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

December 30, 2013

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.

It is this ongoing nuclear negotiation with Iran that poses the principal threat to an aligned United States and Saudi Arabia. An Iranian deal would undercut Saudi Arabia’s leadership over fellow Gulf States, as other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members like Kuwait and the UAE would welcome resurgent trade with Iran. At the same time, Iran would emerge over the longer term as the chief competitor for influence across the broader region, serving as the nexus of Shi’ite power. The Saudis would find themselves most directly threatened by this Shi’ite resurgence within neighboring Bahrain, a majority Shi’ite state ruled by a Sunni regime that is backstopped by the Saudi royals.

The bottom line: the Saudis are actively competing with Iran for influence throughout the Middle East. That’s why the Saudis have the most at stake from any easing of sanctions on Iran, any normalization of relations with the West, or any nuclear breakthrough that gives Iran the ultimate security bargaining chip. The Saudis have reaped the benefits of an economically weak Iran — and they are not prepared to relinquish that advantage. Ultimately, any deal that exchanges Iranian economic security for delays in Iran’s nuclear program is a fundamental problem for Saudi Arabia — as is any failed deal that allows sanctions to unravel.

For all of these reasons, even though the United States will be buying Saudi oil for years to come and will still sell the Saudis weapons, American policy in the Middle East has now made the United States more hostile to Saudi interests than any other major country outside the region. That’s why the Saudis have been so vocal about the United States’ perceived policy failures.

But to say Obama has messed up the Middle East is a serious overstatement. What he has tried to do is avoid getting too involved in a messed up Middle East. Obama ended the war in Iraq. In Libya, he did everything possible to remain on the sidelines, not engaging until the GCC and Arab League beseeched him to — and even then, only in a role of “leading from behind” the French and the British.

Call the Obama policy “engaging to disengage.” In Syria, Obama did everything possible to stay out despite the damage to his international credibility. When the prospect for a chemical weapons agreement arose, he leapt at the chance to point to a tangible achievement that could justify the U.S. remaining a spectator to the broader civil war. In Iran, a key goal of Obama’s diplomatic engagement will be to avoid the use of military force down the road. It hasn’t always been pretty, but Obama has at least been trying to act in the best interests of the United States — interests that are diverging from Saudi Arabia’s.

That is all too clear when you look at the Saudi ambassador to Britain’s perception of the West’s dealings in Syria and Iran: “The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.”

The Saudis have a growing stake in all of these conflicts; for the United States, they are waning as priorities. These Middle East hot spots will remain a mess regardless of the United States’ stance. But the Saudis have a preferred mess — and it’s not the one the Americans are leaving them with.

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) meets with Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) while Amb. Adel Al-Jabeir (C) listens in Riyadh December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool 


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I recall Obama wanting to go into Syria, and it was the American people that kept us out. Not good ol’ Barry-O.

Posted by jwab | Report as abusive

you mean our “allies” the House of Saud..who succored the people who caused so much damage with hijacked airliners. Who are quite generous to the inside the Beltway crowd, and who supported oil embargoes in the 70’s. They always have our best interests in mind as they clutch their U.S. Treasury investments and remind us of it.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

“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.”

Very simply, America would be on the side of pro-democratic reform. The Saudi Royal family could either end up like Britain’s royal family…or like Russia’s. As fir Iran, if (and it’s still a somewhat big if at this point) that country is willing to adhere to acceptable limits on its nuclear program and avoid jeopardizing the security of other nations, then they deserve to be treated as a normal member of the international community. If Saudi Arabia is opposed to that, then they are the ones who are out of line.

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive

1. Saudi Arabia vs Iran rivalry for hegemony in Middle East is an illusion. The winner is Iran for many years. Only US sanctions imposed on Iran (and copied by every other country out of fear of US) tilted balance to Saudi Arabia favour. As always raw numbers speak for themselves. Population: SA 30 million, Iran 77 million. Labour force: SA 8 million (only 2 million Saudis, the rest are foreign workers), Iran 25 million. Education: SA 700 000 students (mainly students of Islam religion, only 10000 Masters degree), Iran 3500 000 students, 700 000 graduates annually. SA education is medieval, Saudis generally do not work and have no skills.
Saudi Arabia does not exist without oil exports, for Iran oil is only 20% of economy. Iran has modern diversified industry. I can quote arguments like this for hours…
The problem is that United States waning power and China/Russia growing economic power means US cannot sustain unilateral Iran sanctions for too long.
US has to forget the times of the only superpower, its military is the strongest one, but in the end of the day both Russia and China also have nukes.
Saudi Arabia has to accept its new, minor role in MENA, even if it hurts their pride. Their situation is not so bad. Oil hungry world will buy its oil to the last barrel.
2. I do not understand why an outright lie about United States becoming self-sufficient in hydrocarbons is repeated thousand times a day in any US media (Goebbels
said such repetition is needed to transform lie to truth but, i do not believe him). Shale oil and gas is a 10 year miracle at maximum (due to obvious geological arguments). With current, obsolete structure of US economy, with its yearly consumption of 1400 million tons of hydrocarbons (an oil equvalent) US is and will be the 2nd largest importer of hydrocarbons (after China) for the next 30 years with the lead over the 3rd one India or Japan by the great margin.
Even if you do not treat Canada as a foreign country (Canada is not allowed to export oil outside US) US will be a substantial importer of oil. And over 50% of world reserves are in MENA/Central Asia region.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

The United States is so controversial in the Middle East that it is often better for us not to take public positions. In some cases, a majority of people might automatically oppose something or someone solely on the basis of support by the United States. Perhaps, in theory, we could take positions supporting our enemies in the expectation that doing so would result in popular opposition to them (based on expressions of U.S. support), but that would be an absurdity. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, and we might be better off silently approving of Saudi those actions which are not inconsistent with U.S. interests.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

If we had taken revenge for 911 properly, Saudi oil would be 100% U.S. owned by now.

