Are the Saudis about to call it quits with America? Theyâ€™re certainly trying to make President Obama think so. Last week Saudi Arabiaâ€™s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar Sultan al-Saud, told European diplomats that the kingdom was losing trust in Obamaâ€™s judgment and may reassess the whole long and tight web of relations between the two governments.
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 Obamaâ€™s refusal to rescue Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from his street-demanded ouster (as if any American president could, much less should, have saved Mubarakâ€™s skin). This past summer, the Saudis were once again enraged by Obamaâ€™s less-than-full support for the Egyptian generalsâ€™ overthrow of the elected president, Mohammed Morsiâ€”and even more flummoxed by his calls for them not to ban Morsiâ€™s Muslim Brotherhood party.
Since then, from Riyadhâ€™s vantage, the picture has only worsened. First, Obama called off his much-threatened cruise missile strike against the Syrian government. Then, perhaps most serious of all, Obama made diplomatic overtures to Iranâ€™s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and is now engaged in formal negotiations to retract economic sanctions in exchange for a drastic cutback in Iranâ€™s nuclear program.
All these actions must be viewed in the context of the Sunni-Shia 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 regimeâ€”first under Mubarak, now under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisiâ€”as its most stalwart ally. The royals see the Iranians as their major rival and the Syrians as the Iraniansâ€™ ally in support of Shia groups in Lebanon, Gaza, and beyond.
In this framework, President Obama is declining to support Sunni leaders and declining to bombâ€”when not outright cozying up toâ€”Shia leaders.
For Riyadh, this amounts to perfidy. The Saudis want to fight the Sunni-Shia war. They want to see the Muslim Brotherhood wiped out, Assadâ€™s Syria pummeled, and, though they canâ€™t so say openly (in part because the unmentionable Israel, or its interests, would be involved), they would like to see somebody blow up Iranâ€™s nuclear sites and, if possible, its government, too.
Prince Bandar is upset, in short, because Obama doesnâ€™t want to fight this war. But the problemâ€”and Bandar must know thisâ€”isnâ€™t just Obama. No American presidentâ€”not even the Bushes, who had warm relations with the Saudisâ€”would want to fight this war, because US interests dictate a very different view of the region. We wouldnâ€™t fit on either side of a Sunni-Shia war; we have allies and adversaries on both. The terrorists of al-Qaeda and its affiliates are Sunni (Takfiris) (and, by the way, theyâ€™ve received much support over the decades from the Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrassas). The government of Nouri al-Maliki, which George W. Bush helped install in Iraq, is Shia. The Shia authorities of Iran share an interest in helping keep the Taliban or al-Qaeda from retaking power in Afghanistan. And then thereâ€™s Israel, which is another matter entirely.
In other words, the chief US interest in the Middle Eastâ€”and it resonates with US values as wellâ€”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-Shia divide.
At times Obama and his aides have made policy in incredibly ungainly ways. But the policies themselves have wind up grounded in US interests. Prince Bandar has discovered something that was masked by the Cold War, when all politics were viewed in light of the US-Soviet standoff and the two superpowers helped suppress the odd eruption of internal chaos: Our interests donâ€™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 muchâ€”and their political interests and alliances wouldnâ€™t align so neatly with the Saudisâ€™ either.
In fact, Bandarâ€™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 worldâ€™s biggest supplier of petroleum. To put it another way: The Saudis need our arms more than we need their oil.
Even Bandarâ€™s most stunning signal of disenchantment with Washingtonâ€”his announcement that the Saudis will not accept a seat on the UN Security Council, after years of lobbying for the honorâ€”may be more an acknowledgment of this equation. Had Saudi Arabia joined the UNâ€™s highest body, it would have been seen as part of the US 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 doesnâ€™t mean that the United States will, or should, shrug off Bandarâ€™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 dÃ©tente 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 Arabiaâ€”for all the countries of the Middle Eastâ€”to pursue more flexible diplomatic arrangements. It would be good if the regionâ€™s leaders neither relied so heavily, nor blamed their own ailments so conspiratorially, on the United States.
By Fred Kaplan for www.slate.com