By Matthew M. Reed
Rumor has it American-Saudi relations have reached rock bottom. As told and retold, the Saudis grew anxious after Mubarak’s exit in February. Their friend’s demise was a worrisome signal for the Kingdom: the United States, their long-time ally and architect of the status quo, was suddenly a reluctant agent of change. The region may be changing but there is little reason to believe the relationship is deeply troubled. Mutual concerns guarantee cooperation at the highest levels.
Like other alliances, US-Saudi policies are not always synchronized. But the Saudi response to the Arab Spring has been more mixed than critics admit. The Kingdom did indeed send troops to Bahrain in March, thus giving Bahrain a freer hand for crushing dissent. Other moves have been less controversial and consistent with American aims. On June 10, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister told the Washington Post that a Saudi-sponsored GCC aid package would be especially helpful for improving the conditions of the second-class Shia minority. King Abdullah also pledged $130 billion for increased salaries, housing, and religious institutions at home—all of which are bloodless investments even if they are counter-revolutionary. Only if the Saudis cross the threshold of violence might the US reassess the relationship but the chances of that are slim.
President Obama responded in a manner befitting the leader of the free world. On May 19, two months after the Bahraini intervention, Obama criticized the Khalifa regime specifically for its “mass arrests and brute force.” He also offered the following: “The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders—whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.” Note the absence of Riyadh in that statement. Also note the idealistic tone, so very different from Saudi pragmatism.
Diverging American and Saudi responses should raise alarms. But this is not the whole story. The Saudis have also played a positive role in Yemen, where the stakes are high. This partially explains why the US has not criticized the Kingdom outright. Relations are further buoyed by shared strategic interests like counter-terrorism, Iran, and oil. These issues will not go away soon and the Arab Spring will likely force the two countries to cooperate even more.
In Yemen, the Saudis negotiated an exit plan for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and, after he failed to sign on, they seized the opportunity presented by a new crisis. Secretary Clinton praised the Saudi-led initiative on May 22 when she said, “The concerted efforts of the international community, led by the GCC, have been tireless.” Saleh refused to sign three times, resulting in chaos. On June 3, he was badly wounded in an attack on his presidential compound, and two days later he arrived in Saudi Arabia for treatment. The ultimate test will be whether or not he is allowed to return home. The Saudis now enjoy more leverage over Saleh than they could have ever hoped for and they need a peaceful resolution in Yemen. The US wants the same.
Terrorism colors all talk about Yemen and al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate remains active and dangerous. Saudi Arabia’s tribal affiliations there and millions of dollars spent over decades in Yemen grant it some influence. More importantly, these relationships offer the Saudis real insight into the inner workings of a country edging toward oblivion. Saudi intelligence—combined with American assets and the ability to strike militant targets—will prove decisive if al Qaeda flexes its muscle. Further CT cooperation is predestined.
Other than al Qaeda, Iran remains a major preoccupation for American and Saudi leaders. For President Obama, a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable.” King Abdullah has even urged the US to bomb the Islamic Republic. But the Arab street generally rejects this urgency. The 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll found that 57 percent of Arabs believe Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be “positive” for the region. This is bad news for American and Saudi leaders if the Arab Spring produces governments that reflect the popular will. With Egypt sidelined, they may find themselves the only two major powers opposed to Iran.
Oil and Saudi spare production capacity make further cooperation automatic. For decades now the Saudis have been sensitive to market disruptions (e.g. the Gulf War) and pricing that could make oil unattractive. That said, Saudi Arabia was thwarted by OPEC price hawks last month. The country’s Oil Minister, Ali al Naimi, was especially blunt. He told reporters, “This is one of the worst meetings we have ever had.” Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE proposed an increase of 1.5 million barrels per day but the meeting broke down after Iran and others rejected the motion. The Saudis plan to increase production regardless of OPEC’s reservations since they and their GCC companions have the power to pump more oil. (The rest of OPEC’s members operate at or near maximum capacity.)
The US and Saudi Arabia remain status quo powers where it counts: both countries need a resolution in Yemen; terrorism demands cooperation because other countries are focusing inward; joint efforts may become the only option if Iran becomes less of a priority for others; and Saudi spare capacity could make or break the global recession, not to mention President Obama’s reelection prospects. For all these reasons, US-Saudi relations will come nowhere near rock bottom.