President Obama’s brief visit to Saudi Arabia last week was intended to revalidate the security partnership between Washington and Riyadh, and to reconfirm our shared strategic interests in the region, after some unusually public disagreements about the various regional crises. In the runup to the visit, there was much talk of serious rifts in the relationship and some pundits anticipated a difficult encounter, focused on the long list of grievances and disappointments in the relationship. But leaders usually opt for the high road, and it appears that it was a serious and productive exchange of views.
Regional security has always topped the agenda in US-Saudi relations. The Saudis value the relationship with Washington primarily for its contribution to Saudi security, and over the decades, the two countries have been in general agreement about the greatest threats to the region – the Soviet Union, Arab radicalism, a hegemonic Iran, and, since 9-11, Islamic extremism.
This has translated into a robust defense cooperation relationship. According to fact sheets released by the Department of State, the cumulative level of defense sales to Saudi Arabia is the largest of any US supply relationship, and is approaching $100 billion in value. Despite occasional hints that the Saudis are seeking to diversify their security relationships, the fundamental facts are clear: the strategic investment in the United States as security provider remains intact.
At the same time, as part of King Abdullah’s ambitious agenda to develop more indigenous capability in the Kingdom, the Saudis are moving forward on defense industrialization, and on human capital development, including in science and technology. These trends may create irritants in the short run as defense contracts need to accommodate an increasingly Saudi work force. But in the long run, they will strengthen the partnership and the Saudis’ ability to handle some of their security requirements by themselves.
The Saudis see a region in an acute state of weakness, which may make them more reliant on the US, even as they worry about the US commitment and US capacity to deal with the region’s troubles. They see an Arab world in disarray, and a rising Iran that may become less isolated if the nuclear negotiations succeed. The Saudis found the last decade, with Iraq’s disarray, a perceived decline of American effectiveness in the region, the Arab spring and the emergence of sectarianism as a driver of Arab politics, deeply unsettling. However, the prospect of the West normalizing relations with Iran is even more disturbing, occurring when the historic Arab powers of Egypt and Syria are so weakened.
It is not in dispute that the US and Saudi Arabia have had deep tactical disagreements on Syria. The Saudis were angry when the Obama Administration shifted last year from talk of military action against the Assad regime to a focus on chemical weapons elimination. The demand for a more proactive American policy has been steady, and the President may have agreed to an incremental uptick in the quality and quantity of arms to the Syrian rebels. Disagreements over which rebel groups to trust, however, are likely to continue.
An important aspect of the US-Saudi security relationship is the role of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The United States has gently encouraged more integration of defense systems, and has long been concerned at the lack of interoperability among the GCC defense systems, given the small sizes of five of the six GCC members, and the resultant inefficiencies for US forces operating in the theatre.
In principle, the Saudis too want to advance integration of the GCC states, but their recent promotion of a political union has not gained traction, and is largely seen as an effort to build solidarity among Sunni Arab states, facing Iran, Shia-led Iraq, and the sectarian spillover from the Syrian civil war. President Obama had hoped to meet with the GCC collective during his brief trip to the peninsula, but tensions among the GCC states over Qatar’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood position prevented such an encounter. From a regional security perspective, particularly the power struggle between the Saudi-led Arab side of the Gulf and Iran, this was a missed opportunity for the Arab side.
Domestic issues have not been prominent in the bilateral relationship at the leadership level, and it appears that President Obama did not raise human rights or other sensitive issues such as succession in his meeting with the King. The US did acknowledge a woman human rights activist for her work against domestic violence and child abuse, but that did not satisfy those who object to the US-Saudi partnership, given the deep divergences between the two countries on issues of women’s rights and religious tolerance. In the end, the content of the visit was more about shared security interests than any presumption of shared values or common political cultures.
Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza