Strange Bedfellows And Marriages Of Convenience

October 30, 2013
Former Saudi ambassador Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud confers with Israeli strategic affairs analyst Yossi Alpher at the National Iranian American Council conference in Washington on Oct. 15. (NIAC)

Former Saudi ambassador Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud confers with Israeli strategic affairs analyst Yossi Alpher at the National Iranian American Council conference in Washington on Oct. 15. (NIAC)

Is there really a serious breach between the United States and Saudi Arabia?  And if so, how far will it go? In the last two weeks, the Saudis have signaled that they want to put some daylight between themselves, on the one hand, and the U.S., the West and the United Nations Security Council, on the other. Just how much daylight remains to be seen.

The Saudis are reacting to what they see as a change in U.S. policy, and Washington’s strategic withdrawal from the Middle East. In the kingdom’s eyes, there has been a substantial weakening of America’s commitment to a military shield that protected close U.S. allies and kept the region more or less stable. That stability essentially guaranteed the security of Saudi Arabia and its oil wealth. But the times are changing.

In mid-October, the Saudis announced their refusal to take a seat on the U.N. Security Council. That announcement was reported to be driven by a series of Saudi concerns about the U.S. and the West, including the U.N.’s failure to intervene to stop the Syrian civil war because of veto threats by Russia and China, America’s confused response to the Syrian crisis and Washington’s recent overtures to Iran, the kingdom’s regional nemesis. Added to that, America’s support for Egyptian President Morsi after his overthrow, including the penalty imposed on the military government now running the country, makes the U.S. look undependable in Saudi eyes.

Saudi concerns with regard to Iran seem to put it in the same boat as Israel. Both countries worry that the United States will loosen its sanctions against Iran without forcing Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Each feels a genuine existential threat from Iran. Thus, while it is difficult to imagine the Arab theocracy and the Jewish democracy on the same side of any issue, the nature of the threats both countries feel from Iran could provide an impetus for some relationship of convenience.

In many respects, Saudi Arabia is well versed in the development of alliances based upon shared interests, rather than shared values.  That is what has defined the U.S.-Saudi relationship: The U.S. wants regional stability and oil; the Saudis want security. And both countries want to fight terrorism. Those interests haven’t changed. But there are now questions raised by the Saudis and others about how committed the U.S. remains to issues that affect certain aspects of regional security.

In light of these developments, a new alliance of convenience could be developed between the Saudis and the Israelis as they both see the waning of Western support for continued sanctions against Iran. Stranger things have happened.

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