By Talmiz Ahmad
Feb 01, 2015
US President Barack Obama missed a visit to the Taj Mahal, the symbol of eternal love, to affirm a more valuable love affair, one that the United States has had for 70 years with a most unlikely partner, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since 1945, successive US Presidents and Saudi rulers have pledged their support to a strategic partnership in terms of which the Kingdom would promote Western political and energy interests in West Asia, while the US would guarantee the security of Saudi Arabia; later, this was expanded to embrace the other Gulf Sheikhdoms that emerged as free nations in the early 1970s.
This relationship has remained solid and mutually beneficial over the last seven decades, surviving serious bilateral differences on political and energy issues. Given this background, it is not surprising that Mr Obama should have hastened to Riyadh to personally condole the death of King Abdullah, and engage with the new leaders now at the helm of the Kingdom King Salman, Crown Prince Muqrin, and the deputy Crown Prince and interior minister, Muhammad bin Nayef, who is just 55 years old and the first royal family member of the next generation to be placed in the line of succession.
In his condolence message, Mr Obama spoke of the “genuine and warm friendship” between the two countries which, he asserted, was “a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond”. The delegation that accompanied Mr Obama to Riyadh fully reflected the depth of these ties, with cross-party representation from the foreign policy and security establishments, described as an American political “royalty”. Though the two sides discussed energy and regional issues, the visit was largely of symbolic value and conveyed the importance attached by both sides to the relationship.
Mr Obama’s visit not only recognised the resilience of the relationship, it also took cognisance of the strains that have bedevilled bilateral ties over the last two years, primarily as a consequence of the fallout of the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia was convinced that the US had betrayed President Hosni Mubarak and then indicated an unusual sympathy for the successor Brotherhood regime. Later, the US failed to intervene in Syria militarily and effect regime change even after there was evidence that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against its own people. But, the Kingdom was most alarmed when the US, in late 2013, commenced a substantial engagement with Iran on the nuclear question, with indications that over time US-Iran ties would get stronger and even accommodate a larger Iranian role in the region.
In order to bridge this widening gap, Mr Obama visited Riyadh in March 2014. Though tempers were cooled to some extent, differences remained on Syria and Iran. It took the challenge posed by the Islamic State (IS), that in June 2014 proclaimed a caliphate in the territories militarily secured by it in Iraq and Syria, to bring the alienated allies together. Saudi Arabia was happy to see the US back in a military role in the Gulf, and provided armed support from the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to the US-led assaults on IS positions.
However, the former partnership between the US and Saudi Arabia, in which the US was the unquestioning guarantor of Saudi security while the Kingdom could be relied upon to fully back the US’ regional interests even if it meant sacrificing Saudi and Arab concerns, is now irretrievably lost. Earlier, the US had re-built its ties with Saudi Arabia after the horrendous attacks of 9/11, while Saudi Arabia gave logistical support for the US assault on Iraq in 2003, even when it believed the attack was ill-advised and would redound to Iran’s strategic advantage.
Now, what Saudi Arabia has with the US is a “transactional relationship” in which each side will take a position on a particular issue on the basis of its own interests. This new relationship is a product of the serious differences they have had on a number of crucial matters such as: domestic political reform, political Islam, engagement with Iran, military action in Syria, and lack of progress on the Palestine peace process. But, it also indicates a new self-confidence on the part of Saudi Arabia in looking after its own security and its ability to assert its interests in the region politically and militarily.
Looking at the post-Abdullah scenario, most Western commentators have said that continuity will characterise the US ties with Saudi Arabia. In support, one observer has asserted that the Kingdom “is a rock of stability” in the region, while another has emphasised that the US has “strategic interests in common with Saudi Arabia”.
But this understanding of the Kingdom is quite out-of-date. Saudi Arabia is no longer a power favouring the status quo nor is it a rock of regional stability. As recent events have shown, the Kingdom has abandoned its quietist approach and, in taking on the challenges to its interests from Iran and the Arab Spring, it has deployed a variety of new approaches and instruments, including: mobilising jihadi militia against Bashar al-Assad in Syria; funding the upgradation of the Lebanese armed forces; backing the Al Sisi regime politically and financially; taking a tough position against Qatar and Turkey for their support to the Brotherhood, and participating in military action against the IS. It has also taken a tough position on domestic reform and on oil affairs, in spite of external pressures.
Above all, it has adopted an uncompromising posture against Iran on the ground that Iran’s strategic regional advantages and its interventions in regional affairs constitute an existential threat to Saudi Arabia, making it clear that the Kingdom will engage with Iran only when it is satisfied that its interests will be served.
Thus, change rather than continuity will define the Saudi regional approach in coming years, and the US will need to develop some fresh thinking on West Asian issues if its ties with the Kingdom are to have any abiding meaning or value.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia