By Dr Peter Harris
U.S.-Saudi relations are under intense scrutiny. Officials in Riyadh chafe at U.S. reluctance to engineer the overthrow of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. More importantly, they fear that President Barack Obama’s diplomatic opening to Iran might prove to be a portent of normalized relations between Washington and Tehran. Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers accuse the Saudis of manipulating oil production with the specific intent of bankrupting U.S. players in the energy industry – a hot button issue in this election year.
Furthermore, criticism continues to mount regarding the kingdom’s longstanding role in funding Islamist extremist groups and its current conduct of the war in Yemen. Could the U.S.-Saudi relationship actually expire? And if so, what would it take for the U.S. to abandon this important strategic partner?
The Origins of Alliances
Broadly speaking, alliances in world politics exist according to one of two rationales: either there is a compelling geostrategic purpose for the partnership, or there are domestic reasons for closeness. The former category includes any number of opportunistic alliances past and present, including the Franco-Scottish “Auld Alliance” of the Middle Ages formed in opposition to England; the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, created to contain Russian expansionism in East Asia; and the U.S.-Soviet alliance during World War II. The latter are a rarer breed, depending much more on social and cultural affinity than hard-headed Realpolitik. Examples include Russia’s historic guardianship of Slavic and Orthodox states in Eastern Europe; the various alliances that work together to comprise the so-called Anglosphere; and, perhaps, the U.S. commitment to Israel.
Without question, the U.S.-Saudi relationship rests on geostrategic foundations rather than domestic ones. Indeed, it would be fanciful to suggest that the domestic population of either nation holds the other in particularly high regard. Many in the U.S. view Saudi Arabia as an intolerant and illiberal autocracy, a sponsor of extremism across the Islamic world, and an underhanded competitor in the energy industry. At the same time, although some members of the Saudi elite might display an outward admiration for Western materialism, the kingdom’s religious authorities and its general population do not hold the U.S. in high esteem.
Nevertheless, the geostrategic rationale for close relations between Washington and Riyadh is strong. Saudi cooperation is critical to maintaining stable energy prices, which, in turn, ensure the stability of the international economy. Geographically, the kingdom sits astride some of the world’s most important sea lanes and looms large over the other Gulf Arab states – themselves significant oil producers and strategic allies of the U.S. Culturally, Saudi Arabia carries special weight in the Islamic world as custodian of the holy sites at Mecca and Medina. These factors, coupled with the kingdom’s powerful military and deep coffers, indicate that Saudi help might well be critical when it comes to achieving future U.S. goals in the Middle East, such as peace between Israel and the Palestinians, or a resolution to the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Taking the Temperature of U.S.-Saudi Relations
The Realpolitik underpinnings of the U.S.-Saudi relationship validate a sense of nervousness about its future – that is, if the geostrategic rationales for closeness with Saudi Arabia were to evaporate, the alliance would indeed find itself adrift. Currently, the most worrisome scenario from a Saudi perspective is that rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran will undermine the basis of U.S. security relations with the Sunni states of the region. If Tehran can be tamed, what use will strategic planners in the Pentagon have for Riyadh or other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)? Of course, normalized relations between the U.S. and Iran are a long way off. But the successful implementation to date of the nuclear deal and the recent release of U.S. prisoners from Iran do seem to herald a significant – and perhaps long-lasting – diplomatic thaw.
There are longer-term risks inherent in the relationship as well. Whatever the future of U.S. relations with Iran, Washington’s much vaunted pivot to Asia threatens to downgrade the relative importance to the U.S. of the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East. With officials in Washington striving to reduce the overall costs of foreign policy, any expanded presence in the Asia-Pacific region implies a curtailed military presence in the Gulf, especially if peace with Iran can reduce potential threats to U.S. interests in the region. (Iraq, of course, the U.S.’ other traditional adversary in the Gulf, is now a nominal U.S. ally). Meanwhile, Washington’s drive for “energy independence” from foreign producers is pointedly justified in public pronouncements by a desire to free the U.S. from having to pander to regimes such as Saudi Arabia’s.
Meanwhile, Washington’s drive for “energy independence” from foreign producers underscores its desire to free the U.S. from having to pander to regimes such as Saudi Arabia’s. Doyle McManus may have been correct when he recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is “shakier than ever.” But it would still be wrong to underestimate the geopolitical rationale for cooperation. Indeed, it is difficult to envisage the sort of international developments that would be required to decisively weaken the U.S.-Saudi bond. The U.S. goal for the Persian Gulf in the twenty first century is a stable, peaceful, and predictable geopolitical environment, especially if Washington carries through with its rebalance toward the Asia Pacific region. America’s partnerships with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states are essentially irreplaceable bulwarks of regional order. The U.S. might try to bring Sunnis and Shi’ites together in the Middle East – unsuccessfully, with all probability – but it is unlikely to abandon Saudi Arabia and other GCC states altogether. The old policy of “dual containment” will have found its replacement in “dual engagement.”
If anything, the past five years have impressed upon U.S. officials the importance of stability in the Persian Gulf. The Arab Spring, initially welcomed as a possible harbinger of democratization across the Middle East and North Africa, severely damaged Washington’s interests in the region – fueling the activities of al-Qaeda, Daesh (“Islamic State”) and other terrorist groups; gifting openings to adversaries such as Russia and Iran in warzones like Syria and Yemen; and undermining the stability of longstanding U.S. allies. Given this unhappy recent history of regional upheaval, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. under Obama or his successor will do anything other than strive to maintain continuity and predictability in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia – the oldest and most important U.S. partner in the region – can certainly be expected to play an important role in this equation.
The Reliability of Realpolitik
In the final analysis, the fundamental geostrategic impetuses for close U.S.-Saudi relations show no signs of dissipating. The Realpolitik logic that brought President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Saudi Arabia in 1945 and led Jimmy Carter to promulgate the Carter Doctrine in 1980 remains as robust as ever. In the twenty-first century, the U.S. needs a strong, reliable, and friendly strategic partner in the Persian Gulf region. The continuation and, indeed, the deepening of U.S.-Saudi ties is likely. The bilateral partnership appears strong enough to weather manifold short-term problems, as John Kerry’s tête-à-tête with King Salman on January 24, 2016 perhaps attests.
Nonetheless, advocates of close U.S.-Saudi relations are correct that politicians in Washington could do more to strengthen ties between the two countries, especially at the domestic level, and that Gulf leaders ought to take measures that will ingratiate them to groups within the U.S. Although geopolitical imperatives are certain to align Washington and Riyadh for the foreseeable future, the alliance would be even stronger if domestic bonds were invigorated. At a time when internal politics are volatile in both nations, such bases of friendship become increasingly important. They do not exist at present, and it would behoove politicians in both countries to do more to foster them.
Dr Peter Harris is an assistant professor of Political Science at Colorado State University.
This article was originally published by an affiliate of PoliTact, Gulf State Analytics