Evolving Saudi-US ties
Much has changed in this period, during which frequent exchanges and numerous personal meetings between Saudi and US officials took place. In Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman ascended the throne, following the passing of King Abdullah, bringing along with him a new generation into Saudi leadership positions. Oil prices, which continue to be so central to the Gulf economies, declined from a level above $100 a barrel in April 2014 to just above $40 a barrel at the time of writing this article. And Saudi Arabia launched a coalition effort in Yemen to restore the legitimate government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi following the takeover by the Houthi militia in Sanaa.
Other things, however, have not changed. In Syria, the killing continues on a daily basis with no end in sight. More than 250,000 people have been killed, 6.6 million are internally displaced and 4.7 million have fled to neighboring countries and further abroad. The high number of civilian casualties is the result of the actions of the Assad regime.
Iranian interference in the Arab affairs has also not reduced. Iran is the main backer of the Assad government and continues to sponsor Iraqi Shiite militias that prevent a unified Iraqi government from coming about. In just the last two months, three ships originating from Iran and trying to deliver weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen have been intercepted in international waters. Despite signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran has proceeded with provocative missile tests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini stating that the future lies in missiles and not in negotiations.
The net result of these developments is that with the new leadership in place, and with a regional strategic environment that increasingly threatens the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia has opted for an assertive shift in its foreign policy thinking, away from dependence on external security providers and toward a more independent and sustainable policy posture. The clear opinion in the Kingdom is that inaction is more costly than action. What Saudi Arabia has in essence done is to fill the vacuum left by the United States in the Middle East during the Obama administration.
There can be no doubt that Saudi Arabia continues to have many common interests with the United States, especially in the areas of energy and economic ties, defense, as well as regional security. At the same time, it must be understood that the region looks different when viewed from Riyadh than from Washington. In this context, the policy toward Iran is one critical example. While in the past, there was an agreement on the need to contain Iran, that consensus appears to no longer exist. Despite the fact that during the Camp David meeting, the US and the GCC agreed to “work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region,” Iran has continued with those activities unabated. This was always the concern of the GCC states. While the GCC welcomed the Vienna agreement on the nuclear issue, as a step in the right direction in terms of regional security, they also warned that it presents a premature reward for Iran that does not appear to respect its neighborhood.
The bottom line is that Saudi Arabia is not ready to sacrifice its security or regional stability to satisfy US assessments that it sees as wrong, shortsighted and risky. When President Obama lands in Riyadh this time around, he will find that GCC allies are not looking for security assurances or a commitment from the US to the stability of the region. Instead, he will find allies who will inform him about the steps they are ready to take in order to secure their interests and eliminate the threats against them.
The decision-makers in the GCC countries fully understand that the strategic environment around them is volatile. They also know that President Obama will leave office in less than a year. Given that relations with the US will rest to some degree on the policy of the new president, no one can predict how these relations will develop. But even so, Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states will no longer wait around in the hope that the next president might correct the course of US action. The time for waiting has passed.
US-Saudi and US-GCC relations are still grounded in the need for a strong alliance. But the US president needs to understand that the fight against Daesh will not succeed until a solution is implemented for a new Syria without President Assad and that a new chapter in relations with Iran cannot be opened until Tehran changes its policies toward its neighbors. In that sense, relations with the US might indeed be entering a new phase, one in which disagreements might increase but where ties also exist at a more even level.
The writer is Chairman of the Gulf Research Center.
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