POSTED BY F. GREGORY GAUSE
After the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany concluded a preliminary agreement with Iran on Sunday, it did not take long for regional critics of the deal to react. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, blasted the agreement as “a historic mistake.” Saudi Arabia, the other American ally in the Middle East worried about an opening to Iran, took a different approach, issuing a carefully worded statement that cautiously welcomed the deal.
The Saudis have no allies in American politics to rally against the Obama Administration, and no desire to set themselves against the other international powers who signed the agreement, including their security partners France and Great Britain, their fellow oil producer Russia, and their major oil customer China. But they are as unhappy as the Israelis, if for slightly different reasons. The Saudis are not merely concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They have a more profound fear: that geopolitical trends in the Middle East are aligning against them, threatening both their regional stature and their domestic security. The Saudis see an Iran that is dominant in Iraq and Lebanon, holding onto its ally in Syria, and now forging a new relationship with Washington—a rival, in short, without any obstacles to regional dominance, and one further emboldened to encourage Shiite populations in the Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, to oppose their Sunni rulers.
In recent weeks, that fear has been on display in a series of vocal complaints about American outreach to Iran and the Obama Administration’s broader strategy in the Middle East. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the superstar Saudi financier, is something of a black sheep in the ruling family, but a public criticism of Obama that he made last week reflects a strong sentiment among Saudi élites. “America is shooting itself in the foot,” Alwaleed told the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. “It’s just complete chaos. Confusion. No policy.” A few days later, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in London, Prince Mohammed bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz, called the negotiations with Iran “appeasement,” and indirectly threatened that Saudi Arabia would obtain its own nuclear weapons if necessary.
These very public denunciations of Washington reflect the same worries that motivated Riyadh to perform an extraordinary gesture of discontent at the U.N. in October. Famously low-key in their diplomacy, the Saudis drew attention to themselves by campaigning for a seat on the U.N. Security Council and then theatrically rejecting it, something no country has ever done. (The move even came as a surprise to Saudi diplomats, who had gone through extensive training to prepare for their new responsibilities.) “This was a message for the U.S., not the U.N.,” the Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan, who spent twenty-two years as an ambassador in Washington, reportedly told a Western diplomat.
At that time, the immediate cause for Saudi displeasure was Syria. Riyadh had enthusiastically backed President Obama’s threat to use force against the Assad regime after a chemical-weapons attack on a Damascus suburb in August. The Saudis hoped that an American strike would draw the United States into greater and more direct military involvement in the campaign to bring down Assad. The deal negotiated between the U.S. and Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons—a diplomatic victory for the Obama Administration—was seen in Riyadh as not only a missed opportunity to deal a decisive blow to Assad but as an acknowledgement that the regime was a legitimate international partner rather than a pariah to be overthrown. With the U.N. Security Council committed to the chemical-weapons deal, the Saudis decided that it was a club they would rather not join.
When Secretary of State John Kerry went to Riyadh on November 4th to reassure the Saudis of the continuing American commitment to their security, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, referred to Syria as “an occupied land.” No one had to ask the Prince, “Occupied by whom?” Since the mid-aughts, Riyadh has tried to check the growth of Iranian power in the Arab world, and almost all of its attempts have failed. The Saudis backed the anti-Syrian March 14th Alliance in Lebanon in two electoral victories, only to see Iran’s ally Hezbollah remain the dominant force in Lebanese politics. They were powerless to arrest Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, watching helplessly as Tehran orchestrated the coalition politics that kept Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in office after the 2010 elections. In 2007, King Abdullah brokered a deal between Hamas and Fatah, which was intended to draw Hamas away from Iranian patronage. But the deal broke down within months, after Hamas took control of Gaza and turned again to Iran for support. Across the region, the Saudis were losing and the Iranians were winning.
This was not simply a geopolitical setback for Riyadh. The Saudi leadership believes that increased Iranian power will lead to political mobilization by Shia inside the Sunni-ruled Gulf states. The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf remain certain that Iran meddles directly in their domestic affairs, but they are also convinced that Iran’s heightened regional role will inevitably inspire Shia discontent, which makes Iran’s ascendance an indirect threat to the stability of the Gulf monarchies.
