November 26th, 2013
05:25 PM ET

Despite frustrations, Saudis unlikely to break with U.S.

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.

Post by:
Topics: Middle East • Saudi Arabia

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. ✠RZ✠

    Not too sure if robbing a camel might get ya the death penalty, but kiss up to Iran and you'll get purchase orders for multi-billions in military hardware and even more multi-billion orders for new commercial jet airliners. But what are they going to do with the fleets of all the old jets? Have them hi-jacked and flown into Iranian buildings?

    November 26, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      @RS, that raises the fascinating question of how much trade could exist were the human instinct for aggression removed.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:53 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Indeed Saudi-US cooperation in counter-terrorism runs deep, with the CIA and FBI providing much of the technical expertise. The powerful Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, will be in no hurry to see that co-operation jeopardised. The recent development shouldn't be seen as a rift in their relations and the Saudi complaints would hardly herald an end to a profound security pact that has already endured such challenges.

        November 28, 2013 at 6:38 am |
  2. new_york_loner

    Here are the amounts of cash that the following top five recipients in the US Senate have taken from the Israel lobby, in just this past election cycle....totals are much higher:

    Mark Kirk...$925,379
    John McCain... $771,012
    Mitch McConnell...$430,925
    Carl Levin...$346,478
    Robert Menéndez....$344,670

    My source is here:

    Notice how these five sleazy guys are now leading the charge to work for Israel's perceived national interest; while functionally ignoring the national interests of the USA. And the major US media are very happy with the status quo...politics is a cash cow for CNN and the other media.

    November 27, 2013 at 7:17 am |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well posted, new_york_loner. Don't forget that these guys along with other right-wingers are also being paid off by the powerful war lobby in Washington D.C. This is how Washington does business!

      November 27, 2013 at 8:11 am |
      • new_york_loner

        Thank you, Joseph McCarthy.

        Opensecrets and Maplight keep tabs on all the special interests and they list how much each politician in Washington has accepted from them.

        As I see it, the war super-lobby consists of the Defense, Israel and Energy lobbies, (mnemonic acronym: DIE). Their selfish special interests overlap in the Middle East, like a Venn diagram. The DIE super lobby exerts irresistible influence over the Congress and the White House.

        The Defense industry is international in nature....Israel is a foreign country with its own national interests, agenda and priorities....and the Energy industry is international in nature. Obviously, the DIE trio does not represent what's in the best interests of the American people.

        The Citizens United decision has made a bad situation even worse...dual citizenship (US-Israel) guys, like Sheld0n Adelson, are now able to pump unlimited amounts of cash into the political system....and it's 100% legal.

        We have no reciprocal control over the Israeli Knesset, the Israelis would never tolerate that.....but we are to quietly tolerate their meddling i our affairs, or be branded as, "Jew-haters".

        November 27, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • ✠RZ✠

      One must also question if there might just be any unseen contributions and benefits as well? It would also be interesting to see how much personal taxes are actually paid vs their real income and benefits.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:25 am |
  3. new_york_loner

    Testing....I tried to reply to RZ, twice....posts never went I now banned on CNN?

    November 27, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • ✠RZ✠

      It's ok ny_loner, the question was obviously rhetorical. Big money, derivatives and hedge funds, tax avoidance. Go figure.

      November 28, 2013 at 7:20 am |
  4. thomas1

    Judging what I've heard from last night's Outfront with Erin Burnett, The Iranians have difficulty understanding the just completed nuclear agreement. So the US-Saudi agreement seems to be steady, in as much as Iran is delaying concrete action with half-truths, feigning understanding of agreements, etc.

    So unless I'm mistaken, we'll see the fan splattered, and the Israeli-US-Saudi Arabia defense arrangement strengthened.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • new_york_loner

      Thomas....the fact that the Sunni Saudis hate the Shiite Persians so much that they would militarily ally themselves with the Jewish state is quite illuminating....apparently, the time-honored internecine feud between these two Islamic sects is paramount in their thinking, it is their over-arching obsession....maybe, if we simply got out of their way, the two factions would finally and permanently destroy each other.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  5. thomas1

    New York loner: To your last sentence: If it were only that easy.

    November 27, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  6. chrissy

    I do agree @ thomas1 if only... But since nuclear weapons would most likely be involved we must keep a watchful eye mustnt we? And we also know that Israel does not have the most honorable intentions either.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
  7. thomas1

    Chrissy: One must consider government and global corporate interests. They won't jibe with yours and mine, but that's the world we inhabit. Cynicism may be overwhelming me, but i don't think so.


    Israel: An estimated 60-70 nuclear warheads or at least the stock to produce that. Most likely have launch capabilities.

    Iran: Unsure, but perhaps enough material to build five warheads.

    Saudi Arabia: So far as we know, no nuclear weapons programs, though reportedly consulting with the Pakistanis.

    No desire to go through the list, though if you google search Nuclear Threat Initiative, one could find more details.

    As to the Israeli style of government, an article in either Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy within the last six months describes widespread corruption within the Knesset.

    If I find it, I will post it here or on another relevant topic within GPS.

    November 27, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
  8. thomas1

    November 27, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  9. chrissy

    Thank you @ thomas1, and i find nothing wrong with your being a cynic. As you said its the world we live in. Now im going to check this info out, and again thank you. Ttys.

    November 27, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
  10. thomas1

    Mordecai Vanunu: Israei nuclear program whistleblower. Wikipedia bio is interesting.

    Chrissy: I do ttms. Frustrated with greed, ineptness, and equivocation fron the psychopaths.

    November 28, 2013 at 9:25 am |
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