Posted by changeling | Report as abusive

There are certain points I found interesting:

1- “The relationship began to deteriorate with the United States’ initial response to the Arab Spring, where it’s perceived pro-democratic stance stood at odds with the Saudi ruling elite. PRO-DEMOCRATIC Stance..who? Saudis? Really?
What does Saudi Arabia have to do with democracy? Banning Women from driving is one piece of evidence on the absence of any democracy in the Wahhabi kingdom.

2- “The Saudi royals were left to wonder where Washington would stand if similar unrest broke out on their soil.” This has gone uncorroborated. Saudi interference in Egypt is so intricate it needs a lengthy essay. However, we must remember that Saudis have never tried to hide their belligerence towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

3- Mr. Bremmer did not mention not even a word on Saudi possible involvement in terrorism or accusations directed at Riyadh by several governments in the region such as Iraq of backing Qaeda-associated groups.

Posted by undecidedyet | Report as abusive

Thing is, the US inherited the alliance with the house of Saud from the Brits. For the Brits, it really was the most natural thing in the world, a bogus royal family. Just like us.

For the US, not so much. Their religious extremism does not sit well with the Jewish lobby, and their fundamentally anti democratic nature is pretty much the polar opposite of the US constitution. It was always going to unravel. 60 years was about as long as you could hope for.

Posted by Urban_Guerilla | Report as abusive

Actually, it is incorrect to say that the U.S. inherited a British alliance with the House of Saud. Prior to World War II, British oil came from what we now call Iran and Iraq, British companies having developed the oil fields there. The military engagements in North Africa between Great Britain and Germany during World War II were about access to that oil through the Suez Canal. After the war, during the 1950s, American oil companies came to the House of Saud and showed them that they had more oil that Iraq and Iran. In addition, the American offered to pay the same price for Saudi crude that they were paying for Texas crude — which was a lot more than the British were paying in neighboring Iraq and Iran. That was the beginning of the Arab-American Oil Company (Aramco), later nationalized by Saudi Arabia. That kind of cut-throat competition was fairly standard between U.S. and British natural resources companies. During the 19th century, the fortune of New York’s Astor family was made in the trade for beaver pelts (for beaver hats, which are the top hats you see in old presidential inauguration photos), which they took away from British traders by paying trappers 10 times what the British had been paying. With a shorter supply chain and fewer middlemen, Astor soon drove the British traders out of the fur business. (The most famous heir to the Astor family fortune later moved to Great Britain and the family married into the landed gentry there. Go figure.)

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Friggin royalty. Is there anything more heinous?

Let the oil companies hire mercenaries to protect their source of evil commodity. That’s a true free market, not this.

US out of the middleeast!

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Two words – OIL and MONEY. Both equate to POWER.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

My reading of history, too. Good to read facts!

Posted by seymourfrogs | Report as abusive

No two countries in the Middle East have done more to undermine long-term American global interests than the Gulf Arabs and the Israelis.

The Iranians, despite their current clerical overseers, are a thoroughly modern people; committed to economic, social, scientific and technical progress. Their women are allowed, and encouraged, to be educated.

The Saudis, on the other hand, are holdouts from the Middle Ages. It is truly difficult to imagine a more backward contemporary people. They have oil, and hence staunch supporters among our greedy politicians; but their despotism, support for religious fanaticism and penchant for terrorism guarantee that they’ll make NO friends among ordinary people in the West.

We know what they are.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

By being de facto 51st state Canada loses about 25 to 35 billion dollars on discounted oil exports to US (in comparison to world prices, it changes from 25 to 50 dollars per barrel to Brent) but it cannot built the pipeline to Pacific Coast that costs 5 billion dollars (to export outside US, or at least bargain with US for price).
So much about free democratic societies (just a grand from each Canadian for Uncle Sam)…

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

Changeling is absolutely correct. A asteroid targeting the Saudi Oil Fields is looking better and better every day.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

What the Obama administration did so far, seems to be the right thing to do as far as the Middle East is concerned. The big question though is, if the Saudis decide to align themselves with another major power, who that power may be? The EU, Russia, China, India? None of them can provide the assurances that the US provides to the Saudis, but what if the Saudis think differently? The Chinese are most likely very busy studying their Sino-Saudi blueprints, and are salivating at the prospect of being invited by the Saudis.

Posted by pk47 | Report as abusive

Obama did do everything possible to stay out of Syria, relying on non-lethal aid, some training and empty rhetoric for over two years. His response to the most lethal chemical weapons attack in 25 years was, by his own admission, a limited, one-time strike; which he then undercut by throwing it to Congress. It has more than clear that he has had no real interest in a military solution in Syria, or any other ME country. His philosophy has been built around diplomacy and light-foot print strategies like drones and special op raids.

Posted by adbstern | Report as abusive

Everyone else posting “knows” more than the writer. Thanks.

Posted by ThomasShaf | Report as abusive

Contrary to the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration seems to be intervening in North Africa and the Middle East in a completely random fashion. It supports conservative Muslim factions in one place to fight them right across the border. To these add complete U-turns towards countries like Tunisia or Egypt.

Even taking the rosy forecasts by the EIA one gets at best to an ultimate of 10 Gb for tight petroleum reserves in the US. Iraq has 10 times that, Saudi about 15 times, all in conventional reservoirs. Using tight petroleum as an argument to justify the actions by the Obama Administration simply serves to show how devoid of strategy foreign policy in the US has become. Even acknowledging the success with Iran.

Posted by Luis_de_Sousa | Report as abusive