Saudi Arabia Will Lead From the Front While Obama Leads From Behind
When national leaders visit another nation, the typical theme is the close relations the two nations share. Not this time. Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia is seen by many as an attempt to mollify a traditional ally that has been drifting away from America in the past five years.
After decades of working closely with Washington, Saudi Arabia is pursuing its own foreign policy, which is frequently in conflict with Obama’s foreign policy. The reasons are many, but the kingdom sees current American policy as destabilizing the region and threatening the current pro-American governments in the Middle East.
The course of the” Arab Spring” heightened the concerns. In Egypt, Obama sided with the Muslim Brotherhood and supported the overthrowing a pro-American leader – Mubarak. That, in turn, heightened Saudi anxiety with fears that Washington might back the Brotherhood in a power grab in the kingdom. That concern grew when the Brotherhood were accused of plotting a coup in Abu Dhabi and Obama ignored it.
Nor has Obama helped improve stability within the region. In the Saudi eyes, Obama has ignored the war in Syria and allowed radicals to gain influence in that war torn country. He announced “red lines” on Syria but ended up giving Russia the final say in shaping US policy towards Syria.
Saudi Arabia is also concerned with America’s refusal to contain Iran. The Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait are all concerned about what they see as Obama’s “caving in” to the mullahs in Tehran. Obviously, Iran’s nuclear program is the major concern.
The result is that a nation that relies on subtle diplomacy has made it quite clear that Saudi Arabia and the US are embarking on different foreign policy courses.
Saudi National Security Council head Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi Ambassador to the United States from 1983 until 2005, has said that Saudi Arabia will make a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest what Saudis regard as American inaction over Syria’s internal war, among other factors.
A recent Reuter’s article cited an unnamed source close to Saudi policy as expressing a similar view. “The shift away from the U.S. is a major one,” Reuters quoted the source saying. “Saudi doesn’t want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent.”
“Prince Bandar told diplomats that he plans to limit interaction with the U.S.,” continued the source. “This happens after the U.S. failed to take any effective action on Syria and Palestine. Relations with the U.S. have been deteriorating for a while, as Saudi feels that the U.S. is growing closer with Iran and the U.S. also failed to support Saudi during the Bahrain uprising.”
A Washington Post article last October said that Saudi King Abdullah privately expressed his frustration with U.S. policy in a lunch in Riyadh two days earlier with King Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the U.A.E., citing “a knowledgeable Arab official.” The Saudi monarch “is convinced the U.S. is unreliable,” this official said. “I don’t see a genuine desire to fix it” on either side, he added. Post reporter David Ignatius related that in the fall of 2011, Saudi officials in Riyadh told him that that they increasingly regarded the United States as unreliable and would look elsewhere for a partner to bolster their security. Ignatius noted that “Obama’s reaction to these reports was to be peeved that the Saudis didn’t recognize all that the U.S. was doing to help their security, behind the scenes,” but he believes that the problem lies not so much in U.S. actions but in our failure, diplomatically, to reassure the Saudis that we have their best interests in mind.
At the same time, The Daily Mail quoted a statement from Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former director of Saudi intelligence, who called Obama’s policies in Syria “lamentable.” Prince Turki continued, “The current charade of international control over Bashar’s [Assad’s] chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. And designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down (from military strikes), but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”
Another, more long term concern, is America’s growing energy independence. Saudi Arabia has always been considered a major ally since it was the world’s largest petroleum producer. Now that the US has taken that position, the kingdom’s importance to Washington is lessened.
The decline of Saudi Arabia’s influence and the normalization of relations between Iran and the Obama Administration are a concern. Before the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, America and Iran were close allies and Iran was seen as the key ally in the region. Former national Security Advisor and Secretary of State Kissinger even said that Iran and the US had similar strategic interests. That being the case, it’s a logical concern that the US and Iran could once again become close allies, to the detriment of the GCC nations.
Saudi Policy – Can It Diverge From American Policy?
Although Saudi Arabia is seeking new alliances, it has limited options, considering its strategic interests.
Syria is now the main focus of Saudi Arabia’s attention in the region and much has to do with its rivalry with Iran. The Saudis consider the struggle between Assad and his opponents a proxy war against their own main adversary, Iran. The Kingdom has been the primary source of financing and weaponry for Syrian rebel forces fighting Assad’s army, which is backed heavily by Iran and Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia has also focused on keeping pro-Saudi governments in power within the region by deploying forces in Bahrain during Arab Spring rioting and supporting the removal of Morsi in Egypt last year. These moves also helped curb Iran’s influence in the region.
However, when considering the big picture, Saudi Arabia has few options to work with. Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2001-03, has said there would be limits to any Saudi alliances with other powers. “There is no country in the world more capable of providing the protection of their oil fields, and their economy, than the U.S., and the Saudis are aware of that. We’re not going to see them jump out of that orbit,” he said.
The major reason is Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran.
