March 27, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The President Goes to Riyadh: A Relationship Under Stress

• President Obama will not expect a particularly warm welcome when he visits Riyadh from 28 to 30 March

• Policy differences on Egypt, Iran, and Syria reflect very different views of the region and the direction it should take

• Washington and Riyadh face complex domestic problems not made easier by these disagreements

• Shared interests and political necessity, particularly in dealing with terrorism, are enough to keep the relationship strong, but problems will remain.

.   President Obama’s on-again off-again visit to Saudi Arabia takes place against a complicated and unpromising backdrop in both countries. Originally, President Obama was to address a summit meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council members, but tensions in the Gulf shifted the agenda to a one-on-one meeting with Saudi’s King Abdullah.

This will not be an easy-going trip with customary approbation, plenty of smiles, and the announcement of a massive new arms contract. Saudi Arabia faces several problems, some common to other Middle East countries, some more specifically its own, and it sees the United States as in part responsible. The US also faces problems at home, with domestic opposition to the Administration complicating several delicate foreign policy issues, for some of which it sees Saudi Arabia in part responsible.

The Saudi Kingdom has enjoyed many years of regional domination and complete confidence in its preeminent position as a US ally. But over the last several years, vulnerabilities have begun to emerge. Its economy remains over dependent on the oil sector, which supplies about 80% of government revenue and 90% of export income, and despite its size, Saudi Arabia has had difficulty finding employment for its booming youth population. Education is not matched to the country’s needs and as a result, unemployment hovers around 10%, while approximately 80% of the work force is comprised of foreign nationals.

While it remains the Kingdom’s biggest customer, fracking and other modern extraction methods have made the US a bigger producer of energy than Saudi Arabia and commensurately less dependent on its oil. This has encouraged Saudi Arabia to consider other partnerships as it has begun to regard the US as a less committed supporter.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has found itself, at least temporarily, on the wrong side of history in the Arab Spring. Although from the Kingdom’s perspective the ship has righted itself somewhat with the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the region is by no means back on a steady Saudi-friendly course. Syria is a policy set back, and the resurgence of Iran on the world stage presents a challenge that has not only undermined Saudi hegemony within the Gulf Cooperation Council as fundamental policy differences emerge, but has also made the Saudis more fearful of the loyalty of their Shi’a community in the eastern part of the country—where much of the Kingdom’s oil is found. And then there is the Saudi view of Qatar, with its independent policies, enviable new wealth, and tendentious television station, Al Jazeera.

The US has a number of important foreign policy objectives which are both difficult to achieve and controversial at home. A satisfactory nuclear deal with Iran would be an achievement that everyone should applaud, not just in terms of global security but also in terms of bringing Iran back into the global community. Moreover, a sustainable deal would likely benefit Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, all places where levels of instability have serious international consequences. However, both Saudi Arabia and Israel, brought together in an unlikely alliance-in-principle, regard Iran’s rehabilitation as a direct threat to their own security, and they have the money and influence to be able to persuade members of the US Congress to scupper any agreement. Syria itself also presents a dilemma, especially as US-Russian relations are in negative territory and the Geneva process is profoundly dormant.

The US needs all involved to pull together concerning policy towards the opposition, and it regards the competing funding streams as unhelpful. The awkward situation now is that if extremist rebel groups in Syria, such as the Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, increase their power, they will make a solution in Syria harder to achieve and increase international concerns about terrorism; if they are driven out, then their members will be likely to destabilize the countries they end up in, as well as raise the terrorist threat.

In addition, there is a difference of opinion over Egypt, with the US far more hesitant about backing or even accepting a return to status quo ante—especially if it relies on suppression—while  Saudi Arabia regards the success of the new order as essential to regional stability.

Finally, the Middle East Peace Process is once again at the point of collapse and would need significant help from Saudi Arabia to be revived, help the Saudis are unlikely to provide if it empowers Hamas or requires overt recognition of Israel as a Jewish State.

So the US and Saudi teams will have a lot to discuss, and they will find no easy answers. If the visit is to be successful, it will need more than the diplomatic fudge of a joint press statement. Leadership and vision are required; and although there is no shortage of these qualities on either side, it will also require courage. There are hard decisions to be made about the future of the Middle East and the course of US relations and partnerships in the region. And as with any hard decision, part of the difficulty lies in overcoming short-term opposition in the hope of long-term gain.

Nonetheless, the bilateral relationship is underpinned by both political necessity and the lack of attractive alternatives. Both Washington and Riyadh fear the resurgence of terrorism and need each other’s help to address the threat effectively. The US was pleased to see the King’s recent decree prohibiting Saudis from fighting abroad (read Syria) and supporting terrorist groups (see TSG's IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia's Major Domestic & Foreign Policy Moves). And it’s likely Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, will play a crucial role in ensuring that effective cooperation against violent extremists reminds both sides that the benefits of a steady relationship are real and obvious.   .

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