Opinion: U.S. must foster Saudi Arabia ties

October 25, 2013


— The strange thing about the crackup in U.S.-Saudi relations is that it has been on the way for more than two years, like a slow-motion car wreck, but nobody in Riyadh or Washington has done anything decisive to avert it.

The breach became dramatic over the past week. Last Friday, Saudi Arabia refused to take its seat on the United Nations Security Council, in what Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, described as “a message for the U.S., not the U.N,” according to the Wall Street Journal. On Tuesday, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence, voiced “a high level of disappointment in the U.S. government’s dealings” on Syria and the Palestinian issue, in an interview with Al-Monitor.

What should worry the Obama administration is that Saudi concern about U.S. policy in the Middle East is shared by the four other traditional U.S. allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Saudi King Abdullah privately voiced his frustration with U.S. policy during a lunch in Riyadh Monday with King Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the U.A.E., according to a knowledgeable Arab official. The Saudi monarch “is convinced the U.S. is unreliable,” this official said. “I don’t see a genuine desire to fix it” on either side, he added.

The Saudis’ pique, in turn, has reinforced the White House’s frustration that Riyadh is an ungrateful and sometimes petulant ally. When Secretary of State John Kerry was in the region a few weeks ago, he asked to visit Bandar. The Saudi prince is said to have responded that he was on his way out of the kingdom, but that Kerry could meet him at the airport. This response struck U.S. officials as high-handed.

Saudi Arabia obviously wants attention, but what’s surprising is the White House’s inability to convey the desired reassurances over the past two years. The problem was clear in the fall of 2011, when I was told by Saudi officials in Riyadh that they increasingly regarded the U.S. as unreliable and would look elsewhere for their security. President Obama’s reaction to these reports was to be peeved that the Saudis didn’t recognize all that the U.S. was doing behind the scenes to help their security. The president was right on the facts but wrong on the atmospherics.

The bad feeling that developed after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in early 2011 deepened month by month: The U.S. supported Morsi’s election as president; opposed a crackdown by the monarchy in Bahrain against Shiites protesters; cut aid to the Egyptian military after it toppled Mohamed Morsi and crushed the Muslim Brotherhood; promised covert aid to the Syrian rebels it never delivered; threatened to bomb Syria and then allied with Russia, instead; and finally embarked on a diplomatic opening to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s deadly rival in the Gulf.

U.S. policies have been upsetting; but the deeper damage resulted from the Saudi feeling that they were being ignored — and even, in their minds, double-crossed. In the traditional Gulf societies, any such sense of betrayal can do lasting damage, yet the administration let the problems fester.

“Somebody needs to get on an airplane right now and go see the king,” said a former top U.S. official who knows the Saudis well. The Saudi king is “very tribal” in his outlook, this official noted, and in his mind, “your word is your bond.” It’s that sense of trust that has been damaged in the kingdom’s dealings with Obama. One good emissary would be John Brennan, the CIA director, who was station chief in Riyadh in the late 1990s and had a good relationship with the Saudi monarch. Another would be George Tenet, former CIA director, who visited the kingdom often and also developed a trusting relationship with Abdullah.

For much of the past two years, the closest thing the U.S. had to a back channel with Saudi Arabia was Tom Donilon, the national security adviser until last June. He traveled to the kingdom occasionally to pass private messages to Abdullah; those meetings didn’t heal the wounds, but they at least stanched the bleeding. But Susan Rice, Donilon’s successor, has not played a similar bridging role.

The administration’s lack of communication with the Saudis and other Arab allies is mystifying at a time when the U.S. is exploring new policy initiatives, such as working with the Russians on dismantling chemical weapons in Syria and negotiating a possible nuclear deal with Iran. Those U.S. policy initiatives are sound, in the view of many analysts (including me), but they worry the Saudis and others — making close consultation all the more important.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 6 months ago

1) The United States and Saudi Arabia have very different political systems and a very different culture, and that can lead to many misunderstandings. There is no way that will change within the next several generations. International relationships can sour and have soured very quickly many times in history, and it appears that may be happening now between the United States and quite a few other nations.

"Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests."
- Lord Palmerston, British statesman (1784 - 1865)

My opinion is that the administration in Washington, D.C. is doing an excellent job of messing things up the next several generations. Politicians rarely seem to worry about problems that will arise after their term in office is complete, it takes a statesman to do that. And, it seems that very few statesmen have been elected lately. Who would vote for a statesman? The problem is, a statesman is going to be honest during a campaign, skips the slogans, won't make rosy promises for the future, and the only promise you'll get is that he/she will do the best job possible for the nation's future. But, most of the public is only concerned about right now, so don't expect a statesman in Washington D.C. anytime soon.

"Every nation gets the government it deserves."
- Joseph de Maistre, French Savoyard philosopher, writer, lawyer, and diplomat (1753 -1821)

I tend to think that the United States needs Saudi Arabia much more than Saudi Arabia needs the United States because the United States requires the importation of so much crude oil in order for things to continue normally. There is no shortage of buyers for crude oil, and China's projected demand dwarfs the amount that the United States purchases today. So, Saudi Arabia can easily select another purchaser for their crude oil, if they choose to do so.

If large amounts of crude oil begin to trade hands with another currency or physical gold or possibly other precious metals or items, The US Dollar is likely to lose its status as the world's reserve currency. That would be a disaster for us, as the US Dollar's status as the world's reserve currency is the major reason why the United States can continue deficit spending, seemingly without limit.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 6 months ago

2) In my opinion, there are two things that must be done by the United States at an emergency level. One is to mend the rift between the United States and not only Saudi Arabia, but all of the Middle East and the rest of the world for that matter, and the other is for the Federal deficit to be brought under control. Some progress has been made on the deficit, but more needs to be done.

A Federal deficit every year since World War II? That cannot go on forever. At the moment, each man, woman, child that is a citizen of the United States owes $53,868.35.

And, the median wealth per adult was $38,786 per adult in 2012. Note that children are not included in that figure, as they typically have little or no net wealth. So it's even worse than it looks.

Where is the money to pay off the Federal deficit going to come from? Oh well, never mind, put it on the credit card, and let your grandchildren worry about it. But in reality, it will be most likely inflated away, with disastrous consequences for all of us. History is full of examples of that.

"Honestly, Ronnie, it took a wheelbarrow full of money to buy a loaf of bread."
- Margaret Holzwarth, my grandmother (1902 - 1993)

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