Russia, the chief competitor for influence in the region is closely allied with Iran and actively supporting Assad in Syria. In fact, Russian nuclear help at Bushehr has helped Iran move towards its goal of becoming a nuclear power. This makes them an unlikely substitute for America, especially since Russia can’t provide the level of military protection that the US offers.
China is also a poor choice for an alliance. Iran relies upon China’s membership and especially Chinese veto power on the Security Council to protect it from UN or US led sanctions. In 1980, China refused to support the UN arms embargo against Iran and abstained from voting on US-based sanctions against Iran as well. China is also a major supplier of missiles and missile technology to Iran. And, it is Iranian operated, Chinese missiles in the Strait of Hormuz that threaten Saudi oil shipments
In the end, the probable beneficiary of a break in US/Saudi relations would be France. The Kingdom has worked closely with France on several issues that concern Saudi Arabia like Syria and the Iranian nuclear deal. France held a tougher line with Iran on the nuclear program than Obama and it has some influence in the region as the former colonial power in the Levant. France is also a major arms supplier to Saudi Arabia.
France also offers the ability to protect the Saudi oil fields if necessary. Although not as militarily capable as the US, France does have a rapid reaction force that could move into the Kingdom quickly if necessary. Given recent events in Africa, they also seem more willing to act quickly than the US.
Britain, also offers some of the same advantages as France. It was a colonial power in the region, still has interests in the Middle East, and has a mobile military that can quickly react if necessary.
However, in the end, the US offers the Saudis advantages that offset the current disagreements. Saudi foreign policy is more in line with US foreign policy than that of the other major powers. A major change of alliances would not change that.
In the end, Saudi Arabia will probably wait the current administration out. Comments by high ranking Saudi officials make it clear that their problem is with the unreliable American president, not America as a whole. Saudi King Abdullah doesn’t trust Obama and another member of the Saudi royal family was quoted in the Daily Mail as accusing Obama of “dithering” on Syria and the Israeli/Palestinian issue.
Nor, is Obama likely to change course in the Middle East. More ideological and dogmatic than pragmatic, Obama has shown a tendency to stick to his policies even after they have proven to be faulty – comments on the Ukraine and Obamacare being prime examples.
That being the case, some officials in Saudi Arabia believes that their interests may be best served by waiting out Obama and his foreign policy. Obama’s foreign policy only receives a 40% approval rating in the AP poll released this week. A new American president will be elected in another 2 and ½ years and considering the criticism being leveled at Obama by both Republicans and Democrats for his foreign policy, the chances that his policy will outlive his presidency are limited.
In the meantime, Saudi Arabia will continue to exercise a more aggressive foreign policy that meets its strategic interests. It will continue to counter Iranian influence by supporting rebels in Syria. It will probably work closer with European powers to hinder the Iranian nuclear program. And, it will work behind the scenes with Israel to neutralize Iran if it does get close to building a nuclear weapon.
Saudi Arabia’s other major interest will be pursue a degree of political stability within the region in order to maintain the continued reign of the House of Saud. It has shown a willingness to support friendly governments in Egypt and Bahrain and will continue to do so. It will remain a bone of contention between the kingdom and Obama, but one that will not cause Obama to act.
Afghanistan–Pakistan: U.S. Must Ensure that Its Military Gear Does Not Exacerbate Regional Tensions
By Lisa Curtis
March 24, 2014
Issue Brief #4178
After 12 years of fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan and failing to convince Pakistani leaders to crack down decisively on terrorist bases on their side of the border, American military planners are considering providing Pakistan with billions in leftover equipment from the war. A Washington Post story from last weekend indicates that U.S. military planners are in discussions with their Pakistani counterparts about the possibility of leaving behind, for Pakistani use, armored vehicles and other equipment deemed too expensive to ship back to the U.S. While giving the Pakistanis U.S. military equipment, including mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, might make sense from a cost and logistical standpoint, the U.S. also needs to take into account the impact of such decisions on regional security dynamics. Washington should ensure that any military equipment it leaves in Pakistan does not exacerbate regional tensions. Washington should also condition the transfer of such military equipment on Islamabad’s meeting certain counterterrorism benchmarks, including cracking down on groups that are destabilizing Afghanistan, such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.
U.S. Missile Defense Policy After Russia’s Actions in Ukraine
By Michaela Dodge
March 21, 2014
Issue Brief #4177
Russia has invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in blatant disregard of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and international law. Russia’s crude steps carry important implications for U.S. missile defense policy. Currently, the Administration’s policy is not to affect the “strategic balance” with Russia in terms of ballistic missiles. In reality, there is no strategic balance between the two countries. Given Russia’s demonstrated willingness to use force to alter nations’ boundaries and act against U.S. interests, it is clear that the U.S. should expand its ballistic missile defense to protect itself and its allies from Russia’s ballistic missiles.
