The three reasons behind US-Saudi fall-out

The Saudis, in a pique over US policy on Syria and Egypt, finally snapped at a potential thaw with Iran.

The Saudis are feeling threatened by a US-Iran rapprochement [Reuters]

As the cost of keeping its presence all over the world is becoming unbearably high, the US, in its pursuit to reduce this cost, needs to partially replace some of its presence by a new kind of cooperation with efficient, local or global, actors. This new strategy of sharing costs and benefits comes at the expense of its allies, like Saudi Arabia (KSA) with regard to Iran, or Europe with regard to Russia. 

At the same time, when considering Saudi Arabia’s diplomacy, we are invited to dedicate a great deal of our attention to three high-activity areas: threat neutralisation, legitimacy consolidation, and the pursuit of interests. This is what I call the traditional list. 

Because power is shared on a large scale, cooperation and coherence tend to be most obvious on security issues, thereby creating an environment where security-oriented policies enjoy the delicate attention of almost all actors. Thus, a high degree of importance and effectiveness is visible. And since one effective tool for ensuring – or compromising for that matter – security is legitimacy, then legitimacy-oriented policies come second. This could partially explain why Saudi foreign policy tended, in the past, to be reactive more than on the acting side. However, due to internal structural changes that Saudi Arabia is undergoing, this traditional list is very likely to be different in the near future, leading to a new tone in Saudi diplomacy.

These elements lead both countries to redefine their roles in the region. That is the context of the recent Saudi-US rift.

While both countries regard the Arab Spring as being a threat as well as an opportunity, they differ on the identification of threats and opportunities. Hence, their policies differ regarding the Arab Spring countries, like Egypt and Syria. The same could be said with regard to other actors in the region, like Iran.

Egypt’s drift

In Egypt, the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to power posed a real problem to Saudi Arabia. Unlike the US, which doesn’t want to repeat the bad experience it had with Iran under Islamist rule in Egypt’s Muslim brotherhood, Saudi Arabia doesn’t look favourably upon Islamist parties running governments in the Arab World. One main reason is that Saudi Arabia has always portrayed itself as ruling according to Islamic Law (Sharia), which  – according to its own perception of Sharia – prohibits democracy and freedoms. Now, it has a rival which, in the name of Sharia, is making serious attempts to install a democratic political system. This explains, partially, why Saudi Arabia, in December 2011, made a sudden shift of focus in its legitimacy discourse from the idea of Islam in general, to Salafism. For Saudi Arabia, this is an existential crisis to which the US doesn’t seem to be paying enough attention.

The US that treaded carefully on the expansion of NATO to the East, lest it upset Russia, offered alternative assurances to its allies in Europe, like deployment of the Patriot missiles. Despite getting closer to Iran, the US doesn’t offer alternative assurances to Saudi Arabia.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia has worked extensively in the past three decades on building an anti-Iran front in the region, of which Egypt was a cornerstone. Riyadh believes that MB’s foreign policy posed a threat to this position, by Egypt’s drift from Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and by a rapprochement with Iran on the other. As a consequence, and in sharp and rare contrast with the US, Saudi Arabia strongly supported the military intervention which ousted the democratically elected president in Egypt, Mohamed Morsi.  

Saudi failure in Syria

Syria, however, has always been regarded by Saudi Arabia as Iran’s gate to the Arab world. This is the reason why Saudi Arabia attempted many a time to polarise Syria and drive it away from Iran. The same thing was tried by Western countries. Neither were successful. Nonetheless, when the Syrian people took to the streets, the Saudi hope of ending the Syria-Iran alliance was revived.

But, the US is reluctant to provide intelligence and military support to the rebels. From the Saudi perspective,the absence of such a backing prolonged the war against the Syrian regime as well as made the rebels more vulnerable to extremist forces. Additionally, the Saudis had high hopes for a US military strike on Bashar al-Assad forces, following the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians by the regime, thus putting an end to his reign. The strike didn’t take place and Riyadh was profoundly unhappy.

Iran angle

These two dossiers, Egypt and Syria, were a major disappointment for Saudi Arabia. The fact that the US seems to be getting closer to Iran doesn’t help alleviate this disappointment. On the contrary, it aggravates Saudi concerns.

One reason why the Saudis seem anxious about the US-Iran rapprochement is that it appears to be happening within a strategic framework, rather than a tactical one. With the new US strategy, keeping shared costs and benefits in mind, it is not impossible to imagine a complete normalisation between both countries. The new strategy means subjugating the region to one major state-actor capable of maintaining US interests, like Iran. In exchange for bearing part of the cost of that maintenance, there will be the sharing of some of the benefits of power and hegemony. That would be at the expense of the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.

There is a long history of such an understanding between the US and Iran. Additionally, the internal changes that Iran is going through facilitate this rapprochement. The legitimacy discourse, for example, that is based on the idea of madloumiyah (being subject to oppression), which translates into antagonising the outside world, seems to be retreating. One sign of such a change is the Green Movement that relates legitimacy of power to development and modernising the country. This movement looks favourably on better relations with the West.    

A crisis of trust   

There is a change in the Saudi traditional list – which reflects an even deeper change, touching the structure of power as well as its nature. And a new US strategy, sharing costs and benefits, has emerged. In this context, coupled with disappointments in important regional dossiers, there seems to be a crisis of trust. Saudi Arabia is seriously questioning its ability to trust, as well as rely on, the US.

The US that treaded carefully on the expansion of NATO to the East, lest it upset Russia, offered alternative assurances to its allies in Europe, like deployment of the Patriot missiles. Despite getting closer to Iran, the US doesn’t offer alternative assurances to Saudi Arabia. Assurances that should begin and end, according to Saudi Arabia, with one thing: maintaining the anti-Iran front. This front would be deeply compromised, the Saudis seem to think, if the US doesn’t cooperate with Riyadh on Egypt and Syria.

This could explain why Saudi Arabia turned down the Security Council seat: to voice its frustration and disappointment with US foreign policy. The incapability of the Security Council to resolve all problems is nothing new. Such has been the case ever since it was founded. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has always been active in this international framework. So why the sudden objection? 

The objection appears to be a reaction to a void in its security and strategic alliances. Therefore, it is only logical to think that this objection is a way to voice its frustration with the ally that has filled this void since 1945, namely, the US. 

Yet, and given that it has no other security alternatives ready at hand, Saudi Arabia has an interest in finding common ground with the US. At the same time, the latter has a real interest in compromising with the former. Hence, this rift between the two countries is not expected to last very long. Rather, it is aimed at taking the Saudi-US relations to a different level, more adjusted to the context of the rift itself – internal changes and the new strategy.

Mansour Almarzoqi Albogami is an academic and researcher on Saudi politics at Sciences Po de Lyon, France.