By Alicia Jen
Negotiations for peace are usually praised by the international community. They serve as a breather for countries fearing escalation, especially for those close to the conflict. So why is Saudi Arabia so upset over Washington’s recent measures to avoid war in the Middle East?
For years, Saudi Arabia has been one of America’s most valuable partners in the region. The two countries cooperate in military endeavors, beginning with the Persian Gulf War of the 1990s. They currently share military forces and work together in the War on Terror. They also have strong economic ties; the US is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, and in return, Saudi Arabia is our country’s leading sources of oil, providing over one million barrels each day. Perhaps most importantly, Saudi Arabia gives the United States support in a region that is less than approving of US influence. As the US Department of State asserts, “The United States and Saudi Arabia share common concerns and consult closely on wide range of regional and global issues.”
However, it’s the supposed lack of consultation on Middle-Eastern affairs that has angered the Saudi royal family. Several months ago, President Obama and the Saudi government had been equally resolute in planning to send military forces to Syria over allegations of President Bashar Assad using chemical weapons on his people. Russia’s sudden interference, resulting in an agreement with the United States for Syria’s peaceful disarmament, must have appeared like a betrayal to Saudi Arabia. Prince Turki al-Faisal bluntly remarked that “The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious.” Saudi Arabia has funded the rebel forces opposing Assad, so to the kingdom, the United States was granting amnesty to Assad’s attacks on Saudi interests.
More recently, Saudi Arabia has viewed negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program with suspicion. Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are long-time rivals, and the latter was so concerned about Iran’s nuclear program that King Abdullah urged the US to attack Iran and “cut off the head of the snake” in 2008. This attitude hasn’t changed even after Iran’s election of the seemingly more moderate President Rouhani, with Prince Turki cautioning that, “The forces of darkness in Qom and Tehran are [already] well entrenched.” Saudi Arabia was not included in the international negotiations reassessing Iran’s promises for peaceful nuclear power, and it fears that any concessions given to Iran would only allow further concealed development of nuclear weapons.
In response to this supposed disloyalty, a source close to Saudi policy reported that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, stated that his country would be making a “[major] shift away from the U.S.” The source continued by explaining, “If diplomacy starts with your friends and you don’t consult them then that is obviously going to give rise to suspicion…. You can’t just forego strategic alliances like that and claim to be allies without any form of consultation.” In an act of protest, Saudi Arabia rejected a UN Security Council seat that it had been working towards for years. The acceptance of this seat could only have been approved by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who instead chose to reject the seat in a dramatic move. Prince Bandar was quick to point out that “This was a message for the U.S., not the U.N.,” displaying how the Saudi government no longer believes that it can work with the United States, which has a permanent seat in the council.
How serious is the prospect of losing the cooperation of a key Middle-Eastern country?
American officials are actively trying to reassure its Saudi interests and soothe the Saudi government’s frustration. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State and negotiator with Iran, stated that “The United States will be there for the defense of our friends and our allies,” pledging to continue preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and hailing Saudi Arabia as the “senior player” in the Middle East. In fact, even the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, downplayed the gravity of his country’s anger, maintaining that his country is still “friendly” with the US and that “it’s only natural that our policies and views might see agreement in some areas and disagreement in others.” Whether the officials seriously believe that the relationship is safe or are simply being diplomatic, the lack of open hostility indicates that no significant repercussions are imminent yet.
To a number of analysts, there won’t be any sort of long-lasting impact at all, either. The relationship between the two countries survived a number of much more serious rifts in the past, and Frank Gardner of BBC believes that “none of these Saudi complaints is likely to herald an end to a profound security pact that has already endured such challenges as the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the fallout from the 9/11 attacks.” Gerd Nonneman of Georgetown University similarly notes Saudi Arabia’s reliance on US military support, asserting that the kingdom “always looked to the hegemon of the day – that is the United States … The Saudis are not going to simply drop that.” Shashank Joshi of the Royal Research Services Institute, based in London, sums it up by emphatically stressing that the current situation “is much less serious than Saudi Arabia would like us to believe” and that “the day that Saudi Arabia stops buying US weapons and tries to kick the US out of the Gulf, that is the day we can talk about a breakdown in relations.” With the world’s most powerful military behind its back, it’s unlikely that Saudi Arabia would give it up quickly, allowing the US to preserve its own economic and diplomatic benefits. Because of this, while the US should keep Saudi interests in mind when dealing with the Middle East, it shouldn’t be deterred from pursuing its own desire to peacefully diffuse conflicts just to satisfy a country that can’t afford to relinquish its ties to the US anyway. Hopefully, Saudi Arabia will leave behind its current displeasure and see the value of the international efforts to keep its own region out of war.