Obama’s Presidency Brings Uncertainty to Saudi-US Relations

Article Summary
The United States and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed close relations since the 1930s, and the Arab kingdom seeks to maintain these ties amid shifting regional dynamics, writes Mustafa al-Labbad.

An examination of the available indicators demonstrates that America's unique position in the global system remains intact, despite the relative decline it has suffered over the past two decades.

Building upon that, this article comes as the first in a series of analyses concerning the policies adopted by the new-old American President Barack Obama toward the up-and-coming regional powers in the Middle East: Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. We will attempt to review American policy in the coming four years toward each of these regional powers.

Here we will attempt to look at Obama's policy toward Saudi Arabia.

American-Saudi relations: a historical snapshot

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Great Britain extended its protective umbrella over Saudi Arabia during its confrontation with Turkey at the dawn of the 20th century. This effectively continued until the international balance of forces began to change with the US' gradual ascent to the position of leadership of the Western world. Even though America recognized the Saudi family's rule in 1931 — at the same time American oil companies began to operate the kingdom, when the Standard Oil of California Co. acquired exploration rights in the eastern region — relations only progressed to the level of a strategic alliance at the end of  World War II. At that point, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt extended American protection to Saudi Arabia, saying "the defense of Saudi Arabia is a vital interest for the defense of the United States of America."

Ever since that infamous meeting between the two leaders aboard the USS Quincy in February 1945, the alliance with the US, coupled with Saudi kingdom's dependence upon American military might in order to defend Saudi national security, has constituted the central pillar in Riyadh's calculations of its national interests. In other words, it laid the basis for a relationship between the two parties governed by an equation of "oil in exchange for security."

As the Cold War intensified, Saudi Arabia firmly aligned itself within the Western camp and Washington came to rely ever increasingly upon Saudi oil resources as one of the main pillars of its global leadership. When US President Richard M. Nixon announced he was taking the dollar off the gold standard and the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, the reason that the dollar's value did not collapse in world markets and American prestige suffered no decline was clearly that world oil markets valued the dollar and oil revenues eventually found their way into American banks. Thus was the dollar's global position preserved.

Saudi Arabia strengthened its regional and international position in the wake of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, raising oil prices dramatically in a short period of time following the war and bringing in massive revenues unprecedented in Saudi history. This permitted the kingdom to deepen its alliance with the US Despite the crushing, eight-year war between neighboring oil-exporters Iraq and Iran, and the inability of either country to export oil globally, the price of oil remained extremely low (fluctuating at around ten dollars per barrel) thanks to Saudi Arabia's production capacity and ability to augment global oil reserves. In short, Saudi Arabia pursued an oil policy in the global energy market (exporting ten million barrels of oil daily) in complete coordination with the US

Saudi Arabia also took special care to invest its oil surpluses in America, and the extent of these investments exceeded $6 trillion. In addition to that, Saudi Arabia imported the large majority of its military equipment from American companies. In so doing, the kingdom guaranteed itself major influence on the key nuclei of American decision-making circles: the financial lobby (through huge Saudi deposits in banks and American financial institutions), the oil lobby (through coordinating production and price levels on the oil market), and the military-industrial complex (through arms purchases). Bilateral Saudi-US ties experienced a period of major growth under the presidency of George H. W. Bush, thanks to his strong personal ties to the oil lobby, and the exceptional role played by Prince Bandar Bin Sultan in strengthening the relationship between the Saudi and Bush families.

Afterward, the situation changed with the September 11 attacks, which drastically undermined the image of the kingdom in America. They pushed Saudi Arabia to wage intensive and expensive public relations campaigns, organize "interfaith dialogue" conferences, and launch wide-ranging campaigns of public diplomacy designed to bolster their image as a partner of the United States upon which both the Middle East and the global energy market were based. As a result, former President George W. Bush directed America’s wrath and power away from Saudi Arabia and toward Iraq, which it occupied in the spring of 2003.

Despite that the occupation of Iraq struck at the foundations of the Arab regional order, the quagmire in which Bush found himself prevented him from expanding his project of the “Greater Middle East” throughout the region. This would have carried great risk to America's regional allies, foremost of which was Saudi Arabia. By contrast, the issues of Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict have dominated Obama's Middle Eastern interests in his first term. The inability of Saudi Arabia to assemble a strong regional front to confront Iran has prompted some in Washington to consider the prudence of maintaining the Saudi-American relationship at the same level.

