Why the U.S.-Saudi Defense and Security Relationship Will Remain Firm

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk with King Salman. Wikimedia Commons/Pete Souza

It may be a dysfunctional marriage, but it’s definitely not heading for a divorce.

Memories are short in Saudi Arabia though. The Saudis, and quite a lot of western opinion, want the United States, even at this eleventh hour, to do what caused so much harm in Iraq and, under Anglo-French leadership, in Libya. The Saudis don’t care whether this would ensure that Syria can once again function as a unitary state or not. They suspect, rightly, that Syria may already have gone for good. They just want Iran to be cowed, and somehow constrained from being a Mediterranean as well as a Gulf power. For the Saudis, the Russians’ forward role might be preferable to the Iranians running the show in Syria. However Russian military intervention—not seen in the Arab world since the 1973 war—is enabling the Assad regime to retake strategic real estate, something that the Saudis apparently abhor. So the Saudis don’t have a lot of options, and nor does the United States.

Given Iraq’s struggle to function as a state, Syria past qualifying as one, and Egypt contending with its own domestic and regional security problems, neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States are in a position to seriously undermine their relationship. Sadly, suspending arms sales to a Saudi Arabia at war in Yemen comes under this proviso. Iran might be maintaining the letter of the nuclear deal, but in its missile and militia activity it is a long way from what the United States naively hoped would constitute the spirit of the agreement.

The Saudis of course know this all too well. For all the ongoing closeness of the Saudi-U.S. defense and security relationship, the Saudis genuinely struggle to understand that in this, the latest, phase of a U.S. balance of power strategy in the Gulf, Iran isn’t remotely a meaningful American ally, let alone likely to play the role of preeminent security pillar it did under the Shah. In other words the Saudis are still the United States’ favored Gulf allies, however mistrusted, just as the United States is the only game in town for Riyadh.

Dr Neil Partrick is the lead contributor to Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, 2016).

Image: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk with King Salman. Wikimedia Commons/Pete Souza