US-Saudi Relations: A Cause for Concern?

by Clemens Chay

In May 2011, United States’ President Barack Obama spoke in Washington about the unfolding events in the Middle East. In his speech on the Arab Awakening, he failed to mention Saudi Arabia or make any direct reference to the longstanding US ally, yet he boldly endorsed a new democratic future for the Middle East and reinforced America’s position on the side of change when he proclaimed that “the status quo is not sustainable”.[1] In today’s political context where Saudi Arabia is known as the most fervent counterrevolutionary supporter of the Arab Spring, it seems that Obama’s move is worsening relations with his Saudi ally, King Abdullah. Yet, Obama’s refusal to mention his Saudi counterpart indicates the quiet respect and concern he has for the US-Saudi relations, and he will most likely eventually speak to the “Saudi elephant” in private. On the other hand, the Saudi Arabian government has outlined an approach that is quite contrary to the Obama vision, stating their desire to embark on an “assertive” new foreign policy, independent of Washington, on the grounds that “there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability,”[2] wrote journalist Suzanne Maloney. The growing gap between the two countries’ foreign policies is noticeable, but Saudi Arabia has historically been dependent on the US for external stability, with national security and regional hegemony being its most important concerns.

There has been growing speculation about a breaking within the US-Saudi alliance, and the political context of the Arab Spring has certainly been a catalyst in causing a rift between the two powers. It has forced the two countries to take opposing sides. Riyadh has become the de facto leader of the counterrevolution in the Middle East, shoring up its borders, tamping down neighbouring unrest and creating an alliance with the six Arabian Peninsula monarchies whose sole purpose is to quell any revolutionary movement.[3] The Saudi’s quest to maintain stability in the region is met with Obama’s demands for pro-democracy reforms in the region and his support for the Arab peoples.

The political impact of the Arab Spring cannot be understated: it has created a greater divide between the two powers through two key events, firstly through the disagreement over the treatment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In a testy telephone call on January 29, King Abdullah told the US President not to humiliate Mr Mubarak and threatened to step in with funding for Egypt if the US withdrew its $1.5 billion (USD) a year aid program.[4] The Saudi decision to lend financial support to Egypt has proved to be a disappointment for Washington. The White House’s efforts, on the other hand, comprised of calling on Egyptian leaders to end the harassment of activists and to broaden negotiations with opposition leaders.[5] The Egyptian crisis marked a “head-on” contact between the two administrations which had differing interests.

The second key event lies in Bahrain. While Saudi Arabia’s solution to the recent uprising in the Bahrain was suppression, the US backed the call for major democratic reforms. The Al Khalifa monarchy was, of course, placed in a difficult position. Saudi Arabia’s desire to use force was not initially fulfilled, due to countervailing pressure from the US, which keeps a fleet in Bahrain’s port.[6] Yet, the Saudi alliance pressed on with the entry of a 4000-strong Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council force that has helped the Bahraini forces terrorize the local Shiite population.[7] The Saudi decision to crush the Bahraini rebellion could be seen as a key representation of the US-Saudi divide, with the US having staged an attempt to prevent this. Furthermore, the Saudi press dismissed American and European criticism of the operation, including President Obama’s May speech on the Arab Spring, as “drivel”.[8] That said, the events of the Arab Spring have hastened the souring of their relationship, caused by the polarization of positions.

Is there no way back to former cordial US-Saudi relations? Has the Arab Spring shown the true differences in their foreign policies? How will problems between the two be solved? Only time will tell.


[1]Suzanne Maloney, “The Alliance that dare not speak its name,” Saban Center for Middle East Policy, http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2011/0520_obama_middle_east_maloney.aspx?p=1

[2]Ibid.

[3]Bruce Riedel, “Brezhnev in the Hejaz,” The National Interest, http://nationalinterest.org/article/brezhnev-the-hejaz-5733

[4]The Times, “Back off Hosni Mubarak, Saudi King warns Barack Obama,” The Australian, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/back-off-hosni-mubarak-saudi-king-abdullah-warns-barack-obama/story-e6frg6so-1226003947985

[5]Ibid.

[6]Jackson Diehl, “Amidst the Mideast protests, where is Saudi Arabia?” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/24/AR2011022407511.html

[7]Lee Smith, “Middle Eastern Upheavals: Weakening Washington’s Middle East Influence,” Middle East Quarterly (Summer, 2011): 9.

[8]Bruce Riedel, “Brezhnev in the Hejaz,” The National Interest, http://nationalinterest.org/article/brezhnev-the-hejaz-5733

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