Saudi Arabia’s America problem

It would be unwise of Saudi Arabia to prolong its feud with the US.

Saudi Arabia’s litany of complaints against the United States of America appears to be growing. In October last year, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud bin Faisal al-Saud cancelled his address to the United Nations General Assembly over the US’s lack of commitment to Saudi Arabia’s objectives in Syria. Then in November, Saudi Arabia rejected a seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)– a seat for which it had lobbied for support until the vote– citing “double standards” in the UNSC on the war in Syria.  Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan then warned of a “major shift” in relations with the US over Syria and indicated that he “plans to limit interaction with the US.”

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis appear to have taken exception to the US’s response (or lack thereof) to popular uprisings in the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia was upset that the US chose to remain on the sidelines while their ally Hosni Mubarak faced a revolution of the likes that Egypt had not witnessed since 1952.  As unrest spread closer to home in Bahrain, a nervous Saudi Arabia scrambled fighter aircraft and deployed troops to defend its neighbour, despite US pressure. More recently, as the US partly withdrew aid to the Egyptian army for overthrowing an elected (if vociferously anti-American) Muslim Brotherhood government, Saudi Arabia heaped praise on the Egyptian army and compensated it with the aid the US had withdrawn.

To be sure, fissures in the US-Saudi relationship are not sudden; both countries have been at odds with each other over the Israel-Palestine dispute, Saudi Arabia’s nurturing of fundamentalist strains of Islam (particularly after the 9/11 attacks), and on human rights and democracy promotion.  More recently, the US’s disinclination to intervene on behalf of Arab dictators and monarchs whom it once cultivated, and the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran, seem to have shaken Saudi Arabia’s assumptions about regional security.

The energy-for-security arrangement that the two countries once had is eroding.  For the US, its historic reliance on Middle Eastern oil is being replaced by alternative, and significantly, domestic sources of energy.  Indeed, a report by the International Energy Agency projects that the US’s substantial investments in shale gas will make it the world’s largest oil producer by 2015.  Equally for Saudi Arabia, China, not the US, is now its largest importer of oil.  These changes mean that the events in the Middle East no longer enjoy the priority they once did for the US; indeed, active engagement on issues other than Iran are not as necessary as they once were.

These evolving realities may provide context to Saudi Arabia’s grandstanding on the global stage.  However, its actions risk causing further damage to a relationship that it needs more than the US.  Although Saudi Arabia may not be in a position to dictate US policy priorities in the region as it once did, its dependence on the US as a net security provider in the region has not lessened.  Three realities confront Saudi Arabia if it continues to go down a path that could be detrimental to its own interests.

First, Saudi Arabia’s proxy war with Iran in Syria will increase instability in an already volatile Middle East. For all its self-proclaimed clout, Saudi Arabia has not been able to bring about a decisive resolution to the conflict in Syria to its satisfaction. It has attempted to goad the US into direct military action against Syria without success. It also chastised US and Russia over their September 2013 agreement on the destruction and removal of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

However, Saudi Arabia has itself shied away from conventional military action in Syria.  Instead, it has chosen to fund a proxy war in Syria against al-Assad’s regime by unleashing thousands of “holy warriors” trained with Pakistan’s help.  Saudi Arabia is ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with the repercussions that a prolonged and bloody civil war in Syria will have on the rest of the region.

Second, any attempt in Saudi Arabia to make good on its threat to embark on a “major shift” in ties with the US will need to consider that the only power in the region willing and able to defend against Iranian adventurism is the US.  China may have indeed replaced the US as Saudi Arabia’s primary customer for oil, but is unlikely to be interested in any role as a net security provider in the Gulf.  China may supply military hardware to the Gulf’s monarchies, as evidenced by news of the sale of DF-21 medium-range ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in 2007, or the Kingdom’s interest in purchasing JF-17 fighter aircraft jointly built by China and Pakistan, but the possibility of Beijing deploying its military forces in the Gulf is remote.

Without a security guarantor and faced with a resurgence in popular uprisings against Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia could seek Pakistan’s assistance in quelling these protests.  Indeed, Al-Jazeera reported the presence of at least 2,500 soldiers from Pakistan being brought to Bahrain in 2011 and tasked with “suppressing Shia protesters.”  But another disproportionate response to a sectarian uprising in Bahrain will exacerbate tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Iran and Pakistan.  Worse, if Saudi Arabia makes good on its threat to seek nuclear weapons with Pakistan’s assistance, it will substantially and negatively contribute to its own insecurity.

And third, the Peninsula Shield Force (PSF), a collective defence agreement within the framework of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) is unlikely to be an effective replacement to a US military presence in the region.  While the PSF played a key role in the 2011 uprising in Bahrain, its effectiveness in being able to direct complex operations in a conventional military confrontation with Iran is questionable.  For one, Oman, a member of the GCC that enjoys cordial relations with Iran and played a key role in facilitating US-Iran talks, is unlikely to participate.  Two, although the PSF was created in 1982, it proved to be singularly incapable of either deterring Saddam Hussein or protecting Kuwait in 1991.  And although plans are afoot to expand the PSF to 100,000 troops, its ability to act as a cohesive unit against Iran is uncertain.

Ultimately, the US is the only viable security guarantor for the Gulf’s monarchies in the short to mid-term and it would be unwise of Saudi Arabia to prolong its feud with the US.  Some priorities may have changed as a result of evolving geopolitical realities, and Saudi Arabia should consider how to address gaps emanating from those changes in a more constructive manner.  The US, for its part, not be overly concerned with Saudi Arabia’s public and capricious outbursts.

Photo: familymwr