This article can also be found at Tremr.
President Obama traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia this week in what was likely the final trip of his presidency to the Middle Eastern kingdom. Obama met with King Salman and other Gulf leaders during the trip to discuss regional issues. In a meeting on Wednesday, Obama and King Salman covered sensitive issues that ranged from human rights to more effectively combating terrorism.
The visit symbolized an apparent turning point for the worse in US-Saudi relations; shortly before the visit Obama had criticized the Saudis of being “free riders” for continuously attempting to involve the US in Middle Eastern conflicts that are irrelevant to American interests. Reportedly Obama had made the trip in part to patch things up between the two nations, but matters were likely only made more complicated.
The relationship between the Americans and the Saudis is historically an amicable one. In the 71-year strategic partnership, the two nations had an understanding: the Saudis would give the Americans a steady supply of oil, and thus the Americans would come to the aid of the Saudis and conveniently forgo any criticism of Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights records or its lack of a transparent political process. Until fairly recently, the relationship was a comfortably beneficial one.
So, what happened?
In summary, it’s difficult for two nations that do not share many common interests or values to continue to call themselves “allies.” The two nations are growing increasingly further apart in their respective interests. The West and the Middle East have never quite seen eye-to-eye on a plethora of issues, but Obama’s increasingly candid frustrations with the conflict-ridden Arab world have left Saudi leaders in a state of distrust of the American government.
The crumbling relationship didn’t just start with Obama’s “free-rider” comment; during the Arab Spring in 2011, Saudi Arabia watched nervously as the US let go of Egypt, its old friend with its own human rights abuses. Since then there have been numerous disagreements regarding how to handle various conflicts in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has condemned Obama’s decision not to use airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013, for example. In fact, Saudi Arabia has responded to crises completely contrary to the US’s interests; it launched a military offensive in Yemen which ultimately failed to defeat the Houthi rebels, and has executed many of its own people on terrorism suspicions.
And to add icing to the cake, the US no longer requires oil solely from Saudi Arabia, due to shale technology and domestic production.
A big source of contention between the two nations is the US’s evolving relationship with Iran. In another candid sentiment, Obama recently suggested that Saudi Arabia and Iran, its arch-nemesis, should perhaps “share” the region. Predictably, that suggestion did not go over well with the Saudis, who feel directly threatened by the Iran Nuclear Deal. They feel that the US is beginning to shift its strategic partnership instead to Iran. Obama has stated that choosing to back the Saudis over the instigation of the nuclear deal with Iran “would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”
Perhaps the most sensitive issue that has continued to haunt the two nations is the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on American soil. Congress is currently contemplating the passing of a bill that would hold the Saudi government liable for its alleged contribution to the attacks, should it be found responsible in an infamous 28-page classified report that supposedly contains intelligence on the matter. Saudi Arabia has retorted by threatening to “sell off nearly a trillion dollars in assets held in the US,” should Congress pass the bill. Under a preexisting 1976 law, foreign governments are immune to many types of lawsuits in American courts. The above-mentioned bill would hold foreign governments accountable for killing Americans on American soil.
Many politicians support the bill, including presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The Obama Administration, on the other hand, does not support it and has even lobbied for Congress not to pass it. In February, John Kerry stated that “the bill would create a terrible precedent” in that it could prompt other countries to in turn hold the US legally accountable for similar acts and could expose American soldiers abroad.
Despite the weakening relationship between the two nations, the US and Saudi Arabia are still on the same diplomatic page in various respects. As a relatively stable nation, Saudi Arabia is still one of the US’s most important allies in the Middle East. Both nations have a vested interest in combating the Islamic State and terrorism and Saudi Arabia provides the US with intelligence on terrorist groups. Saudi Arabia depends heavily on the American military to defend it, as it doesn’t have the military strength to defend itself. Many American politicians and economists have also been skeptical of Saudi Arabia’s threat to withdraw investments, should Congress pass the 9/11 bill – the move would likely be even more detrimental to the Saudi economy than to the American economy. And although the US does not have to rely on Saudi oil any longer, the low prices of Saudi oil are still much more appealing and economically practicable than any other options the US has.
Now to address the million-dollar question presented in the title of this article: is it really over between the US and Saudi Arabia? Improbable. Despite the new-found mutual distrust between Riyadh and Washington D.C., it seems that the benefits and disagreements have equal leverage in the relationship. As CNN puts it, the two nations are just stuck in a “bad marriage” where neither divorce nor a grand reconciliation is likely any time soon.
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