets Head of Saudi Arabia's National Security Council Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
FILE - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin greets Head of Saudi Arabia's National Security Council Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
Once again, Saudi officials are on a rhetorical rampage against the United States.
Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the United States and current Saudi intelligence chief, has warned that the kingdom will make a “major shift” away from its 80-year alliance with Washington.
 
Turki al-Faisal, another former ambassador to the United State, said in an interview this week that “there is definitely, from a public opinion point of view in the Kingdom, a high level of disappointment in the U.S. government’s dealings, not just with Palestine, but equally with Syria.”
 
But while Saudi frustration with the policies of the Barack Obama administration is real, the latest complaints and threats are more about trying to influence U.S. policy than about changing the fundamental foreign policy orientation of the world’s biggest oil producer.
 
As Gregory Gause, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont, said in an interview, “They’re mad but they have no other place to go.”
 
State Department officials have tried to tamp down the speculation of a deep new rift with Saudi Arabia. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Wednesday “that fundamentally, our relationship is a very close and strong one with the Saudis.  We have the same goals in the region, whether it’s ending the civil war in Syria and destroying their chemical weapons, preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Middle East peace we work very closely with the Saudis on.  The discussion is about how we get there, and there are complicated issues, and we don’t always disagree with every one of our allies and partners.”
 
Harf noted that Secretary of State John Kerry had a two-and-a-half-hour lunch on Monday with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in London where both were attending a meeting of the “London 11” meant to coordinate policy on Syria with the Syrian opposition. According to Harf, “this idea that’s out there about reducing cooperation was not raised in any form that day with the Saudis.”
 
U.S. power may be in relative decline but there is still only one superpower capable of safeguarding world oil supplies and guaranteeing freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf.  Indeed, the Saudis have intensified their defense relationship with the United States by ordering $60 billion in new American arms in recent years, including $6.8 billion announced just last week.
 
This is also not the first time – and is certainly not likely to be the last – that Saudi officials have sought to demonstrate their unhappiness with U.S. policies in dramatic ways:
 
In August, 2001, then Crown Prince Abdullah told Bandar to inform the George W. Bush administration that “starting today, you go your way and we will go our way.” Abdullah was incensed at what he saw as insufficient efforts by the new Bush team to end an Israeli crackdown on Palestinians or to support new peace negotiations.
 
In 2003 and over the next few years, the Saudis vehemently opposed U.S. policies toward Iraq, from overthrowing Saddam Hussein without replacing him with another Sunni Muslim general to promoting elections that gave Iraq a Shiite Muslim government for the first time in four centuries. The Saudis have still not sent an ambassador to Iraq, which they consider under the influence of Iran.
 
In 2011, the Saudi monarchy was horrified that the Obama administration encouraged Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down in the face of popular protests. The Saudis are widely believed to helped engineer the counterrevolution that ousted Mubarak’s elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, last summer.
 
The government’s current unhappiness is mostly over U.S. policies toward Syria and Iran, and reflects disappointment that the Obama administration has not given more support to the Syrian opposition and failed to follow through on threats to strike Syria following its apparent use of chemical weapons in August.
 
Saudi hatred for the Assad regime dates to Bashar al-Assad’s alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Saudi ally. While the Saudi leadership opposed the revolts that toppled secular leaders in other Arab countries, it has passionately supported the Syrian opposition, which is largely Sunni, against Assad, an Alawite backed by Shiite Iran.
 
Popular sentiment plays a major role in the Saudi attitude toward Syria, as it did during the second Palestinian intifada. Even though the Saudis have not identified a replacement for Assad, this is “one of the few cases where there are bottom-up pressures” to back the opposition, according to Gause. The Syrian revolt – and the Assad government’s brutal attempts to suppress it, “have grabbed people,” Gause said, much as Saudis coalesced behind the Palestinians a decade ago. Saudi opinion columns are overwhelmingly in support of the Syrian opposition, he says.
 
