Saudi-U.S. friendship under pressure
November 7th, 2013
11:47 AM ET

Saudi-U.S. friendship under pressure

By Ellen Laipson, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ellen Laipson is president and CEO of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. The views expressed are her own.

Following recent meetings in Saudi Arabia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Our relationship is strategic, it is enduring and it covers a wide range.” But his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, politely acknowledged differences with the United States, stating that “a true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness.”

The Saudi foreign minister tried to tamp down talk of a major rift, based on recent pronouncements by senior Saudi officials that conveyed a deep frustration in Riyadh about international cooperation on the key issues facing the Middle East: the Syrian crisis, the Palestine question and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Saudis have staked out positions on each issue that do not align with major world capitals, highlighting the limits of the kingdom’s efforts to shape the regional environment and project Saudi power and influence. And, as the kingdom expands its global role and seeks recognition as a more independent actor, its reliance on the United States is understandably under stress.

But while disagreements over crisis management in the region have long been part of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which still has a broader strategic purpose involving global energy security and preventing an outside hegemon from dominating the region, Saudi relations with the United Nations are now also fraught with confusion. After lobbying hard to win a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council, Saudi Arabia decided it did not want to be a member of the club that was so feckless on Syria, and so declined the seat. (Although it has tried to make amends by praising the U.N.’s humanitarian work and insists it has not given up on the institution).

More from GPS: Upsetting Saudi Arabia may not be a bad thing

On Syria, the most acute issue, the Saudi position in spirit converges with that of other nations: President Bashar al-Assad must go. But in practice, the Saudis take a one-dimensional approach with little room for diplomacy or compromise. Saudi Arabia insists that the United States should have followed through with its threat to strike the Syrian regime; that the Syrian opposition needs more lethal means to level the battlefield; and that any internal divisions among the opposition groups are of less consequence than the overarching goal of ousting al-Assad. At the same time, the Saudis show little sign of planning for a post-Assad government.

What’s behind the Saudi passion for regime change in Damascus? It could be linked to the strategic setback they experienced when a Shia-majority government replaced Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Having once supported the Syrian regime, the Saudis are now deeply committed to establishing a Sunni-majority government in Damascus, apparently regardless of the ideology of any new leadership. Regardless, Syria has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Saudis have long been dismayed, if not disdainful, of Western countries’ failure to achieve meaningful progress on the Arab-Israeli front and while their criticism is aimed largely at the U.S. and its inability to moderate Israeli behavior, it is equally harsh on the United Nations as an institution.

Iran is a more existential issue for the Saudis. There is little relief for the Saudis at the prospect of an improved atmosphere for nuclear talks, suggesting that it’s Iran’s enduring power and size that matter, not the particulars of its nuclear activities.

Having pledged to prevent the full nuclearization of Iran, the United States is newly suspect in the eyes of the Saudis for giving diplomacy a chance. The Saudis have lurched between wanting closer security cooperation with Washington to deal with the Iranian threat and fearing that the U.S. will be lured into a new strategic relationship with Iran at their expense.

Each of these issues relates to the Saudi attitude toward the international system more broadly, not just its disappointment with Washington’s foreign policies. As a rising power, finding a comfortable role in global governance is not always a smooth process.

Saudi Arabia’s power in the international system derives from its energy and financial clout. A member of the G20, Saudi Arabia is one of the smallest in terms of population (only Australia is smaller). In addition, Saudi Arabia is one of only three nations in the G20 (along with Indonesia and Argentina) that do not belong to other major global economic groupings.

Of course, some rising middle powers work hard to be useful at the multilateral level, to expand their influence beyond their region and to develop new political capabilities to shape the international agenda. South Korea, for example, sees multilateralism as a means to achieve more global influence and to makes its brand known beyond its Asian neighborhood. Ironically, though, Saudi Arabia’s attitude to multilateralism looks more like that of its archrival Iran – both countries want respect and recognition at the global level, but are deeply mistrustful of the institutions created by the great powers, and see the established rules as flawed and biased.

