Why Saudi Arabia is still vital to US interests

US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia must be seen as a balancing act in the Middle East
Syed Ata Hasnain

THE speed of events in the Middle East is faster than can be absorbed by an increasingly complex strategic environment. The apparent cooling of US interest in the region, emanating from perceived failure of the Arab Spring, improving potential of control over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the steadily declining energy ties between US and the Saudi Arabia, among many other issues appears to create a conflict of interests for the US, and hence, the necessity to restore balance. This is all the more important in view of the emerging confidence of Russia and its ability to punch above its weight in mutual international standoffs.

President Obama’s second visit to Saudi Arabia during his presidency is obviously far more important than his first which preceded his visit to Egypt in 2009 for what appeared then as a path-breaking outreach to the Islamic world. Smitten first by the events in Syria which saw US hand over diplomatic advantage to Russia and then by the recent surprise acts by Russia in Ukraine, the US is obviously in the process of a major reconsideration of its Middle East policy. Central to its considerations is the feasibility of losing the advantage of a long-standing strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia which was based upon the oil for security equation.

Progressively, over the past 10 years or so, US-Saudi ties have weakened leading to perceptible differences about commonality of the strategic aim. The most important security consideration for Saudi Arabia is its long-standing fear of Iran and the Shia power that emanates from it. The onset of this current standoff can be traced back to 2003 and the handling of post-Gulf War II scenario in Iraq, which saw the emergence of Shia dominance. The Saudis always feared that the Shia linkages were stronger than the pan-Arab loyalties of Iraq and that it was Iran which had achieved strategic gain because of the Shia revival in Baghdad. The subsequent emergence of the strength of the Shia Hizbullah in Lebanon, once again backed by Iran, did not bring any comfort level to the Saudi leadership.

What, however, really got the goat of the Saudis was the rapid pace at which the Arab Spring emerged in the Middle East ostensibly with the US as a passive bystander hoping for the emergence of greater liberal democratic trends in the Arab world. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution followed by Egypt’s White Lily Revolution and preceded by Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution sent ominous signals to the Saudis; the rising turbulence in Bahrain and Yemen did not provide any succour either. The Saudis were peeved particularly with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood. A little-known fact about Middle East politics has been the long-standing abhorrence with which the Saudi monarchy has looked upon the Muslim Brotherhood. This stems from the basic difference whereby the monarchy has always kept the Saudi clergy at bay by allowing it full control over the mosques but no interference in core political issues.

The Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand essentially follows the Islamic traditions of combining religion and politics, the church and the state. The Saudis expected the US to back the Egyptian military because of the long-standing relationship the two enjoyed. The US, however, followed its own convictions of its future interests in diluting the power of dictatorships all over the Middle East. The suspension of US military aid to Egypt around the same time as the announced Saudi-UAE $12 billion aid to Egypt only worsened relations. While US-Egypt relations appear to be on the mend the recent death sentence meted out to 500 Muslim Brotherhood activists by an Egyptian court will surely provide yet another irritant to the US-Saudi relationship.

Binding ties

 The first alliance between US and Saudi Arabia was sealed between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Saudi King Adul Aziz on February 14, 1945, when they met on the deck of the USS Quincy as the American warship cruised in the Suez Canal.

 When the Saudis really needed the States following Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of their neighbour Kuwait, the United States sent half a million troops to the Gulf to expel Saddam’s forces.

 The US is likely to actively pressurise the Egyptian leadership to withdraw this sentence in keeping with its avowed campaign for human rights in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia taking an opposite view after having declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

A complex case

The situation is becoming even more complex with three GCC countries — UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar over long-standing regional differences but triggered by Qatar’s continued support to the Muslim Brotherhood. The US has major military bases in Qatar.

The Syrian imbroglio and the continuing reluctance of the US to employ hard power to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions is yet another element. While the Saudis were keen that the US employs military means to enable regime change in Syria once the red line of use of chemical weapons had been crossed, they failed to appreciate the mood in the US.

Stuck in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 11 years, the US displayed its tired reluctance to push its interests and succumbed to actions many notches lower against both Iran and Syria. The Saudis also viewed this as a balancing act by the US to open up the feasibility of retrieving some semblance of a US-Iran relationship to control nuclear proliferation in the region. The withdrawal from the UNSC seat by Saudi Arabia was apparently a protest against this.

For Saudi Arabia, the process for a negotiated settlement in Syria must not commence from a position of weakness. Hence, the recent reported steps by it to provision arms to the rebels making use of the strong relationship it enjoys with Pakistan. The Saudis have also introduced an element of psychological warfare into the situation by possible leaks of their intent to partner Pakistan in providing the rebels in Syria a possible nuclear handle.

For the US, the strengthening of the Syrian rebels, less the nuclear handle, may play to its interest but will further exacerbate the situation on ground with Iran with possibly Russia stepping on the gas thus upsetting the diplomatic parleys underway to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Will the US, therefore, look towards short-term gains by supporting the Saudi stance on Syria or consider a more benign response to allow diplomacy a greater chance in its relationship with Iran. For President Obama, this is a difficult decision considering the fallout of the Ukraine encounter which would have emboldened Russia to continue its support to Iran. Back home, he would be under severe criticism for the manner in which US interests appear to have been diluted.

The balancing act

The Obama visit must, therefore, be seen to be a balancing act to cut losses by greater positing to advantage through existing relationships in the Middle East. Perhaps, the time is yet not ripe for bold initiatives to change the narrative in the Middle East given the multiple dynamics simultaneously in play. Traditionally, the Middle East has always been associated primarily with the Israeli-Palestinian discord. The fact that it has not even been mentioned in this assessment so far proves how other factors have hijacked the narrative.

Yet, no security assessment of the Middle East can ever be complete without reference to this issue and the position of Israel.

For Israel, it is all about existential threats emanating from Iran and its surrogates in the region. Weakening this axis is the common aim of both Israel and the Saudis even as the US looks for ways of bringing Iran out of the diplomatic closet.

The last thing the US would want is obstacles in its way through a collaborative approach by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, a weaker Egypt only further emboldens Israel in its stance against Iran. The US needs to balance this flank too as it has an effect on the overall Israel- Palestinian peace process.

Last, but not the least, comprehensive reviews of the Middle East need to take into account the status of the global war on terror in the region. The Al-Qaida’s resurgence in Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq, along with its continuing activism in Syria and Yemen, gives no confidence to the US. At such a time, it is better to take stock of what is in hand and avoid dilution of partnerships, however rocky they may appear.

On a scale of threats, those in existence match the ones on the horizon; addressing the existing ones may well assist in diluting and warding those of the future. Perhaps, the US strategic planners may have just realised this and perceived that the events of the last few months do not play out to their interests and a serious review is necessary. The Obama visit to Saudi Arabia could, therefore, just have been that — a serious review. The next few weeks should reveal what the actual outcome of the visit would have for the Middle East and the rest of the world.

— The writer is a former Corps Commander of Srinagar-based 15 Corps. This artice first appeared in The Tribune of today.

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