My Saturday post on the likelihood of Saudi Arabia participating in a conflict with Iran got me thinking about a rumor which–to my knowledge–remains unsubstantiated by anyone in government willing to speak on record. According to a few sources whose comments were then recycled for months by the media, relations between Washington and Riyadh supposedly collapsed in 2011, after the Obama administration abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia intervened in Bahrain without warning.
I understand why the Saudis might be disappointed with the U.S. taking a principled stance in Egypt, however clumsily it was articulated by an administration suffering whiplash. And I’m sure the Pentagon was surprised by the GCC’s Peninsular Shield Forces suddenly entering Bahrain back in March. But I can’t believe these two episodes have damaged relations as much as is claimed.
Firstly, the stakes are too high in the region and the U.S and Saudi Arabia are still animated by terrorism, the Iranian threat, and oil. Secondly, U.S.-Saudi relations are more institutionalized than ever, with cooperation taking place not just at the executive level, but most often–and most importantly–at the bureaucratic level, among mid-level officials. This allows the relationship to continue on “autopilot,” even when there are hiccups at higher levels of officialdom. Finally, let’s remember the relationship has always suffered from a certain amount of friction. The Palestinian issue is a chronic irritant to name but one. And yet in spite of this and the seeming incompatibility of U.S. and Saudi government traditions, cultures, and faith, the relationship endures, buoyed by permanent interests which have overlapped for decades.
This is not a “Pakistan scenario.” The U.S. and Saudi Arabia agree on what constitutes a genuine threat. There is no double game to be played. And there is no alternative to American military might in the Persian Gulf, which will remain in place for years. Unlike relations with Pakistan, U.S.-Saudi relations are characterized by mutual respect–rather than convenience or unfortunate circumstances that force cooperation. I’d like to know what more people think about this issue since claims made last year have seemingly crystallized into conventional wisdom. I can’t say how many times I’ve heard the canard repeated. But it did prompt me to write last July about why I believe U.S.-Saudi relations will continue moving forward. I still stand by that post, titled “Nowhere Near Rock Bottom.”