It was through this lens that the Saudis viewed the sustained and peaceful demonstrations in 2011 against the Sunni monarchy in Shia-majority Bahrain, even though there was no objective evidence of an Iranian role in the protests. The Arab Spring also brought down Riyadh’s most important Arab ally, Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. But there was one bright spot for the Saudis amid the regional upheaval. The uprising against Assad in Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, represented the best chance in a decade for Riyadh to roll back Iranian power.
For the Saudis, therefore, Obama’s refusal to take action against Assad was seen as another example of Washington’s inability to appreciate both the dangers and the opportunities of the Arab Spring. Standing aside while Mubarak fell—as the Saudis saw it—was bad enough, but embracing a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, which was an unreliable partner against Iran and a challenger to Saudi authority over the interpretation of Sunni Islam, was even worse.
The Obama Administration views its opening to Iran as part of a broader effort to bring stability to the region, and sees an Iranian commitment to foreswear nuclear weapons as a benefit to allies like Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis, without a seat at the negotiating table, fear that Washington will ratify Iranian hegemony in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf in exchange for a nuclear deal.
Dealing with the United States, the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal once said, “makes a sane man go mad.” There is no doubt that American policymakers have often felt the same way about Saudi Arabia. The current tensions between Washington and Riyadh, however serious, are hardly unprecedented: the unlikely allies have never seen eye-to-eye on regional issues. The Saudis did not like the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, the crowning diplomatic achievement of the Carter Administration; nor did they appreciate the American invasion of Iraq, in 2003. The Americans, meanwhile, have had their own complaints: on oil policy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Saudi funding for radical Islamic causes. The rhetorical volleys of the past few months are minor compared to the most serious episodes of tension between the two allies: the oil embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia in 1973 to protest American support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, which sent a permanent shock through global oil markets, and the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when few Americans thought it a coincidence that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
The present disagreements between the Saudi and American governments will not lead to a permanent rupture in the relationship, as the Saudis themselves acknowledge. The core interest that has held the Saudi-U.S. relationship together for many decades—Persian Gulf security and the free flow of energy resources from the region—remains intact. But the nature of the recent disputes suggests an underlying conflict between the two allies. The problem is not that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have divergent goals in the region: both countries want Assad out, an Iran without nuclear weapons and diminished regional influence, a stable Egypt, and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem is that they have very different views about how important these goals are, and how much effort should be expended to achieve them.
Saudi fears that Washington will sell out their regional interests in a “grand bargain” with Iran are exaggerated. The American policy in the Gulf, for many decades, has been to prevent any other power from becoming dominant, and Washington is not about to turn the keys over to Iran. But the Saudis are correct to worry that the U.S. will not insist that any nuclear deal includes concessions from Iran on regional geopolitics. They are also right to conclude that Washington regards Assad’s ouster as a lower priority than Riyadh does, and that the U.S. does not see the Palestinian issue as central to its policy in the region.
The Obama Administration does think that the U.S. is overcommitted in the Middle East, and seeks to “pivot” at least some American foreign-policy resources and attention to East Asia. Substantial increases in domestic production have made the Middle East less important to American energy calculations, though Persian Gulf oil and gas will remain significant for decades to come. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates have almost all the world’s spare oil-production capacity; only they can bring substantial amounts of oil onto the market in a short period of time to make up for production lost elsewhere. That is reason enough for the U.S. to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. But the overall trend is toward a diminished role for the Middle East in the global energy market.
Still, there are many common interests to keep the allies united, including shared worries about Iran’s regional influence and about Al Qaeda and its affiliates. The Saudis do not have any alternatives at present to the security provided by their ties to the U.S.: the Europeans are too weak militarily, Russia is in decline, and China has neither the capability nor the inclination to project power into the Persian Gulf. But over time, we can expect to see more periods of turbulence between Washington and Riyadh. The allies may not disagree on their goals, but their priorities will increasingly differ. When the end of the “special relationship” finally arrives—likely decades from now—it will end not with a bang but with a gradual drift apart.
F. Gregory Gause is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He is the author of “Oil Monarchies” and “The International Relations of the Persian Gulf.