Why Saudi Arabia Is No Longer the Powerhouse It Once Was

Military analysis.
Oct. 28 2013 12:11 PM

A Royal Pain

Saudi Arabia’s differences with the Obama administration are tied to the kingdom’s weakening position in the world.

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Prince Bandar Sultan al-Saud, left, shakes hands with Vladimir Putin in Astrakhan, southwestern Russia, on Sept. 4, 2008. Bandar knows, though, that Russia couldn't offer Saudi Arabia the kind of assistance the United States does.

Photo by ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Are the Saudis about to call it quits with America? They’re certainly trying to make President Obama think so. Last week Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar Sultan al-Saud, told European diplomats that the kingdom was losing trust in Obama’s judgment and may reassess the whole long, tight web of relations between the two governments.

Some of Obama’s recent actions rub Saudi interests the wrong way. But this is only to say that the United States and Saudi interests are increasingly diverging.

Prince Bandar—a very shrewd operator who for many years was the Saudi ambassador in Washington—surely understands that if Obama succeeds at some of his new ventures, especially with Iran and Syria, the Saudi Kingdom will suffer a loss of power in the Middle East. He probably also notices, as many analysts have, that the objective basis of the strategic alliance between Riyadh and Washington—America’s dependence on Saudi oil—is eroding.

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And so, what’s really going on here is a high-stakes power game. The Saudis are playing a bit of highway chicken, warning Obama that if he continues down this path, the Saudis will go elsewhere. Obama’s task amounts to a diplomatic balancing act: to convince the Saudis that the rift is not as wide as Bandar is suggesting, while at the same time making it clear that our interests in the Middle East are not as wrapped up with the desires or fate of the royal family as they used to be.

This clash of interests has been brewing for some time. In 2011, during the early days of the Arab Spring, the Saudi royals expressed their alarm at Obama’s refusal to rescue Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from his street-demanded ouster (as if any American president could, much less should, have saved Mubarak’s skin). This past summer, the Saudis were once again enraged by Obama’s less-than-full support for the Egyptian generals’ overthrow of the elected president, Mohammed Morsi—and even more flummoxed by his calls for them not to ban Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party.

Since then, from Riyadh’s vantage, the picture has only worsened. First, Obama called off his much-threatened cruise missile strike against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Then, perhaps most serious of all, Obama made diplomatic overtures to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and is now engaged in formal negotiations to retract economic sanctions in exchange for a drastic cutback in Iran’s nuclear program.

All these actions must be viewed in the context of the Sunni-Shiite conflict that is gripping the entire Middle East and that, if tensions escalate, could plunge the region into war. The Saudi royal family sees itself as the leading Sunni power in this faceoff and the Egyptian regime—first under Mubarak, now under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—as its most stalwart ally. The royals see the Iranians as their major rival and the Syrians as the Iranians’ agent in support of Shiite terrorist groups in Lebanon, Gaza, and beyond.

In this framework, President Obama is declining to support Sunni leaders and declining to bomb—when not outright cozying up to—Shiite leaders.

For Riyadh, this amounts to perfidy. The Saudis want to fight the Sunni-Shiite war. They want to see the Muslim Brotherhood wiped out, Assad’s Syria pummeled, and, though they can’t so say openly (in part because the unmentionable Israel, or its interests, would be involved), they would like to see somebody blow up Iran’s nuclear sites and, if possible, its regime, too.

Prince Bandar is upset, in short, because Obama doesn’t want to fight this war. But the problem—and Bandar must know this—isn’t just Obama. No American president—not even the Bushes, who had warm relations with the Saudis—would want to fight this war, because U.S. interests dictate a very different view of the region. We wouldn’t fit on either side of a Sunni-Shiite war; we have allies and adversaries on both. The terrorists of al-Qaida and its affiliates are Sunni (and, by the way, they’ve received much support over the decades from the Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrassas). The regime of Nouri al-Maliki, which George W. Bush helped install in Iraq, is Shiite. The Shiite mullahs of Iran share an interest—which has sat dormant for a while but could be reactivated—in helping keep the Taliban or al-Qaida from retaking power in Afghanistan. And then there’s Israel, which is another matter entirely.

In other words, the chief U.S. interest in the Middle East—and it resonates with U.S. values as well—is to dampen the fever for war. To the extent the Obama administration has threatened or taken military action, it has been for limited aims, which have little to do with the Sunni-Shiite divide.

At times Obama and his aides have made policy in incredibly ungainly ways. But the policies themselves have wind up grounded in U.S. interests. Prince Bandar has discovered something that was masked by the Cold War, when all politics were viewed in light of the U.S.-Soviet standoff and the two superpowers helped suppress the odd eruption of internal chaos: Our interests don’t always coincide with his.

So are the Saudi rulers going to walk away from this decades-long alliance? Not likely. First, they have nowhere else to go. The Saudi army and air force are structured along the lines of the American military, which provides them with tremendous amounts of weaponry, support, and training. The French and Russians could offer some assistance, but not nearly as much—and their political interests and alliances wouldn’t align so neatly with the Saudis’ either.

In fact, Bandar’s stratagem may reflect a growing awareness of Saudi weakness. Figures released earlier this month reveal that the United States has overtaken Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest supplier of petroleum. To put it another way: The Saudis need our arms more than we need their oil.

Even Bandar’s most stunning signal of disenchantment with Washington—his announcement that the Saudis will not accept a seat on the U.N. Security Council, after years of lobbying for the honor—may be more an acknowledgment of this equation. Had Saudi Arabia joined the U.N.’s highest body, it would have been seen as part of the U.S. voting bloc, and whenever it voted differently from the United States, the difference would be dramatized. Perhaps Bandar, recognizing that there might be frequent differences, would prefer that they not be highlighted.

That doesn’t mean that the United States will, or should, shrug off Bandar’s diatribe. Obama has already dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to assuage Saudi concerns, noting that we still value the strategic relationship, that the emerging détente with Iran is tentative, and that, when it comes to a nuclear deal, we regard a bad agreement as worse than no agreement.

The storm will probably soon blow over. Meanwhile, it may be a good thing, an acknowledgment of new realities, for Saudi Arabia—for all the countries of the Middle East—to pursue more flexible diplomatic arrangements. It would be good if the region’s leaders neither relied so heavily, nor blamed their own ailments so conspiratorially, on the United States.

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