Saudi goes public over tensions with US

Saudi goes public over tensions with US

Elizabeth Dickinson
The National
September 10, 2013

The turmoil in Egypt and the civil war in Syria have injected an unusual note of  candour between Saudi Arabia and the United States, as the two allies find  themselves on opposite sides of the region’s big strategic questions.

Many policymakers and regional experts in Washington have been surprised by  Saudi Arabia’s public positions on Egypt and Syria that are at odds with those  of the US.

Saudi Arabia, like many other GCC states, has staunchly backed the interim  government in Egypt, while US officials have begun to express alarm about  developments there.

Saudi officials have also recently said that a military strike against the  Assad regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons was not bold enough.

Riyadh and Washington have had disagreements over the years, of course. But  what is unusual this time, regional experts say, is that Saudi Arabia is airing  its disagreements with the US openly.

“Historically the Saudis were willing to submerge their objections to  American policy,” said Charles Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.  “Now they don’t feel that obligation.”

There is no doubt that the two countries have common economic and defence  interests that will tie them together for years to come, experts say. When it  comes to regional affairs, however, Riyadh is striking a different tone.

Richard LeBaron, a former US ambassador to Kuwait, said that, due in part to  their proximity, the kingdom views the crises in Egypt and Syria with more  urgency than Washington. “There is a sense that the US doesn’t recognise the  immediacy of the issues in the same way the Gulf does,” Mr LeBaron said.

The difference in tone between Riyadh and Washington recently has been most  pronounced over Egypt.

After the former president, Mohammed Morsi was forced from office on July 3,  Saudi Arabia and several other Arabian Gulf countries immediately announced  their support for the interim government. Riyadh backed up its vocal expressions  of support with US$5 billion (Dh18.3bn) in aid.

The US tentatively backed the new interim government, but after the deaths of  at least 650 protesters in clashes with police in July and last month during  demonstrations, several US politicians called for a suspension of US military  aid.

In contrast, King Abdullah appeared on Saudi television on August 16, a day  after one such clash, and declared that his country would stand “with our  brothers in Egypt against terrorism, extremism and sedition”. Three days later,  the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, vowed that his country would offset  any cuts in western aid.

The feisty tenor of such public declarations is a marked departure from the  previous public exchanges between the two allies.

When Mr Freeman left his post as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia two decades  ago, communications were typically mild-mannered, private and carried out at the  highest levels.

It was “a dial-up relationship”, recalled Mr Freeman, the US envoy to Riyadh  from 1989 to 1992. “If there was a problem, the Saudis would call the US  president or the national security adviser, and then we would fix the  problem.”

Under the Obama administration, Saudi officials have not enjoyed this nearly  unfettered access to the top levels of the US government. Their dismay was  compounded by what they viewed as the indecorous speed with which Washington  withdrew its support from its longtime ally, Egypt, under president Hosni  Mubarak, in early 2011.

Mr Morsi’s visit to Tehran in August last year only confirmed what they  viewed as the short-sightedness of Mr Obama’s moves in the Middle East. Saudi  Arabia’s antipathy towards Iran also is at the heart of its differences with  Washington over Syria, Tehran’s closest Arab ally.

“Saudi preoccupation with Syria is a reflection of deep-rooted fear of Iran’s  rising influence,” the Saudi historian, Madawi Al Rasheed, wrote in Al Monitor  last week.

As peaceful protests against the government of president Bashar Al Assad  evolved into civil war, Saudi Arabia saw a chance to roll back Iranian influence  in the region. This geopolitical opportunity was met in Washington with the  weariness wrought by two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The Saudis basically turned to the Americans and told them, ‘Syria is our  top issue’, and the US wasn’t responsive,” said Emile Hokayem, Bahrain-based  senior fellow at the International Institute for Security Studies.

Influential Saudis have argued that restricted missile strikes against the  Syrian regime were not enough. “The proposed ‘limited’ strike will not change  anything on the ground,” wrote Jihad Al Khazen in the Saudi daily, Al Hayat,  last week.

Frustrated by US policy, Saudi Arabia has begun to “diversify” its diplomacy,  Mr Freeman said. Notably, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence  chief, held talks with Mr Al Assad’s ally, the Russian president, Vladimir  Putin, in Moscow last month.

While holding opposite positions on Syria, Russia and Saudi Arabia do agree  on Egypt, where both favour the interim government.

In the long term, analysts say, the US must prepare itself for changes in its  ties with Saudi Arabia and other longtime regional allies.

“The region is going to act much more on their own” without Washington, said  Mr Hokayem.

“The Americans are in for a very difficult time.”


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