Saudi Arabia’s other unique attribute is its soft power, which derives from its role as custodian of Islam’s holiest places. Ultimately, Saudi diplomacy will need to manage multiple roles that are not working together smoothly lately: its instinct to assert regional leadership with absolutist positions on the neighborhood’s conflicts, its desire to be recognized as an independent global actor, not subservient to the interests of its Western partners, and its intangible power as advocate for Sunni Islam.

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Topics: Middle East • Saudi Arabia

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. rkfrom ny

    The U.S.-Saudi relationship under pressure, but from whom? In any case, the Saudis will do what the Washington politicians tell them to do in the end!

    November 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Reply
    • ✠ RZ ✠

      But would Washington stop the Saudis from unilaterally attacking Syria? Iran? Israel?

      November 7, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Reply
      • rkfrom ny

        The way the current leaders in Washington have been acting lately, that appears to be questionable! However, they do have a moral obligation to do precisely that!

        November 7, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
      • Joe Mendez

        the real fear is from the fanatics groomed and financed by the saudis to the region, europe and the world at large.

        November 10, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  2. ✠ RZ ✠

    The motivation for the moral, political, and financial obligations being touted by any government can often be found in the money trail. The majority of government revenues is typically derived from you, the taxpayer. Follow your tax dollar to see if it was spent it or invested wisely and accordingly in your best interests.

    November 8, 2013 at 12:08 am | Reply
  3. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    November 8, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • Hasai

      You really should work on your grammar, "John Smith." Failing that, may I suggest you use a more appropriate name?

      November 8, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Saudi Arabia certainly has huge ambitions. It wants to be the regional superpower and sees Iran as its arch rival. It has also been at loggerheads with Qatar over Egypt. The two are key players in the Syrian conflict, supporting various groups trying to overthrow Assad.
    While Saudi Arabia opposes Iran's nuclear programme, there are reports saying that the Saudis had invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and believed they could obtain the bombs at will.

    November 9, 2013 at 7:46 am | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      Geopolitics clearly provides for alliances to reciprocally interchange camouflaged roles on multiple levels in order to achieve the desired landscape. The real game changer comes down to how much one must, can, and is willing to sacrifice. Money and material is something, but the toll in human lives is entirely another which hundreds of millions around the world will be reminded of this coming Monday. The duty to our fallen is not only to fight our foes in plain sight, but also the enemies within that would perhaps sacrifice the strength and blood of our nation to unnecessary and avoidable battle. Lest we forget.

      November 9, 2013 at 9:59 am | Reply
  5. aurelius

    Many Americans want to know if the Saudi support Al Qaeda, and if so to what extent.

    November 9, 2013 at 11:24 pm | Reply
    • Joe Mendez

      what do you think? just watch the type of islam those jihadis adore and funding which go into these wars.

      November 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  6. desert voice

    Saudisare smarter than the Americans, because they have more time to think in the desert. This reluctance to play a second fiddle to the Syrian U.S. policy is all about fear, who will disemburse the trillion dollars needed to rebuilt Syria. Saudis are the primary guilty of this wonton destruction! But they do not feel that way. Still, they do share in the guilt. But they also have a point that the Syria crisis has been the result of things beyound their power, namely the rivalry of U.S. and Russia after the Cold War! In short, Audis are guilty as hell for having jumped on this "rivalry banwagon", but they would rather have Putin and Obama to pay fot the damages!

    November 10, 2013 at 5:08 am | Reply
  7. Joe Mendez

    The truth of the matter is that: Saudi arabia is an oil producing company similar to the 7 sisters, however, at a disadvantage by carrying terrible baggage which will be almost impossible for it to lose. A backward people, the most fundamentalist type of Islam and rulers from the middle ages. Sadly, they are capable of creating havoc as administrated time and again in many parts of the world.

    November 10, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Reply

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