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US Tries to Mend Strained Ties With Saudi Arabia

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) shakes hands with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at the end of a joint news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 4, 2013.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) shakes hands with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at the end of a joint news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 4, 2013.
Washington is facing a long haul as it tries to repair diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.

In an effort to defuse tensions, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Riyadh this week for extensive talks with senior Saudi officials, including King Abdullah.  

Both sides played down foreign policy differences and Kerry promised regular consultations with the Saudis to minimize surprises. But analysts said the Saudis appear in no mood to quickly mend diplomatic fences.

The Kerry visit shows the extent the U.S. has taken to reassure Saudi Arabia that it is an indispensable partner in the Middle East. The reassurances came after Saudi Arabia criticized U.S. policy in the region and turned down a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The stunning turnabout came after Saudi Arabia - a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 - campaigned and lobbied for some two years for a non-permanent member seat at the U.N. Security Council.

“Many of us were shocked when the king declined a seat, because Saudi Arabia had been pushing for a seat,” said Frederic Wehrey, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“And the night before, you had Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.N. publicly stating that they were very pleased about finally getting a seat - so this came as a shock to many people,” he said.

Saudi move rare

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, said the Saudi action was seemingly unprecedented.

"It’s the first example that I am aware of that a country has actually been elected and then declines the seat," he said. "It has caused a firestorm in New York. People are almost speechless, which is something rare in the United Nations.”

Officially, Saudi Arabia said it was declining the seat because of the Security Council’s “inability to perform its duties and responsibilities.” As examples, Riyadh named the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the civil war in Syria.

But Michael Doyle, former special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan from 2001-2003, said Saudi Arabia’s actions were pointed toward the United States.

“Behind the scenes, people speculated that the real target of the Saudi critique was really Washington rather than the U.N. in New York," he said. "And that it was disappointment at the way Washington is conducting its policy in the Middle East, in particular that it’s not taking due regard of the interest of Saudi Arabia.”

Saudis disagree with US

Experts said Saudi Arabia fears that the Obama administration will compromise with Iran as Washington tries to work out an agreement to curtail Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.  

Analyst Wehrey said there are other disagreements between Riyadh and Washington, starting with Egypt.

“We can go back to the fall of Mubarak, but more specifically with Saudi Arabia’s disappointment that we didn’t back the military government,” Wehrey said. “And then, obviously, their disappointment at Obama’s shelving of military strikes and deferral of the Syria file to the United Nations.”

But Wehrey said if relations between Washington and Riyadh deteriorate, then the Saudis face a dilemma of their own making.

“What are their other options?" he asked. "The U.S. is still the only game in town in terms of real protection against Iran, in terms of real intelligence cooperation against al-Qaida - those pillars remain solid.”


Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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