By Becca Wasser, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Becca Wasser is a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. You can follow her @IISSBecca. The views expressed are her own.
Saudi Arabia’s careful silence in the immediate aftermath of the deal struck with Iran on its nuclear program at the weekend should have come as no surprise. From disagreements over how to handle Syria and Egypt, to its rejection of a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, the Kingdom has been clear about its displeasure with Washington’s strategy in the Middle East.
The current head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud, met recently with European diplomats in Riyadh to notify them of a “major shift” in U.S.-Saudi relations, while former Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki has for his part given several interviews suggesting that the Gulf States will become more independent.
Saudi Arabia’s public displeasure is largely a reaction to the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, perceived U.S. inaction over the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, differences over Egypt’s future, and a lack of support for Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies. The U.S.-Iran rapprochement in particular has shaken Saudi trust in the United States, and Saudi Arabia is not alone among the Gulf States in fearing that warming of U.S.-Iran ties risk coming at the expense of their own relationship. And while Saudi Arabia has been publicly quiet over the Iran deal, a senior advisor to the Saudi royal family has reportedly said the Kingdom is willing to steer a more proactive foreign policy course in future.
But it isn’t just U.S. policy toward Iran that has Saudi officials frustrated – the U.S. decision not to pursue military action in Syria is widely viewed by the Saudi leadership as evidence of U.S. unreliability. Saudi Arabia is a vocal advocate for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad, and views Syria as an opportunity to reduce Iranian influence in the Middle East. The Obama administration’s decision to opt for diplomacy over force was therefore viewed as a missed opportunity to strike a serious blow against the Syrian regime.
Finally, Riyadh found itself at odds with Washington’s efforts to beat a largely neutral path on the unrest in Egypt this summer, which contrasted with Saudi backing for Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Yet despite public announcements suggesting a shift away from the United States, it’s hard to imagine Saudi Arabia changing its calculus on the U.S.-Saudi alliance anytime soon.
In an effort to quell concerns among the Gulf States, the Obama administration has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to the security its allies in the region as part of its “reassurance diplomacy.” Shortly after Prince Bandar’s meeting with European officials, for example, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and stressed that the relationship between Riyadh and Washington is “strategic” and “enduring,” adding that they share a core interest in halting the development of nuclear weapons. And, following the recent round of P5+1 nuclear negotiations in Geneva, Kerry flew to the United Arab Emirates, where he defended negotiations with Iran, but also made clear that the talks would not affect the U.S.-Gulf “friendship.” In addition, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has announced he intends to visit Bahrain, where he will address U.S. priorities in the Gulf and Middle East at the IISS Manama Dialogue.
But Washington no doubt realizes that supportive words will only go so far – they need to be matched by concrete steps. With this in mind, the United States has considerably deepened its security ties with the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia. In fiscal 2012, foreign military sales to Saudi Arabia increased ten-fold on a year earlier, to $34 billion. More recently, the Defense Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency “notified Congress of a possible Foreign Military Sale to Saudi Arabia of various munitions and associated equipment, parts, training and logistical support for an estimated cost of $6.8 billion.” A similar announcement suggested about $4 billion could be in the pipeline for the United Arab Emirates.
The question in light of the Iran deal, of course, is whether Washington’s statements, visits and military support will be enough to address growing Saudi concerns. But while the most likely answer is probably not, the current climate is unlikely to be enough to change the Gulf states’ perception that the United States is their primary security guarantor. For this reason alone, Saudi Arabia will not shift strategically away from the United States any time soon.
However, although the Saudis are unlikely to want to break with the United States, it’s possible that Riyadh will adopt a more independent, even unilateral, foreign policy – indeed, the potential for doing so was demonstrated by its recent arming and training of Islamic rebel groups in Syria.
In the meantime, expect the United States to continue to work to assuage Gulf fears through public and private assurances. For the foreseeable future, the strategic balance in the region will endure.