The New Normal in U.S.-Saudi Relations

Problems between the two countries run deeper than their leaders.

Next week’s U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh is the last opportunity for the Obama administration to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi relationship. While officially a multilateral summit between the United States and the six Gulf monarchies, all eyes will be on President Obama and King Salman. Both leaders will seek to project an image of comity. The photo ops, boilerplate statements and spin surrounding this encounter, however, will belie an increasingly fractious relationship. Relations are unlikely to crumble anytime soon. But unless Riyadh and Washington work toward a new understanding of what each can expect from the other, the pillars supporting the U.S.-Saudi relationship will continue to erode.


The Backdrop

Saudi Arabia has depended for decades on the United States for external security. It is natural, given this dependence and the asymmetry in power between the two countries, for the House of Saud to fret over America’s security commitments, to seek constant reassurance of U.S. solidarity and to be sensitive to any sign that America is providing less than unconditional support.

The pique President Obama showed toward Saudi Arabia’s “free riding” in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic has thus garnered considerable attention. The normally circumspect Saudis have reciprocated, complaining, both privately and publicly, that the United States is no longer a reliable ally, that it has abandoned Saudi Arabia in favor of a dangerous and quixotic quest to improve relations with Iran, and that the kingdom’s interests are increasingly irrelevant to Washington. Against this backdrop, the fourth meeting between President Obama and the Saudi king should be seen, not as a sign of strong U.S.-Saudi ties, but as evidence that the glue that has held this relationship together has lost much of its adhesion.

To be sure, frictions between America and Saudi Arabia over specific issues are nothing new—they date back to the 1940s over the creation of Israel, and have included tense periods such as the 1973 oil embargo and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But those hoping that they can wait Obama out and let his U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia revert to form are likely to be disappointed.


Ties That Will Bend But Not Break

The focal point of this divergence is Iran. It was the second Bush administration’s response to 9/11—the 2003 invasion of Iraq—that paved the way for Iran’s reemergence as a regional force. Growing U.S.-Saudi tensions could be papered over so long as tens of thousands of American troops remained in Iraq. However, the Obama administration’s removal of these troops and the nuclear agreement with Iran have created a new dynamic in the seven-decade partnership.

At the strategic level, the United States and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in preventing Iranian hegemony over the region. The Saudis, however, have a more dire assessment of the Iranian threat and prefer to roll back Iranian influence through confrontational policies which stoke Sunni opposition to Iran and its Shiite proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In contrast, the Obama administration appears less anxious about Iran’s regional interference, and privileges diplomacy and engagement over bellicosity to restrain Iranian ambitions where they are detrimental to American interests.

The United States and Saudi Arabia both seek the defeat of Islamic State, but the kingdom has subordinated this interest to containing Iranian expansionism. At the same time, it continues to export its literalist, austere interpretation of Islam, a version of which also underpins Islamic State’s ideology. President Obama inveighed to Goldberg that the Saudis and Iranians need to learn to “share the neighborhood” by deescalating tensions and working to resolve regional conflicts. But Riyadh’s actions, such as the decision to execute dissident Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, can appear designed to raise regional tensions and thereby to prevent a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that might have Iran and Saudi Arabia instead “share the United States,” distant though such rapprochement might seem.

America and Saudi Arabia certainly benefit from counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation, so neither is likely to cut it off as a result of broader policy disagreements. Both countries are determined to protect the free flow of oil from the Gulf. However, the North American shale revolution and improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency have substantially reduced America’s dependence on Gulf oil imports. Saudi oil policies are rightly aimed at preserving Saudi market share, with a stated objective of flooding an already glutted market to drive U.S. shale oil and other high cost producers out of the market. The end result is that the two countries are suddenly fierce economic competitors.