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.