PARIS — Long before his visit to Riyadh this week, when President Barack Obama was asked if the Saudis were America’s friends, he said coyly, “It’s complicated.” During his visit, a veteran of the Saudi intelligence services told me, with a similar note of irony, “It’s a special relationship—and there are special differences.”
How are Americans supposed to get behind a government that carries out dozens of beheadings on a single day, that has shown a recent penchant for waging wars it can’t manage to win, that supports the preaching of an extreme version of Islam that helps prepare the way for jihadists being groomed around the world, and has such a screwy relationship with women, giving them strong educations (they are 55 percent of the students in Saudi universities), then refusing to allow them to drive cars or walk the streets without head coverings?
Add to that, the suspicion lingering for the last 15 years that Saudi officials, not just Saudi citizens, were involved in some way with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The fact that 28 pages of the vast 9/11 Commission Report remain classified to this day only heightens those misgivings, even though the Saudi government’s position has been, since the issue of the pages first arose in 2003, that the U.S. government should publish the damn things.
So, the Riyadh meetings were fraught with tension, but “complicated” and “special” differences have always been part of this picture.
The United States and Saudi Arabia began their awkward embrace in 1945 when the ailing President Franklin Roosevelt met the aging King Abdelaziz ibn Saud aboard an American warship afloat on part of the Suez Canal known as the Great Bitter Lake.
In light of U.S.-Saudi relations since then—seven very difficult decades, in fact—the name of the venue seems ironically appropriate. This was never a “marriage,” the metaphor used by countless pundits commenting on Obama’s visit to Riyadh this week. There was never a honeymoon, certainly, and the differences now are not a matter of “estrangement” or “divorce.”
This was and is, as the saying goes, “just business”—the oil business; the arms business; the regional security business.
Sometimes it’s more civil, sometimes less, but it’s a partnership between two nations with radically different characters: one an enduring if sometimes erratic democracy built on the power of individuals, Enlightenment ideals, and the rule of law; the other an enduring but often sclerotic monarchy built on tribalism, theology, and the rule of a single family.
When the interests of that family and those of the American people diverge, or when the business model starts to change—and as Obama sees it, both things are true right now—the incongruity of the partnership becomes all too apparent. Former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal, echoing acerbic remarks he’s been making for years, told CNN this week the relationship needed “a recalibration.” He was just stating the obvious. And it seems the best that could be said of Obama’s interaction with the Saudis, as White House officials spun it, is that it “cleared the air.”
One can only imagine what that phrase, clearing the air, really means at a time when Obama, with the end of his term in sight, seems determined to get a lot of frustrations off his chest, whether in The Atlantic or on Friday’s stormy visit to London. But a brief checklist of contentious issues with the Saudis gives an idea just how many problems there are, and how long they’ve been around.
The core business is oil, of course. Saudi Arabia has huge amounts—more than 20 percent of the world’s proven reserves—which it can pump relatively cheaply. The United States, which once relied heavily on imported oil, managed to reduce that dependence dramatically over the last decade, thanks largely to the boom in fracking and more extensive conservation measures.
As in the past, the Saudis have moved to undermine competition from alternative supplies by producing in such quantities, relative to demand, that prices have plunged dramatically. Hydraulic fracturing, windmills, and other sources of energy no longer make short-term economic sense. American fracking firms have been closing down left and right for more than a year, and reliance on cheap—read Saudi—foreign oil is likely to increase.
In the 1970s, the “oil shock” generated by the Saudis and the rest of OPEC was about high prices. Now it’s about low prices. Of course, no American president is going to ask the Saudis to push up the cost of gasoline at the pump, at least not publically, but if the U.S. production boom is to recover, that’s going to have to happen.
The flip side of the oil business, in this partnership, is defense. There is no formal treaty but there have been clear understandings since that encounter on the Great Bitter Lake that the United States would protect not only Saudi oil but the Saudi regime from its enemies.
During the Cold War, the pact made perfect sense: the greatest threat came from the Soviet Union, a common enemy if ever there was one. By the 1980s, anti-Soviet cooperation, especially in covert ops, had reached extraordinary levels. The Saudis not only worked with the CIA to build up the mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, they helped the Reagan administration work around Congress to fund the Contras in Nicaragua.
But, precisely because there is no formal treaty—no NATO of Arabia, if you will—the Saudis worry constantly about the credibility of American assurances they’ll be defended. When Obama is quoted calling Saudi Arabia our “so-called” ally, that rankles, even though he said it way back in 2002. He wouldn’t repeat it now, certainly. But there is a real question today: “Our ally against whom?”
