The United States and its European partners must have breathed a sigh of relief over the smooth succession in Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah on Jan. 22. Within hours, the royal household announced that Crown Prince Salman was the new king. The quick settlement silenced all observers who had anticipated power struggles within the house of Saud and gave reassuring signals that it's business as usual in the most important kingdom for the strategic interests of the United States and its partners. Yet, the United States must not become complacent over the many challenges facing its troubled relations with the house of Saud over the coming years.
The first challenge stems from the United States increasing closeness to Saudi Arabia’s archenemy and rival, namely Iran. Despite reassurances that the United States remains the most loyal guarantor of Saudi security and interests, its developing relations with Iran is always interpreted as a sign of abandonment by past and present Saudi monarchs. Neither deceased King Abdullah nor current King Salman demonstrated willingness to accept the United States' superficial rapprochement with Iran, simply because the Saudis had got used to being the main and only US partner in the region, following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and increasingly so after the Arab uprisings.
If the United States had gradually gone beyond the 1979 US-Iranian fallout and the US hostage crisis in Tehran after the revolution, the Saudis have locked themselves into a long rivalry with Iran and developed hostilities that cannot be easily overcome. They were driven by a simple logic that they can replace Iran as the main force in the region, and built this logic on sectarian rather than political considerations. Once conflicts are clothed in sectarian garb, it becomes increasingly difficult for the Saudis to change or reverse policies. Of course the Saudis can initiate clandestine relations and reconciliation with Iran, but they risk losing face among their domestic constituency and other anti-Iranian forces in the Arab region.
Any Saudi rapprochement with Iran will automatically be interpreted as a sign of Saudi defeat and Iranian triumph. This zero-sum game is thoroughly entrenched in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world. Negotiation and compromise have both disappeared in foreign relations and political practices. The domestic and regional polarization has gone too far, thus leaving little room for politics as a field driven by both competition and negotiation rather than utter victory or defeat.
The Saudis would need to invest great energy in explaining their policy change toward Iran and demonstrate the gains that follow such a turn. They have to convince their constituency that Saudi Arabia’s national interest is enhanced by a reconciliation with Iran, for instance the containment of the Shiites in the eastern province, and the resolution of the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni conflicts. The tense Saudi-Iranian relations have fuelled these conflicts, and there is no sign on the horizon that they will be resolved in the near future. In fact, all signs point in the opposite direction, especially with the recent Iranian gains after the Houthis established their precarious rule over northern Yemen, where Saudi Arabia had enjoyed unrivaled hegemony since the 1930s.
The United States may not be under such pressure to explain its new reconciliatory policies toward Iran, but the Saudis wanted and still want a complete triumph over Iran. The flexibility of Saudi foreign policies over other conflicts does not seem to be apparent here, especially when Iran is seen as continuing to expand in Saudi Arabia’s backyard. The feeling is rather uncomfortable inside Saudi Arabia, as it is now encircled by Iran from the north — in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq — with only little Jordan acting as a buffer zone, and from the south in Yemen. King Salman must convince the region and his domestic constituency that a possible reconciliation with Iran will help Saudi Arabia regain its vanishing sphere of influence in those areas of the Arab world where it had enjoyed undisputed supremacy. Saudi Arabia may continue to pour resources in the hot spots but in addition to draining its massive oil wealth reserves, the policy has so far proved to yield bad or little gain. With oil prices sinking to a record low, Saudis may begin to ask uncomfortable questions about their bad investments in conflicts such as the one in Syria and Yemen. While the United States is more flexible on the Iranian reconciliation, the Saudis — its most important partner — do not seem to be ready to change simply because the stakes are so high for the Saudi leadership. The new king may put the United States under new pressures to choose between him and Iran, if US partnership with the Saudis is to continue. Alternatively, the United States must work harder to push for a detente between the two rival powers under its umbrella.
Besides this foreign policy challenge, the United States will face another tricky and complex issue related to its partnership with a regime that is increasingly seen as an anachronism, especially its unchanging abysmal record on human rights. The United States must explain to Americans how it is going to defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria when its most important partner in this conflict has so much in common with the declared enemy. Contrary to common wisdom, Saudi Arabia is not a medieval theocracy but a modern state endowed with incredible resources that allow it to control the lives of its citizens in unsavory ways. From surveillance and abuse of human rights to public beheadings and lashings, not to mention the severe restrictions on freedom of speech and association and the total absence of political representation, Saudi Arabia must be on top of the list of regimes that ordinary Americans abhor. Previously, various US administrations did not come under great pressure to explain its partnership with Saudi Arabia, but now ordinary Americans are fully aware of the Saudi domestic situation, thanks to the proliferation of media, pressure groups and global civil society.
Of course, the US administration can continue to ignore local opinions pressurizing it to act and push Saudis toward real domestic political change. But for how long? The US relationship with Saudi Arabia survived the 9/11 attacks, leaving behind unsettled issues and unanswered questions. Like his predecessors, US President Barack Obama preferred to manage the relationship with Saudi Arabia rather than rock the boat. His overture toward Iran must be understood as one way of diversifying American partners in the region, which is seriously resented by the Saudi leadership.
The United States and other Western partners prefer to deal with the tricky Saudi internal domestic politics behind closed doors, for instance its record on human rights and lack of political reform. The West claims that so-called private diplomacy works better as it does not antagonize the Saudi regime, shame it in public or put it under unnecessary direct pressure. This may continue in the future but there is always the risk of being accused of hypocrisy and double standards — both have been a characteristic of Western relations with authoritarian regimes for a long time.
No one is asking the United States to intervene publicly or privately in Saudi domestic politics on behalf of those detained prisoners of conscience held in Saudi Arabia for years, or call on the Saudis to change their absolute monarchy into a constitutional one, but at least the Americans can stop praising the Saudi regime for its imaginary and illusory reforms, like one encourages a child to perform minor good deeds. The United States should reconsider its policy on arming regimes and providing them with the latest training in repression and surveillance when they aggressively pursue a policy that ignores all international human and political rights. Only few on the Saudi and American side are convinced that this military side of the relationship is for fighting terrorism as exposure in the media points out that, as always, the main targets are civilians whose peaceful dissenting voices pose more threats to the regime than violent dissidents.
Countries with human rights records comparable to Saudi Arabia's may not be so concerned and will continue to seek Saudi wealth in return for lavish contracts. But unlike these countries, the United States is proud of its values and what it stands for. It has befriended dictators for a long time, and now is the right moment to reconsider a relationship that has been troubled from the time of its inception in the post-World War II period. It's time to put the record straight and demonstrate that realpolitik is not always right. The unintended consequences of this proved to be more damaging to US interests as it antagonized militants who targeted the United States itself, dubbed as the far enemy, simply because it continued to back regimes that oppressed the majority of the population.
It might seem like business as usual, but one must ponder whether it's better to antagonize a regime or win the population under its control. With the new monarchical era starting in Saudi Arabia, the United States has tough choices to make.
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