U.S. and Saudi Arabia, trapped in a bad marriage

Story highlights

  • President Obama visited Saudi Arabia this week, after tensions between the two nations
  • Aaron David Miller says the two allies have drifted apart but still need each other for many reasons

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)What do you do when it's increasingly clear that one of your longtime Middle East partners doesn't share either your values or many of your interests?

This is only one of the troubling questions that President Obama confronted this week as he sat with Saudi King Salman to discuss the state of the region and the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
The Saudis sent a lower-level official to greet Obama and Saudi state television didn't even bother covering the President's arrival.
    So to paraphrase Hamlet, clearly something is rotten in the state of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
    And regardless of how this week's meetings conclude the Saudi-American enterprise will remain a delicate and fraught affair. The answers to the following five questions tell you why.

    Is Saudi Arabia a U.S. ally?

    That depends of course on how you define the word ally. But by any measure countries that don't share common values and whose interests on many critical issues seem to fundamentally collide can't simply be described the way we might look at U.S. relations with fellow democracies like Britain or Canada.
    Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian regime that discriminates against women, doesn't permit religious freedom, and prevents freedom of the press. It has been exporting a fundamentalist Wahhabist ideology for years that demonizes Shia, Jews, Christians and the West.
    Yet Saudi Arabia isn't the Islamic state, nor as some analysts have suggested, a junior version of it.
    It's not seeking to undermine the regional order or sponsor terror against the West and create a caliphate. In fact, the Saudis are themselves a victim of jihadi terror and have worked closely with the United States against al Qaeda in Yemen and on counterterrorism against ISIS.
    Still al Qaeda developed out of Wahhabist doctrine and Saudi Arabia has done more than its fair share to nurture Islamic extremists and to fund jihadi groups in Syria such al Nusra. And the latest Saudi threat to sell off U.S. securities if Congress passes legislation holding them responsible for any official involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks highlights a disturbing possibility of some link.

    Do U.S.-Saudi interests fundamentally diverge?

    On a number of issues, you bet they do. It's tempting to turn the U.S.-Saudi relationship into a morality play that pits the forces of goodness on one side against the forces of darkness on the other. But 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 U.S. commitment to its security from external threats has broken down, and even though the Obama administration has sold almost $95 billion 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 U.S. acquiescence in a rising Iran have combined to create a foundation of suspicion and mistrust.

    Is Saudi Arabia headed for instability or collapse?

    Not really. Despite some analysts who believe Saudi Arabia is somehow on the verge of collapse, the Saudis are likely to be around for some time to come. The Saudis have many serious problems. The transition to a new King and his young, inexperienced and risk-ready son have created some turmoil within the royal family and could pose problems during the succession after Salman.
    Falling oil prices have created budgetary deficits and spending restrictions; the Saudis are trapped in a costly war in Yemen and pressed by a rising Iran. But the kingdom weathered the Arab spring and regional turbulence with little difficulty and remains a stable and highly functional state, with the world's largest oil reserves, low debt and high cash reserves.
    If you compared Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, it would seem a model of stability. Still, internal problems over succession can only complicate the U.S.-Saudi relationship and create tension and turmoil in the years ahead. Saudi Arabia will change; the question is whether that process will be an evolutionary or revolutionary one.

    Is the U.S.-Saudi relationship too big to fail?

    Probably for now. However imperfect Saudi policies, the United States still requires local friends in the region to help stabilize matters and pursue American interests. 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, 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. Moreover, Wahhabis or not, Washington still needs the Saudis for intelligence sharing and operations against ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and requires Riyadh's cooperation in trying to manage the Syrian problem if there is to be an outcome to the current civil war more favorable than the black hole of chaos that exists there now.

    Will relations Improve under the next President?

    Clearly, the Saudis are looking past President Obama to the next administration and doubtless hoping for a different kind of President. Obama's comments to the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that Saudi Arabia was a "free rider" essentially benefiting from a U.S. security guarantee without doing its fair share to support U.S. goals hasn't endeared him to the King. Nor has his risk-aversion on Syria or risk-readiness to reach an accommodation with Iran. But these policies may not change significantly in 2017.
    The painful fact is that the United States is stuck in a bad marriage with Saudi Arabia, where neither divorce nor reconciliation is likely. The same Middle East mess that estranged the two sides will likely also force them to cooperate. Indeed, despite what divides them it's more than likely that for the foreseeable future the United States and Saudi Arabia will find a way to muddle through -- cooperating where they can and agreeing to disagree where they must.