This paper was originally submitted to the ACRPS Conference on Arab-US Relations, held in Doha on June 14-16, 2014.
Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic program is in troubling times. Its first round of malaise began in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings. For Saudi Arabia, this meant the opening of a Pandora’s Box of political Islam, sectarianism, tribalism, Iranian influence, and al-Qaeda. The forces unleashed in the wake of the uprisings steadily escalated into a series of disagreements with the United States over issues of regional order and possible strategies to manage the chaos of the region.
Led by Saudi Arabia, the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have criticized the positions taken by the United States. On Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Egypt’s political struggles, and the conflict in Syria, the GCC sees naive capitulation to Iranian ambitions, an underestimation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s regional threat, and a dangerous hesitation to intervene in Syria. This comes alongside several shifts in American policy toward the Middle East. From Washington’s announcement of a strategic “pivot” toward Asia, to its growing energy independence, and its near-complete withdrawal of military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, GCC states have become somewhat alarmed, and fear the region is being in many ways abandoned.
Gulf fears of US abandonment are not new—in fact they are deeply etched into the structure of the states’ relationships. As smaller states dependent on a more powerful patron, GCC members have always worried that Washington will abandon them for more predatory neighbors, or entrap them in a regional war of America’s making. New, are both the decibel level and the severity of Saudi Arabia’s response to recent action from the White House. On the editorial pages of Saudi newspapers, columnists have sounded familiar themes with new levels of intensity: The Gulf is being shut out of regional negotiations on Iran; The United States is being duped by Syria. Iran, and Egypt’s Brotherhood.
Fueled by this alarm, Saudi Arabia has undertaken an increasingly activist and assertive foreign policy across the region. In some cases, policies have opposed or even undercut US interests. Bankrolling the Egyptian military’s ejection of the government of Mohamed Morsi and funding radical Salafi opposition groups in Syria are only the two most significant examples. Saudi Arabia has called for a more muscular Gulf defense policy, one that includes a “united military command” of GCC forces, and it has issued veiled threats to the United States about seeking military partners elsewhere.
Although US/GCC disagreements over regional order and Saudi activism should not be dismissed, there are several factors that would militate against a real break in US-Saudi relations.
First, despite overtures to a number of Asian and South Asian powers for arms and trade, Riyadh has no real alternative to the security guarantees offered by the US. Saudi hopes for a watertight defense bloc in the Gulf are likely to prove elusive, as previous efforts at multilateral cooperation on air defense and a unified GCC command structure have foundered due to endemic mistrust and divisions.
Second, the road to a real, game-changing breakthrough in US-Iranian relations—to say nothing of a more modest nuclear détente—will be longer and more uncertain than both Saudi alarmists and Washington optimists believe. If and when it occurs, its effect on US-Saudi relations and the broader region is likely to be less seismic and transformative than is commonly assumed.
Finally, the pillars of US-Saudi cooperation–counterterrorism and military assistance–remain strong and are likely to increase, particularly in light of the growing threat from the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula.