Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Why Saudi Arabia and the U.S. don’t see eye to eye in the Middle East

Ian Bremmer
Dec 30, 2013 15:42 UTC

Give credit to Vladimir Putin and his New York Times op-ed on Syria for sparking a new tactic for foreign leaders hoping to influence American public opinion. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabian political elites have followed Putin’s lead, using American outlets to express their distaste with the West’s foreign policy, particularly with regard to Syria and Iran. In comments to the Wall Street Journal, prominent Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal decried the United States for cutting a preliminary deal with Iran on its nuclear program without giving the Saudis a seat at the table, and for Washington’s unwillingness to oppose Assad in the wake of the atrocities he’s committed. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain followed with an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Saudi Arabia Will Go It Alone.” The Saudis are clearly upholding the vow made by intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan back in October to undergo a “major shift” away from the United States.

In light of the recent actions of the Obama administration, many allies are also frustrated and confused, and even hedging their bets in reaction to the United States’ increasingly unpredictable foreign policy. But of all the disappointed countries, none is more so than Saudi Arabia — and with good reason. That’s because the two countries have shared interests historically — but not core values — and those interests have recently diverged.

First, America’s track record in the Middle East in recent years has sowed distrust. The relationship began to deteriorate with the United States’ initial response to the Arab Spring, where its perceived pro-democratic stance stood at odds with the Saudi ruling elite. After Washington stood behind the elections that installed a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and then spoke out against the Egyptian army’s attempt to remove President Mohammad Morsi, the Saudi royals were left to wonder where Washington would stand if similar unrest broke out on their soil.

Second, while the oil trade has historically aligned U.S.-Saudi interests, the unconventional energy breakthrough in North America is calling this into question. The United States and Canada are utilizing hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques, leading to a surge in domestic energy production. That development leaves America significantly less dependent on oil from the Middle East, and contributes to the U.S.’ shifting interests and increasing disengagement in the region. Not only does Saudi Arabia lose influence in Washington — many of the top American executives in the oil industry were their best conduits — but it also puts the Saudis on the wrong end of this long-term trend toward increasing global energy supply.

To say that oil is an integral part of Saudi Arabia’s economy is a gross understatement. Oil still accounts for 45 percent of Saudi GDP, 80 percent of budget revenue, and 90 percent of exports. In the months ahead, new oil supply is expected to outstrip new demand, largely on the back of improvements in output in Iraq and Libya. By the end of the first quarter of 2014, Saudi Arabia will likely have to reduce production to keep prices stable. And the trend toward more supply doesn’t take into account the potential for a comprehensive Iranian nuclear deal that would begin to ease sanctions and allow more Iranian crude to reach global markets.

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Dec 20, 2013 16:47 UTC

Political risk must-reads

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political-risk junkie — presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

New project to create drinking water from the Red Sea will also boost shrinking Dead Sea – William Booth and Howard Schneider, Washington Post

What are the implications of a Red Sea-Dead Sea initiative that required buy-in from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority?

Ukrainian President Yanukovich has bad and worse options

Ian Bremmer
Dec 13, 2013 15:56 UTC

Since the Ukrainian government’s November 21 decision to suspend free trade talks with the European Union, the country has descended into crisis. Hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets, angry with President Viktor Yanukovich’s choice and its implications. Violent clashes between law enforcement and protestors have stoked tensions even more; most recently, the government’s failed attempt to forcibly clear protestors out of Independence Square — their nexus of operation — has made the chance for compromise even bleaker.

So how did we get here? Ukraine is the perfect case study for what I’ve referred to in the past as a “shadow state”: it cannot free itself from Russia’s overwhelming influence, nor is it beneficial or domestically popular for it to give in and integrate with Russia further. So while Ukraine cannot leave Russia’s orbit, in recent years, Yanukovich’s government has managed to juggle between the competing spheres of influence of Russia and the European Union.

However, this fragile status quo has fallen apart thanks to a worsening economic situation and more pressure from Russia. Ukraine faces a three-prong predicament, starting with a struggling economy that is forcing Yanukovich to look for aid — or risk full-fledged economic crisis or default.  Second, the EU and Russia, the two major powers that could provide this assistance, have serious quid pro quos attached to any economic relief they might offer. Third, the two powers’ demands have become mutually exclusive: the EU won’t accept Ukraine if it gravitates toward Russian President Putin’s geopolitical pet project, the Eurasian Union, while Putin won’t accept Ukraine if it moves toward EU partnership.

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Dec 11, 2013 17:13 UTC

Political risk must-reads

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political-risk junkie — presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

Obama thaws U.S.-Cuba relations – DeWayne Wickham, USA Today

Are we witnessing a potential improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations? Was Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service merely an attempt to avoid a diplomatic snub — or did it signal something more substantial to come?

Round Two: EU Grooming Klitschko to Lead Ukraine – Nikolaus Blome, Matthais Gebauer, and Ralf Neukirch, Spiegel Online

China’s air zone announcement was just the beginning

Ian Bremmer
Dec 9, 2013 15:37 UTC

When China announced its decision to claim a wider air zone that encompassed the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Island territories, the East China Sea erupted into conflict reminiscent of the Cold War era. In response, the United States and Japan declared the zone illegitimate and flew military aircraft through it, while China deployed fighter jets to identify them.

But this was not a simple instance of China overstepping and getting burned — nor was it as sudden and unexpected as headlines suggest. Rather, it was the manifestation of a longstanding Chinese regional strategy that is only just beginning. And China is likely quite pleased with how it is playing out thus far.

For years, China has been looking for opportune moments to test the existing status quo of regional security, and then advance its self-interests. Ever since the summer of 2012, when Japan’s Noda-led government announced its intention to purchase more of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner, China has felt that the precarious equilibrium between the two countries had shifted. It was only a matter of time before China would try and change the status quo.

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