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The Washington-Riyadh love-fest finally comes out into the open Open in fullscreen

Robert Springborg

The Washington-Riyadh love-fest finally comes out into the open

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a White House lunch [AFP]

Date of publication: 17 May, 2017

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Comment: The US-Saudi relationship has always been a fundamental, if understated feature of both countries' foreign policies. But Trump is about to make the implicit, explicit, writes Robert Springborg.

An embarrassment to both sides

President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia this week will transform the US-Saudi relationship from the implicit to the explicit.

Long a cornerstone of the foreign policies of both countries, that vital relationship has always been understated in Riyadh and Washington, as if an embarrassment to both. 

For its part Washington has intermittently, but ultimately unsuccessfully sought to downgrade the importance of Saudi Arabia in its overall Middle East policy. President John Kennedy reached out to Nasser in the early days of his incumbency, seeking to identify the US with Arab nationalism and to base its regional position more on what appeared to be a strong Egypt, than a faltering Saudi Arabia, whose royal family then seemed anachronistic and vulnerable.

The war in Yemen ultimately put paid to that attempt to rebalance the US position away from the Saudis as Nasser's ambitions and the threat he posed to Gulf oil supplies were just too great to ignore. 

Similarly, President Obama tried to reposition the US away from the Saudis, seeking to portray the US as a progressive power, supportive of Arab youth and its apparent desire for democratisation. His initial trip to the region in June 2009, where he delivered his famous speech in Cairo, did not include a scheduled stop in Riyadh until Saudi protestations caused a brief one to be arranged at the last minute.

Across the Arab world, forces supportive of the Arab Spring will lament the emergence of a Washington-Riyadh axis

Obama's commitment to striking a deal with Iran to restrain its nuclear ambitions reinforced his cold shouldering of Riyadh, as did his courting of Turkey's leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But as with Kennedy, Obama's efforts to rebalance American weight in the Middle East away from Saudi Arabia toward other regional powers that seemed politically less retrograde, ultimately foundered. The coming to power in Egypt of the military, first in league with the Muslim Brotherhood and then on its own, rendered Cairo far less desirable as Washington's substitute for Riyadh.

Similarly, Erdogan's drift to the Islamist right combined with his domestic crackdowns undermined Turkey's appeal as a regional model, initially endorsed by Obama. The deal with Iran led not to a moderation of Tehran's policies, but to yet more regional adventurism. By the end of Obama's tenure he - like Kennedy before him - was circling back around to Saudi Arabia as America's primary regional ally, albeit quietly.

Successive American presidents generally resolved the dilemma of democratic America allying with politically and socially retrograde Saudi Arabia, by diverting public attention

President Trump inherited that momentum and is now making explicit Obama's implicit - if apparently regretted - admission that it is in fact monarchical, fundamentalist Saudi Arabia that is America's most reliable, steadfast ally in the Muslim Middle East, rather than Egypt, Iran or Turkey, countries which on the surface appear to share more "American values" than do the Saudis.

So while the Saudi-American relationship has persisted and outlasted other more transitory bi-lateral regional ties with republican regimes, prior to this time it has been more implicit than explicit, as if the relationship is an embarrassment to both sides and, most especially, to Washington. The Saudis had little interest in proclaiming to their own population or other Arabs their heavy dependence on pro-Israel America, which also intermittently demonstrated its contempt for its most faithful Arab ally by reaching out to its enemies, such as Nasser and Ayatollah Khamanei.

For their part, successive American presidents generally resolved the dilemma of democratic America allying with politically and socially retrograde Saudi Arabia, by diverting public attention from that alliance. It was, in other words, the quiet, but fundamental bilateral relationship for both sides.

A more public, and problematic alliance

The key questions then are what is driving this change and what impacts rendering the relationship much more public and central to both sides will have on it. Might the underlying contradictions become more manifest and problematic in Washington and Riyadh?

Imperatives from both sides are driving the new public declarations of comity. The Saudis who long favoured quiet, checkbook diplomacy are being driven toward a more manifestly aggressive, even breast-beating foreign policy by a combination of factors.

Might the underlying contradictions become more manifest and problematic in Washington and Riyadh?

Far from abating with the passage of time since its revolution, Iranian aggression is posing an ever-greater threat. The Arab Spring appeared to pose a mortal threat to virtually all incumbent Arab regimes and might have resulted in the overthrow of more had the Saudis not undertaken strong "counter-revolutionary" measures, the need for which continues.

