The U.S and Saudi Arabia aren't at the end of a love affair, so much as in an unhappy marriage
The two countries are bound by military links and a shared fight against terrorism
The White House moved to tamp down suggestions that ties with Saudi Arabia are fraying, with administration officials saying that President Barack Obama “really cleared the air” with King Salman at a meeting Wednesday.
Yet even as White House officials stressed that the leaders made progress, a prominent member of the Saudi royal family told CNN “a recalibration” of the U.S.-Saudi relationship was needed amid regional upheaval, dropping oil prices and ongoing strains between the two longtime allies.
Obama landed in Riyadh earlier Wednesday for a summit with Gulf leaders and spent two-and-a-half hours meeting with the 80-year-old monarch on issues that have recently strained the alliance, including the conflict in Yemen, the role of Iran, Lebanon’s instability and the fight against ISIS, U.S. officials said.
Statements after the meeting made clear that deep differences remain on several of these points, with the two sides agreeing to disagree and a U.S. official characterizing the encounter as the start of a discussion rather than a venue for solutions.
But the two leaders glossed over some of the thorniest matters, including a Saudi threat to dump U.S. assets if Obama signs into law a bill that could make the kingdom liable for damages stemming from the September 11 terror attacks.
There is going to have to be “a recalibration of our relationship with America,” former Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “How far we can go with our dependence on America, how much can we rely on steadfastness from American leadership, what is it that makes for our joint benefits to come together,” Turki said in a significant departure from usual Saudi rhetoric. “These are things that we have to recalibrate.”
An unhappy marriage
For all the crosscurrents buffetting U.S.-Saudi relations, analysts and former officials say the two countries aren’t at the end of a love affair so much as in an unhappy marriage in which both sides, for better or worse, are stuck with each other.
“Despite all these differences, Saudi Arabia and America are not getting divorced,” said Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA official. “We need each other.”
It’s tough going, though. The Saudis have little confidence in Obama’s commitment to their security and fear he’s shifting U.S. attentions to its rival, Iran; Obama has described the Saudis as “so-called allies” and has complained their policies fuel anti-U.S. terror and regional chaos.
In the U.S. Congress, a growing drumbeat of criticism about Saudi Arabia is finding expression in efforts to restrict arms sales to Riyadh, expose alleged Saudi involvement in the September 11 terror attacks and allow it to be sued for that day’s destruction and death.
The clamor coincides with increasing domestic energy resources that lessen the U.S. need for foreign oil. Moreover, the allies are divided by a slew of issues including the approach to the wars in Syria and Yemen, the Iranian nuclear deal and the influence Tehran wields in Iraq.
These regional issues are topping Obama’s agenda during his visit this week as he looks for backing for the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. And they are dynamics that are set to persist and color the U.S.-Saudi relationship for the next occupant of the Oval Office as well. Turki told CNN that the changes underway will last long after Obama leaves office.
“I don’t think that we should expect any new president in America to go back to, as I said, the yesteryear days when things were different,” Turki said.
A chilly welcome
The prince made his unprecedented comments as Obama landed in Riyadh to a reception that social media critics termed a snub, but U.S. officials strongly disputed. The Saudi government dispatched the governor of Riyadh and Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubair to shake Obama’s hand, a departure from the scene at the airport earlier in the day when King Salman was shown on state television greeting the leaders of other Gulf nations on the tarmac.
A U.S. official said Salman’s absence upon arrival was not taken as a snub and noted that Obama rarely greets foreign leaders when they land in the U.S. for meetings. Obama went immediately to the Erga Palace to meet the King shortly after landing, but the perceived slight on his arrival was seen as one more sign that a relationship long lubricated by barrels of oil is encountering friction.
Fawaz Gerges, an expert on Islamic-Western relations at the London School of Economics, called their current dynamic “an estrangement” but not a break that would end U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
He’s among many analysts who say that, as unlikely as the union between a rigidly conservative Islamic monarchy with a questionable human rights record and a secular democratic republic may seem, neither will be able to cut the ties the bind them.
The two countries are connected by military links and sales, a shared fight against terrorism, the need to leverage each other’s diplomatic clout and, for the U.S., the necessity of ensuring that world oil supplies flow freely.
Though the U.S. imports fewer barrels of Saudi crude and petroleum than it did on the day of Obama’s first inauguration, the energy needs of its allies – particularly in Asia – are crucial to global and U.S. economic health.
“U.S. energy independence doesn’t really change the equation that much because of the global strategic importance of the oil supplies,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Saudi Arabia also carries diplomatic weight in the region that the U.S. has used to serve its interests.
The “Saudis are such an influential actor in the Middle East and broader Muslim world that no secretary of state or president has truly wanted to go it without them,” said David Weinberg, a Saudi Arabia expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
As the Arab Spring has devolved into chaotic violence, Saudi Arabia has provided funds that have stabilized key U.S. allies, including Egypt, Bahrain and Jordan, and it has developed stronger ties with one of its longtime enemies, Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the region.
War on Terror: Offering Arab cover
On the most kinetic level, the two countries are linked by counterterrorism efforts that will go on for years.