Saudi Arabia in the new regional context

Saudi Arabia is surrounded by threats from all of its geographic neighbors: be it from the kingdom's northern reaches, given the situation in Iran-allied Syria, or to the northeast with Iraq's new, post-2003 political makeup, or from the east with the Gulf and Bahrain. From the southwest, there is instability in Yemen, with brutal battles being waged against the Houthis over the course of the last several years. All these threats — from the Saudi perspective — bear Iranian fingerprints. Indeed, this perception is so strong that Iran is now considered the No. 1 threat to Saudi Arabia.

Traditionally, Saudi regional interests had rested with an opposition to change and a preference for maintaining the regional status quo intact. Or, in other words, Saudi Arabia aggressively defends the status quo — and therein lies its greatest weakness. This can ultimately be ascribed to Saudi Arabia's adoption of a defensive posture against any power in the country that seeks to export a regional project transcending its own borders, irrespective of that project's content. For all that, Saudi Arabia has persistently worked to strengthen and cultivate the conservative religious and political trends in the region. In one respect, it has been successful in restraining liberal movements. But in another respect, it has paid a steep political price in the form of the emergence of radical and reactionary trends in the last two decades, with al-Qaeda being the prime example.

American-Iranian negotiations and the prospect of an emerging alliance between Turkey and Arab Spring states under an American umbrella haunt the kingdom, for they would provide Washington with a list of alternative regional allies.

The crisis of succession in Saudi Arabia

From another point of view, the question of succession in Saudi Arabia is one of supreme importance to Washington, not only to the Saudis. Solving the crisis institutionally would signal that Saudi Arabia is capable of continuing to play the role of a stable partner in the region. For some time, matters have been heading toward an open crisis in the transition of power in the kingdom. Given the successive reigns by princes of the Saudi royal family, the advanced age of the current Saudi King Abdullah (88 years old), and the presence of a single heir (Prince Salman, 77), the Saudi royal family had to demonstrate to the world that it was capable of self-renewal. And so Prince Muqrin Bin Abd al-Aziz (70) was appointed as the second Deputy Prime Minister in February 2013, as a temporary solution to the crisis.

Past experience has indicated that this position was used to groom candidates to ascend the throne. The appointment quashed speculation swirling around King Faisal's sons as possible compromise candidates to mediate between different and competing wings. As for the Sudairi clan — the sons of King Abd al-Malik, the brothers, and their sons — their position has been effectively weakened after the deaths of King Fahd in 2005, that of Defense Minister Prince Sultan in 2011, and that of Interior Minister Prince Nayyef in 2012.

Even if the appointment of Prince Muqrin as the second deputy prime minister succeeded in partially moderating the competition over the Saudi royal throne between rival wings of the royal family, the core of the crisis remains just as it was before. Indeed, it can be summed up in a simple question: Who comes after Muqrin? The difficulty increases if one notes that King Abdullah has 40 children who, in turn, have grandchildren who currently play a major political role. All of them could succeed Muqrin, including Interior Minister Prince Muhammad Bin Nayyef, Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Khalid Bin Sultan, Prince Mut'ab Bin Abdallah the leader of the National Guard. This is an important indication of Saudi Arabia's ability to persuade Obama to continue to maintain the old partnership. Riyadh knows that Obama might be the least pro-Saudi president in the history of American-Saudi relations.

Saudi Arabia has no choice but to continue the alliance with Washington to defend its security and its interests. At the same time, Obama possesses a wider array of alternatives. Obama longs to establish a new regional front composed of the Arab Spring states and Turkey. Moreover, he is in negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear program which, in turn, is leading to a different regional alignment. Both of these alignments run parallel to the Gulf alignment but do not necessarily converge. Neither of these alignments would wholly divest Saudi Arabia of its regional position on the map of the Middle East, but they would free Washington more and more from its dependence upon Saudi oil, especially if they should deeply entrench themselves in the geopolitical landscape of the region and prove more compatible with American interests.

The arrival of a new Republican president to the White House in 2016 would open a new door to Saudi Arabia to escape from the dilemmas posed by Obama (though it is not guaranteed). Provided, that is, that the Saudi royal family succeeds in rejuvenating its authority (difficult to envision), and defends itself from those regional dangers hemming it in from all sides (unsure), and that it continues to play critically important roles in the global oil market (very likely).

The people of the barren desert often bet on weariness induced by the sweltering heat and the harsh climate to force their opponents to withdraw from the battle, and not necessarily upon the force of their own arms. In the same vein, Saudi Arabia hopes to wait out Obama, so that his second term will expire without his having achieved his goals, whether it be through the failure of Iranian-American negotiations, or the collapse of the Arab Spring states into a mire of their own internal crises. After that, there will be no one in the region capable of taking their place.

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