American pilgrimage to Riyadh

US President Obama missed a visit to the Taj Mahal, the symbol of eternal love, to affirm a more valuable love affair, one that the US has had for 70 years with a most unlikely partner, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since 1945, successive US Presidents and Saudi rulers have pledged their support to a strategic partnership under which the Kingdom would promote Western interests in West Asia, while the US would guarantee the security of Saudi Arabia. Later, this was expanded to the other Gulf Sheikhdoms that emerged as free nations in the early 1970s.

This relationship has remained solid over the last seven decades, surviving serious differences. Given this background, it is not surprising that Mr Obama should have hastened to Riyadh to personally condole the death of King Abdullah, and engage the new leaders — King Salman, Crown Prince Muqrin, and the deputy Crown Prince and interior minister, Muhammad bin Nayef, who is just 55 years old and the first royal family member of the next generation to be placed in the line of succession.

In his message, Mr Obama spoke of the “warm friendship” between the two countries which, he asserted, was “a force for stability in the Middle East and beyond”. The delegation that accompanied Mr Obama to Riyadh fully reflected the depth of these ties, with representation from the foreign policy and security establishments. Though the two sides discussed energy and regional issues, the visit was largely of symbolic value and conveyed the importance attached by both sides to the relationship.

Mr Obama’s visit not only recognised the resilience of the relationship, it also took cognisance of the strains that have bedevilled ties over the last two years. Saudi Arabia was convinced that the US had betrayed President Mubarak and then indicated an unusual sympathy for the successor Brotherhood regime. Later, the US failed to intervene in Syria militarily and effect regime change even after there was evidence that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against its own people. But, the Kingdom was most alarmed when the US, in late 2013, commenced a substantial engagement with Iran on the nuclear question, with indications that over time US-Iran ties would get stronger.

In order to bridge this widening gap, Mr Obama visited Riyadh in March 2014. Though tempers cooled to some extent, differences remained on Syria and Iran. It took the challenge posed by the Islamic State (IS), that in June 2014 proclaimed a caliphate in the territories militarily secured by it in Iraq and Syria, to bring the alienated allies together. Saudi Arabia was happy to see the US back in a military role in the Gulf, and provided armed support from the GCC nations to the US-led assaults on IS positions.

However, the former partnership between the US and Saudi Arabia, in which the US was the unquestioning guarantor of Saudi security while the Kingdom could be relied upon to fully back the US’ regional interests even if it meant sacrificing Saudi and Arab concerns, is now lost. Earlier, the US had re-built its ties with Saudi Arabia after the attacks of 9/11, while Saudi Arabia gave logistical support for the US assault on Iraq in 2003, even when it believed the attack was ill advised and would rebound to Iran’s strategic advantage.

Now, what Saudi Arabia has with the US is a “transactional relationship” in which each side will take a position on a particular issue on the basis of its own interests. This new relationship is a product of the serious differences they have had on a number of crucial matters like domestic reform, political Islam, engagement with Iran, military action in Syria, and lack of progress on Palestine. But, it also indicates a new self-confidence on the part of Saudi Arabia in looking after its own security and its ability to assert its interests in the region.

Looking at the post-Abdullah scenario, most Western commentators have said that continuity will characterise the US ties with Saudi Arabia. In support, one observer has asserted that the Kingdom “is a rock of stability” in the region, while another has emphasised that the US has “interests in common with Saudi Arabia”.

But this understanding of the Kingdom is quite out of date. Saudi Arabia is no longer a power favouring the status quo or a rock of stability. As recent events have shown, the Kingdom has abandoned its quietist approach and, in taking on the challenges to its interests from Iran and the Arab Spring, it has deployed a variety of new approaches and instruments, including mobilising jihadi militia against Bashar al-Assad in Syria; funding the upgradation of the Lebanese armed forces, backing the Al Sisi regime politically and financially; taking a tough position against Qatar and Turkey for their support to the Brotherhood, and participating in military action against the IS. It has also taken a tough position on domestic reform and on oil affairs.

Above all, it has adopted an uncompromising posture against Iran on the ground that Iran’s strategic advantages and its interventions in regional affairs constitute a threat to Saudi Arabia, making it clear that the Kingdom will engage with Iran only when it is satisfied that its interests will be served.
Thus, change rather than continuity will define the Saudi regional approach in coming years, and the US will need to develop some fresh thinking on West Asian issues if its ties with the Kingdom are to have any abiding meaning or value.

The author is a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia

( Source : dc )
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