For a long time, even after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the easy answer was “Iran.” In 1979, the Iranian revolution presented the Americans and the Saudis with another common threat. Yet even by the mid-1980s, Riyadh was starting to have its doubts about U.S. resolve in the face of Iranian-backed terrorism.
When the Reagan administration pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon in 1984 after Iranian- and Syrian-backed suicide bombings that slaughtered hundreds of Marines and twice blew up the U.S. embassy, the Saudis and other Gulf monarchs voiced the same kinds of doubts about the reliability of their U.S. protectors that we are hearing now: Would Washington really defend them against Tehran’s regional ambitions?
Partly to stifle such speculation, the U.S. sent warships to wage a quasi-war against the Iranians at sea in 1987, and give de facto backing to, yes, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who was fighting a massive war against Iran on the ground. The culmination of that exercise: The Americans shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988, slaughtering all of the men, women, and children aboard. The Iranians finally called an end to the war. And Saddam was so chuffed, so confident he was the West’s new hero, that two years later he invaded Kuwait. Then the United States went to war not just to liberate the Kuwaitis, but, most importantly, and absolutely, to defend the Saudis against their former “ally” Saddam.
And so the seeds were sown for he the spiral of conflict that eventually led to the rise of Osama bin Laden (whose first fight was to get American troops off holy Saudi soil), and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with all its many and disastrous consequences.
Throughout the last 70 years, American support for Israel has been opposed by Saudi Arabia, which did not want to see the Jewish state recognized in 1948, supported wars against it, funded terrorists who attacked it, and imposed an oil embargo in 1973 to try to keep Washington from rearming it. All to no avail.
Then in 2002 Crown Prince Abdullah proposed a comprehensive peace plan, signed by all 22 Arab countries, but, again, to no avail. As Hassan Yassin, a former spokesman for the Saudis in Washington, wrote this week in Riyadh, “the U.S. did not lean enough on Israel to even respond to a peace initiative that offered full peace and diplomatic relations along the lines accepted by the international community. It is a regret that pursues us until this day.”
Over the last decade or so, we’ve often heard that there is quiet, if not quite secret, rapprochement between Israel and the Saudis. But there is only one common interest, in fact: blocking the rise of Iran again as a regional and eventually perhaps as a nuclear power. In 2006, the Saudis did give tacit diplomatic support to Israel in its war against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon—only to be humiliated when Hezbollah fought the Israelis to a standstill week after week.
Today, the issue of American credibility may hinge on many issues, but Iran figures in all of them.
The Israelis and the Saudis, both, believe the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran opens the door to greater rapprochement with the mullahs. Part of Obama’s message in Riyadh to the Saudis and the other monarchs of the region was that Washington has no illusions about Iran’s support for terrorism and subversion to promote its goal of regional domination. The Americans are active helping interdict Iranian arms shipments, as a communiqué from the summit this week made clear. But the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry flew from his meetings in Riyadh to a meeting in New York with the affable Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, won’t encourage Saudi confidence.
The most complicated battleground, Syria, has been made that much more complicated by Saudi Arabia’s own conflicting priorities. On the one hand, it wants to see the end of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is an Iranian client. On the other hand, it does not want to see a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, for generations the core of dedicated, and sometimes violent, opposition to the Assad dynasty. So the Saudis have thrown their weight behind Salafis whose brand of extremist Islam has a certain affinity with their own official version of the religion, but has often opened them up to alliances with the al Qaeda faction on the Syrian battlefield.
In August 2013, the Saudis seemed to think that Obama was ready to win the Syrian war for them. He had said the year before that if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people that would be a “red line.” And when that appeared to be the case in the summer of 2013, he did indeed get ready to authorize the bombing of some Syrian military installations. But the targets would not have included the chemical weapons stockpiles, for fear of spreading the poisons far and wide. And, as we pointed out at the time, the history of such limited U.S. attacks to teach a lesson to Arab dictators was long and grim and ultimately in every case counterproductive.
Instead, Obama cut a deal with the Russians, who forced Assad to inventory and surrender virtually his entire chemical arsenal—which did eliminate weapons he could have used to panic the opposition into surrender, but did not satisfy the hawks, including the Saudis, who wanted to see a decisive American intervention that might end the war (precisely how was never clear). In fact, no such open-ended intervention was ever contemplated. Obama was intent on ending two wars in the Muslim world, not beginning a third one.