Six reasons the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are moving apart

October 22, 2013

Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al-Faisal, a chief architect of the modern U.S.-Saudi partnership, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Ever since the United States and Saudi Arabia fell into something of an alliance in the late 1970s, the world's most unlikely partnership has had lots of down moments. Another big one came this weekend, when Saudi intelligence chief Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud told European diplomats that his country would step back from cooperating with the United States on Syria, according to the Wall Street Journal and Reuters. Bandar said that his country's recent decision to refuse a seat at the U.N. Security Council was meant as a show of public protest against the U.S.

This very public Saudi jab at the U.S. is the latest in a series of  increasingly frequent disputes between the longtime allies. They are probably not on the verge of breaking up, as observers have been predicting since 1990, when the kingdom was roiled by popular outrage against the alliance. But many of the mutual interests that have brought the two countries together seem to be falling apart.

Here's a partial list of those interests and how they're changing in ways that could turn the two countries against one another, very roughly ranked from the biggest disagreement to the smallest. The first six are bad news for the relationship, the last two are good news:

(1) Egypt: At odds. Saudi Arabia strongly opposed the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi and supported the July military coup. The U.S. tepidly supported Morsi and opposed the coup. This August, Saudi Arabia announced that it would replace any foreign aid to Egypt that got cut – a not-so-subtle jab at the U.S., which did later cut military aid to Cairo. Saudi Arabia would seem to be actively undermining U.S. policy in Egypt.

(2) Iran: Could be at odds. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have opposed Tehran, working together to hem in their mutual enemy. It's been a linchpin in the relationship. But now the U.S. and Iran are talking about cutting a nuclear deal, possibly as part of a larger detente, which Saudi Arabia opposes. If the deal goes through, and there's a U.S.-Iran thaw, it would be a big blow to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

(3) Iraq: No more reason to cooperate. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a mutual enemy, and the reason that the U.S. stationed troops in Saudi Arabia in 1990, setting off a public backlash there against the American presence. Now Saddam is gone, replaced by a U.S.-backed Shiite government. Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni and has a poor relationship with Shiites.

(4) Syria: Declining cooperation. As this latest news shows, the Saudis have gotten past the point of frustration with U.S. policy toward Syria's civil war, which they see as disengaged and indecisive. Both countries still want the same outcome – to see the war end in a way that forces President Bashar al-Assad to exit but does not empower extremists – but have very different views about how to do it. Still, it's hard to see the two actively working at cross purposes, given that Riyadh's whole complaint is that the U.S. is disengaging from the issue.

(5) Afghanistan: Declining cooperation. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have worked together on Afghanistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion; they did so again after the Taliban's 2001 ouster and U.S.-led invasion. Once U.S. troops withdraw next year, they will have less reason to work together on Afghan issues. But they will still share an interest in curbing the Taliban and al-Qaeda there, so will likely continue sharing intelligence and counterterrorism work.

(6) Oil: Declining cooperation. As the U.S. starts to produce more of its own energy resources and import less from the Middle East, it has less  interest in Saudi oil. And Saudi Arabia is selling more of its oil to China, which just became the world's largest net importer. Still, oil prices are set on a global market, so as a net importer, the U.S. would like to see Saudi oil continue to flow.

(7) Al-Qaeda: Status quo cooperation. The terrorist group has long targeted both Saudi Arabia and the United States as the "near enemy" and "far enemy," further driving the two together. While al-Qaeda's reach and power declined during much of the past decade, it has seen a resurgence in Syria, Mali and Libya. The U.S. has the firepower and Saudi Arabia has the intelligence, so they need one another. As long as there's instability-fueled extremism, there will be cooperation.

(8) Yemen: Status quo cooperation. Both countries are so concerned about extremism in Yemen that the U.S. built a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia in 2011, from which it's deployed missions to the country. There's also a Shiite insurgency in northern Yemen that Saudi Arabia is very worried about; the U.S. likewise would like to see the country become more stable.

So the future doesn't look terribly bright for the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Still, that doesn't mean they're about to break up. The impossible-seeming relationship has survived  much more serious disputes; as long as there are oil and terrorism in the Middle East, the two countries will still need one another. But they may soon need one another much less than they used to.

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