Saudi animosity toward Iran is another factor in the government’s backing for Syrian rebels. If Assad falls, the theory goes, it will undercut Iran’s regional influence and undermine Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement backed by both Syria and Iran. Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf allies think they will benefit and that Iran will lose its purported allure for Arab Shiites in their countries.
 
Thus, the tentative warming trend between the United States and Iran since the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is creating jitters in Saudi Arabia as surely as it is rattling some in Israel. The Saudis also appear to see Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described him -- and worry that Iran is using negotiations to play for time and develop nuclear weapons. Yet the Saudis are not enthusiastic about other alternatives, including U.S.-Iran reconciliation or a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran that could result in Iranian retaliation against Saudi Arabia.
 
Criticizing the United States is also a way of distracting attention from the country’s myriad social and economic problems, including the low status of women high youth unemployment and rising poverty.
 
While the Obama administration’s recent foreign policy making certainly leaves much to be desired, the Saudi reaction – including rejecting a seat on the UN Security Council for which Saudi diplomats had lobbied for years – does not look more sophisticated or mature. Indeed the latest temper tantrum may make Washington less inclined to take Saudi concerns into account in deciding what is best for U.S. interests in the region.

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

As US Strikes Syria, China Sees Parallels at Home

Beijing is debating how much support to give international coalition against IS militants and trying to figure out how many Chinese nationals may have joined group overseas More

CDC: Ebola Could Infect 1.4 M by 2015

US health officials say if efforts to curb the outbreak are not increased, cases will soar dramatically by early next year More

Video USAID Provides $231 Million for Girls Education in 5 Countries

US Agency for International Development partners with celebrities to call attention to importance of education for girls worldwide More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Washington to Pyongyang: 'Shut This Evil System Down'i
X
Scott Stearns
September 23, 2014 10:52 PM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on North Korea to shut down prison camps and other human rights abuses following a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into "widespread and systematic human rights violations." VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Washington to Pyongyang: 'Shut This Evil System Down'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on North Korea to shut down prison camps and other human rights abuses following a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into "widespread and systematic human rights violations." VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video US, Gulf Allies Strike Islamic State Militants in Syria

United States forces have carried out strikes against Islamic State or ISIL militant positions in Syria - the first time Western forces have taken action on Syrian soil. Five U.S. allies from the Gulf joined the military action. Local reports suggest dozens of militants were killed. The U.S. also carried out unilateral missile strikes against a Syria-based terror group which Washington says poses an imminent threat to the West. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video High Intensity Focused Ultrasound Used to Kill Cancer Tumor

There is a new way of killing certain cancer tumors that allows the patient to go home on the same day. Surgeons at the Keck Medical Center of the University of Southern California became the first doctors to use this procedure on a patient with the help of high intensity focused ultrasound, or HIFU, and new robotic technology. Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video USAID Provides $231 Million for Girls Education in Five Countries

Hollywood stars Alicia Keys, Jennifer Garner and 30 others have voiced their support for a U.S.-backed initiative called "Let Girls Learn." The $231 million program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is aimed at ensuring public and quality education for girls worldwide. As VOA's Mariama Diallo reports, this new program will focus on five countries in Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
Video

Video UN: Relocation of Bedouins in Israel Weakens Two-state Solution

Rural Bedouins living in disputed lands east of Jerusalem could soon find themselves forcibly relocated. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Jerusalem that while Israel defends the move as in the Bedouins’ best interests, the United Nations says the plan threatens the survival of the two-state solution with Palestinians.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Prolonged Drought Plagues SW Oklahoma Farmers

Parts of western Texas and southwestern Oklahoma have been in drought conditions for several years running and the deficit in rainfall has taken a heavy toll on cotton and grain production. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin says the state has suffered $2 billion in agricultural losses since 2011. There has been rain in recent weeks, but, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Altus, Oklahoma, for most farmers it has been too late.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid