by Thomas W. Lippman
Whenever a Saudi Arabian king or senior prince publicly criticizes U.S. policy, they inevitably touch off speculation about how the Saudis may be rethinking their security alliance with the United States.
The Saudis have lost confidence in the Americans…the Saudis are fed up with Washington’s support for Israel…The Saudis think the U.S. should have acted sooner…the Saudis think the U.S. should not have intervened…Riyadh is having new conversations with Moscow, or Beijing…the Saudis are looking to diversify their sources of weapons.
A new flurry of such analysis appeared recently when King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz strongly proclaimed his government’s financial and political support for the military government in Egypt with language that some writers interpreted as critical of the United States.
“Let the entire world know,” he said, “that the people and government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stood and still stand today with our brothers in Egypt against terrorism, extremism and sedition, and against whomever is trying to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.” Translation: You Americans should stop bleating about democracy in Egypt because all it did was put the Muslim Brotherhood in power, and we won’t accept that.
Examining the king’s statement, Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis, said it reflected Saudi anger about other regional issues, not just Egypt:
It’s important to recognize, first of all, that from the Saudi and GCC point of view they see the U.S. as not following through on promises made earlier in the year concerning some type of armed intervention into Syria. Consequently this failure to act has led to the declining victories and growing losses for the Free Syrian Army. It has also allowed a greater Al-Qaeda presence within Syria, which also is troublesome for the region and especially Saudi Arabia and the GCC.
The second point here is that Saudi Arabia and the GCC take Washington’s notion of the strategic pivot very seriously, and their inclination is that they’re being abandoned by Washington in favor of the Pacific theater. That’s their perception regardless of how much equipment is pre-positioned in the Gulf region or how many training programs and weapon sales are going on.
Finally, Saudi Arabia and the GCC are anxious with the possibility that under the new Iranian President Rouhani that there may be a strategic bargain made between Washington and Tehran that would cut out Saudi and GCC security interests. In other words, Saudi Arabia and the GCC feel that they are slowly being pushed aside on what concerns them in the region because of America’s self-interest.
The King’s comments were “unusual,” according to The Guardian, because Abdullah was “aiming his words” at the United States as well as Qatar, which he accused of “fanning the fire of sedition and promoting terrorism, which they claim to be fighting.”
Other commentators offered similar assessments of the king’s apparent irritation with Washington, their views enhanced by speculation over the significance of a July meeting in Moscow between President Vladimir Putin and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence director, which was announced but has not been explained. Could the Saudis have given up on Washington and tried to reach an agreement with the Russians over Syria? (A writer for the Infowars web site, on the other hand, went the other way, reporting that not only did Bandar fail to cut a deal with the Russians to end their support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he threatened to arrange terrorist attacks on the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi if that support continues.)
It may be true that the rulers of Saudi Arabia are unhappy over some aspects of U.S. policy toward Syria, Iran and Egypt, but it does not follow that they will therefore seek to detach the kingdom from its longstanding security alliance with the United States. To understand why, it is useful to review the history of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and examine the reality of the security partnership today to evaluate whether Saudi Arabia would really consider recasting its international security ties.
In the seven decades since the United States and Saudi Arabia established military and security links during World War II, there have frequently been policy differences, misunderstandings and angry recriminations, beginning with Saudi anger over U.S. recognition of Israel in 1948. At that time, King Abdul Aziz was under intense pressure from other Arab leaders and from his son, Prince Faisal, to punish the Americans by revoking the Aramco oil concession. Much as he resented what he thought was a breach of promise by Washington, he refrained from taking that dramatic step because, he said, his impoverished country needed the money and technology that only the Americans could provide.
In the ensuing years there have been similar strains, from both sides, over many issues: Saudi Arabia’s ostracism of Anwar Sadat over the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; Riyadh’s distress over the U.S. invasion of Iraq and over what it perceived as Washington’s unseemly abandonment of Hosni Mubarak, the exclusion of U.S. energy companies from major natural gas exploration contracts; Saudi Arabia’s refusal to do business with the Maliki government in Iraq; the fallout from the 9/11 attacks and Saudi Arabia’s funding of extremist groups; Saudi Arabia’s mediation between Fatah and Hamas; President George W. Bush’s aggressive campaign to export democracy to the Arab world; King Abdullah’s denunciation of what he called an “illegal occupation” of Iraq; and Saudi anxiety about the Obama administration’s announced strategic “pivot” to Asia. None of these has resulted in any open breach or abridgement of the strategic partnership, because the Saudis had nowhere else to go and the Americans were not about to cut them loose. Even the most serious conflict of all, over the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, lasted just a few months, and after the embargo ended, bilateral U.S.-Saudi relations emerged closer than ever with the creation in 1974 of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia Joint Economic Commission.
Today, the security and defense forces of the United States and Saudi Arabia are deeply entwined, and neither side has any incentive to rupture the partnership. Americans are training and equipping the Saudi National Guard, the Saudi regime’s primary domestic security force, as they have since 1977, and are performing the same functions in the creation of a 35,000-member Facilities Security Force, which is being deployed to protect oil installations, desalination plants, power stations and other critical facilities. Saudi Arabia is in the midst of one of the largest military purchases in history, a $60 billion plus package of aircraft and other equipment, all of it American.
In addition, various U.S. agencies are helping the Saudis to improve security at airports and diplomatic facilities, and protect themselves against cyber-attacks such as the one that knocked out computer networks at Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, last year.
The creation of the Facilities Security Force resulted from a 2006 attempt by al-Qaeda commandos to attack the giant oil processing installation at Abqaiq. That attempt failed, but it exposed multiple security vulnerabilities, compelling the Saudis to recognize they needed help. They sought it from the United States, the only country they would trust with such an endeavor. The United States dispatched a team from the Sandia National Laboratory, in New Mexico, to help the Saudis evaluate and prioritize their security needs. Riyadh was not going to turn to China or Russia for that.
The attempt on Abqaiq “exposed some weaknesses in command and control, and in coordination — and the fact that the [previous] Aramco protective force were not allowed to carry any weapons,” a friend at the Ministry of Petroleum told me last year. “That’s all changed now with American help. A very well trained force is being deployed. But where the Americans really helped was with satellite and cellphone intercept information.” (At least the Saudis appreciate the work of the U.S. National Security Agency, even if many Americans are unhappy about some aspects of it.)
It is true that Saudi Arabia has greatly diversified its trade patterns and is no longer dependent on American firms for its major construction projects. China has been the biggest buyer of Saudi oil since 2009. Chinese contractors built the rail transit system in Mecca, and the Saudis are likely to hire South Korean firms if they go ahead with their plans for nuclear energy. That is a natural evolution as the Saudi economy has modernized and global trade patterns have evolved since the end of the Cold War. It should not be taken as a sign that Saudi Arabia’s royal rulers are planning to jettison the strategic partnership that has ensured their survival in the midst of a regional upheaval.