Low oil prices since June, 2014, have necessitated not only Saudi belt-tightening, but have elicited a commitment to move the economy "beyond oil," a transition that is bound to intensify domestic economic and political pressures, for which one antidote is an aggressive nationalism.

  Read more: Saudi-Egypt relations: Trump the marriage broker?

Saudi Arabia is presently involved in the inherently parlous leadership transition from the sons to the grandsons of the country's founder, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud. The strategy of King Salman and his sons, the latter led by Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, appears to be one of projecting a new dynamism on both domestic and foreign fronts, presumably out of the calculation that this will legitimise their contested claim to rule.

Across the sand in Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid - the power behind that throne and commander of the UAE armed forces - is modelling behaviour of the warrior prince, signalling that Arab monarchy is youthful, vigorous and fully capable of defending itself against economic, political and military challenges.

Muhammad bin Salman and his fellow Saudi princes are striving hard not to be upstaged. Finally, the Saudis are no doubt taking delight in underscoring the point that Obama and his doctrine have been rejected even in Washington, as Trump's election and now his public embrace of Saudi Arabia attests.

Military considerations are displacing political and diplomatic ones for Trump

For his part Trump seems to be beyond embarrassment on any matter, especially one as relatively trivial in his mind as associating the US publicly with Arab patrimonialism and authoritarianism. Having campaigned against Obama's deal with Iran, he is more than happy to proclaim joint Saudi-American commitment to containing Tehran's growing regional clout.

The Trump foreign policy team is dominated by former generals, while the Department of Defense in the new administration is achieving budgetary and foreign policy supremacy over not only the Department of State, but also over the intelligence agencies. Military considerations are thus displacing political and diplomatic ones for Trump and his team. Among those considerations are further developing regional military alliances, key of which are those with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while bolstering the forces of those countries through new arms deals that will provide major cash injections into America's military-industrial complex.

So both sides are being impelled into a tighter, more open embrace of one another. While this may bring some, if not all of the benefits hoped for by both parties, what is perfectly predictable is negative reactions of various sorts.

Negative reactions

Within Saudi Arabia there is bound to be resentment over linking the country's fate even more tightly to the US. As the Saudis are being asked to tighten their belts, their rulers are announcing record arms deals with Washington. Saudi Arabia's present economic travails are due primarily to the surge in US oil production, touted insultingly in America as reducing US reliance on "oil sheikhs".

As the Saudis are being asked to tighten their belts, their rulers are announcing record arms deals with Washington

Now that the Trump administration is throwing more of its military weight behind the Saudi-Emirati military campaign in Yemen, the prospects for domestic Saudi backlash against it intensifying and feeding off anti-Americanism necessarily grow. Apparent American support for the Salman family's political ambitions can only aggravate intra-Saudi tensions, to say nothing of alienating the general public because that support is being orchestrated by a president widely deemed to be Islamophobic.  

In the region, the most important backlash will be that by Iran, which is likely to seek to put to the test the new Saudi-US alliance in a theatre of its choosing, whether Yemen, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere.

Egypt will be wary of being further downgraded in US geo-strategic calculations, so will court Russia more ardently

Egypt will be wary of being further downgraded in US geo-strategic calculations, so will court Russia more ardently. Israel is supportive of upgrading the Saudi-US relationship, so long as it is directed against Iran and the Palestinians. But the minute Jerusalem sees it as a lever to pressure Israel into making concessions to the Palestinians, it will be opposed.

The costs to the US thus include potential strain in its other important bilateral relations, such as with Egypt and Israel, to say nothing of intensification of proxy and shadow wars with Iran. Across the Arab world, forces supportive of the Arab Spring will lament the emergence of a Washington-Riyadh axis, forged in their mind to oppress Arab freedom and democracy. Anti-Saudi sentiment in the US will also be stoked, adding another item to the long bill of indictment being drawn up against President Trump. 

King Salman and President Trump, by standing shoulder to shoulder this week before the leaders of the GCC states and representatives of some 50 other Arab and Muslim states, are declaring that the US-Saudi relationship that has historically been more implicit than explicit, will henceforth be explicitly central to the foreign policies of both countries.

This departure from the history of the relationship since President Franklin Roosevelt met Ibn Saud on board an American warship as World War II was ending, is inherently a risky undertaking for both sides. That neither seems to demonstrate much risk awareness is all the more concerning.


Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff
 

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