There is much apocalyptical talk about the ultimate Obama legacy being the death of the United States’ oldest strategic relationship in the Middle East. On this analysis the United States is exiting the region, while capital flight and fear of Iran leads the Saudis to get into bed with Russia, China or just about anybody going.
In the real world, however, the U.S. military continues to be a semi-permanent presence in and around the Arabian Peninsula, with junior support roles for the UK and France.
The Saudis conducted their own naval exercise in the Gulf in early October. The United States and the UK have long urged the Saudis to step up to the plate in maritime security terms, rather than constantly constraining their navy in favor of an air power idée fixe. Judging by the official Saudi photo releases “Gulf Shield 1” is less about Peninsula security, than how the Saudis can deploy relatively small marine units by boat, even if mine countermeasures were among the listed drills. Given their heightened tensions, the Iranians warned the Saudis against getting even remotely close to Iranian waters. They wouldn’t have dared.
In mid-2016 the U.S. and UK navies conducted a mine countermeasures sweep of the Gulf. Precisely the kind of capability that a Kingdom obsessed with Iranian power could do with developing. When Yemen’s Houthis sunk a UAE vessel in the Red Sea’s Bab al-Mandab choke point in late September, the United States dispatched a flotilla to enforce naval security. The Saudis don’t like the U.S. return to the status quo ante of a balance of power in the Gulf. However, for all the rhetorical froth and semi-hysterical America-baiting in the Saudi media, they are thankful that they are still intimately connected to the defense, security and intelligence reach of the United States. Spraying a few arms contracts outside of the western alliance is a possibility (it’s happened before), but it would be attention-seeking not a strategic realignment.
Legislative and popular opinion in the United States, just like in the UK, is increasingly frustrated with the Saudis. The reasons are obvious. They have long been flagged up to a Kingdom lacking both the will and the capacity to tackle it. However before writing off this most special of special relationships, it’s worth pausing to consider a few realities. Congressional determination to allow the 9/11 families their day in court does not ensure that the Saudis’ holding of U.S. government debt and a myriad of other strategic investments is going to be simply tossed aside. Nor does it mean that the Saudis are going to undermine the value of those investments by deciding to denominate their oil in yuan. The Saudis haven’t pivoted to Asia any more than the United States has. The Kingdom wisely holds some energy infrastructure in China, just as it does in the States and elsewhere around the world. Saudi Arabia’s increased cooperation with the nascent top economic power makes sense. However, China is as much a Gulf security free-rider as President Obama accused the Saudis of being, and China knows it.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship isn’t a love affair. It may be a dysfunctional marriage, but it is quite definitely not heading for a divorce. Furthermore it couldn’t, even if the rowing couple really wanted it to. Seventy years of defense sales, intimate financial links and a deeply entrenched mutual security dependence cannot simply be undone by populist rhetorical indulgence (in both countries). This relationship survived a Saudi-led oil boycott that triggered a decade long global recession (and a U.S threat to bomb the Saudi oil fields); and 9/11, despite the still glowing embers of that horrific day.
The difference, Saudis will argue, is that the United States has decided to overturn an assumption that had more or less held true since 1979: that Iran is, of necessity, ring fenced and deeply mistrusted—by both Saudi Arabia and by the United States. The Saudis even argue that the United States is intent on restoring the status quo pre 1979. In the wake of the conflict in Vietnam, the Saudis were made one of the United States’ twin Gulf pillars. Fearing Russia’s Gulf ambitions, but wary of too forward leaning a military role (so far, so familiar) the Iranians under the Shah became the United States’ primary Gulf pivot, with the Saudis playing second fiddle. In 1968 the British, following domestic political sentiment and an established pattern of defense retrenchment, decided to end their formal defense commitments in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia and the small Gulf Arab states consequently saw the Shah’s Iran as a threat that Soviet-supported Iraq would not assuage.
Iraq today, of course, isn’t the Iraq or even the Vietnam of yesteryear. The fallout from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is still very fresh in the Gulf. The Saudis are right when they say it was given to Iran on a platter. Iran and the United States now prop up the Iraqi government against domestic threats, while Iran and Russia prop up Assad in Syria. The United States plainly prefers his regime to either ISIS or to the risk of providing close air support and the kind of arms, directly or via the Saudis, which would enable the Syrian rebels to really fight back. A healthy U.S. skepticism toward neoliberal interventionism is an Obama legacy that the next U.S. president will, in practice, be wary of overturning.
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