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

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More