Iraq in Crisis
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 24, 2014
This most recent draft of Iraq in Crisis has been revised to take into account of outside comments covering the trends in violence, Iraq’s political crisis, the role of Al Qaeda in Iraq, problems in Iraq’s security forces, and challenges with the Iraqi economy and petroleum sector. In addition, numerous tables and charts have been added, adjusted, and update to serve as reference. These include data on Iraq’s security forces and the trends in casualties and the rising rate of Iraq’s internal violence.
Five Questions for Sisi, Egypt’s Man of Mystery
By Michele Dunne
March 26, 2014
Egyptians are about to hand the keys to their country to Field Marshal and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with very little sense of where he plans to take them. In fact, they know relatively little about Sisi himself, which is problematic given the mountain of challenges Egypt faces. And in announcing his candidacy on March 26—still in uniform, his last act as a soldier—Sisi gave only a few hints. Sisi emerged into public life only recently. As head of military intelligence, he was virtually unknown to the public until he cooperated with the then president, Mohamed Morsi, to ensure that he replaced Mohamed Hussein Tantawi as defense minister in August 2012 and then ousted Morsi in July 2013. Throughout the ensuing months of questions about whether he would install himself into Morsi’s job, Sisi has remained a man of mystery, receiving Egyptians’ popular adoration yet maintaining a public persona that is distant and undefined.
Egypt’s Unprecedented Instability by the Numbers
By Michele Dunne and Scott Williamson
March 24, 2014
Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses and terrorism in their recent history in the eight months since the military ousted then president Mohamed Morsi. The extent of this story has been largely obscured from view due to the lack of hard data, but estimates suggest that more than 2,500 Egyptians have been killed, more than 17,000 have been wounded, and more than 16,000 have been arrested in demonstrations and clashes since July 3. Another several hundred have been killed in terrorist attacks. These numbers exceed those seen even in Egypt’s darkest periods since the 1952 military-led revolution that would bring Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. They reflect a use of violence that is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern political history.
The fall of Yabroud and the Campaign for the Lebanese Border
By Isabel Nassief
Institute for the Study of War
March 24, 2014
Yabroud is located in the rugged terrain of the Qalamoun Mountains and sits astride the M5 highway which connects Damascus to Homs and the Mediterranean coast. Rebel control of Yabroud had disrupted the regime’s freedom of movement along the M5 highway and created a staging ground for rebel attacks against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. In mid- November 2013, the regime intensified operations to clear the area in order to regain control of the section of the M5 highway running from Qara to Yabroud. Regime forces supported by Hezbollah and National Defense Force (NDF) fighters pushed along the main highway moving from north to south, and seized Qara on November 15th, Deir Attiyah in late November, and an-Nabek in mid-December.1 Pro-regime forces then pressed towards Yabroud where their advance slowed until launching a renewed offensive against the town in February 2014.
Obama and the Churches of Saudi Arabia
By Nina Shea
March 21, 2014
When President Obama visits Saudi Arabia next week, he will have an opportunity to follow through on his inspiring words at the Feb. 6. National Prayer Breakfast. There, he told thousands of Christian leaders that “the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose” is central to “human dignity,” and so “promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.” The freedom so central to human dignity is denied by the Kingdom. The State Department has long ranked Saudi Arabia among the world’s most religiously repressive governments, designating it a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act. Yet the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has not pressed Riyadh to respect religious freedom.
Egypt‘s New Military Brass
By Gilad Wenig
March 26, 2014
Today, following months of speculation, Field Marshal Abdul Fatah al-Sisi announced his resignation as Egypt’s defense minister and his candidacy for president. Sedki Sobhi, former chief of staff under Sisi, has been promoted to colonel general — one rank below field marshal — and appointed as the new defense minister, while Mahmoud Hegazy, former director of military intelligence, has been promoted to lieutenant general and will be the new army chief of staff. The resultant restructuring of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will likely put some of Sisi’s closest allies in key positions and should provide him with a strong base of military support and influence once he wins the presidency as expected (click on the image below for a chart illustrating this projected restructuring).
Nuclear Kingdom: Saudi Arabia’s Atomic Ambitions
By Olli Heinonen and Simon Henderson
March 27, 2014
A major probable consequence of Iran achieving a nuclear weapons capability is that Saudi Arabia will seek to match it. With President Obama currently rating the chances of diplomatic success as 50-50 and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei giving a “zero” probability, this weekend’s U.S.-Saudi summit will be an opportunity to check whether Saudi planning can help the diplomacy rather than hinder it. In 2009, a Saudi royal decree announced that “the development of atomic energy is essential to meet the kingdom’s growing requirements for energy to generate electricity, produce desalinated water and reduce reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources.” In 2011, plans were announced for the construction of sixteen nuclear power reactors over the next twenty years at a cost of more than $80 billion. These would generate about 20 percent of Saudi Arabia’s electricity, while other, smaller reactors were envisaged for desalination.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
National Security Affairs Analyst
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