Home inContext Rising Tension Seen Between US and Saudis

Rising Tension Seen Between US and Saudis

Alex Finkelstein

Last week Saudi officials rejected an invitation to meet with a bipartisan congressional delegation. The snub was an especially pointed rebuke because the Saudis already paid the travel expenses of the delegation, however, they would not let them meet with Foreign Affairs or Defense Ministry officials once they arrived. Around the same time as this diplomatic fracas, unnamed sources revealed that President Obama plans to visit Saudi Arabia and meet with King Abdullah in March. The goal of the meeting is to ease tensions over differences regarding the conflict in Syria and nuclear diplomacy with Iran. This will be Obama’s first visit to the Middle East region since March of last year, however, he is planning to meet with the King Abdullah II of Jordan in California in two weeks.

The main issue for the Saudis is what they perceive of as the lack of communication from the White House. The administration had denied that talks with Iran were ongoing earlier in 2013. When it was disclosed that talks had begun in March of last year, the Saudis felt deceived. Officials in Riyadh said they do not have a close  personal relationship with the current administration, a sentiment echoed by many US allies in the region. The Obama summit in March is a potential step to rebuild the broken connection.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal greets Kerry at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on January 5th, 2014. (Photo: AP)

The Saudis have also expressed concern with the U.S. position in Syria. Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats in October that the American administration had failed to act effectively against Assad. The Saudis also declined to accept the seat on the UN Security Council for which they had campaigned,  Saudi Prince Faisal al Turki said, “There is nothing whimsical about the decision to forego membership of the Security Council. It is based on the ineffectual experience of that body.”

Secretary Kerry visited the Saudi capital in early November, in an unsuccessful effort to abate their concerns. Along with apprehensions over the Iranian nuclear program, Saudis are unhappy with the decision not to carry out limited strikes in Syria and punish the Assad regime for chemical weapons use on rebel soldiers and civilians. In their opinion, the conflict in Syria is a proxy for a larger sectarian conflict with Shia Iran. Hence, a lack of US support is perceived as a major slap in the face in a larger power struggle rather than a small disagreement over minor issues.

In light of the changing status quo, Saudis have sought other ways to retain their influence, donating $3 billion to the Lebanese military to contain the power of Hezbollah and other negative spillover effects from the war in Syria. They also backed the ouster of President Morsi in Egypt and are using their clout to gain a foothold in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As a last resort the Saudis are also willing to buy or build nuclear weapons and have guaranteed that outcome if Iran successfully pursues the nuclear option.