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

Photogallery South Africa Bans Travelers From Ebola-stricken Countries

South Africans returning from affected West African countries will be thoroughly screened, required to fill out medical questionnaire, health minister says More

Multimedia UN Launches ‘Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years’ in Iraq

Move aims to help thousands of Iraqi religious minorities who fled their homes as Kurdish, Iraqi government forces battle Sunni insurgents More

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

IT specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about disease More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid