President Obama will soon be in Riyadh, visiting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and no doubt hearing a litany of complaints about American policy towards the Mideast. While the stated purpose of the trip is to soothe the feelings of Saudi leaders who feel neglected and are discontent with American policy, one reality cannot be denied: The US and Saudi Arabia are seeing their interest diverge, and nothing the President can say will alter that. The Saudis have become more of a problem than a trusted ally.
One issue Saudi leaders will push involves Iran. The United States is trying to solve the Iranian crisis, on going since 2003, by improving relations with Iran’s moderate President Rouhani and working towards an agreement on Iranian nuclear weapons. The Saudis see Iran as their major rival in the region – a view they’ve held since Iran’s 1979 revolution – and would prefer that Iran remain a pariah state.
Both states straddle the Persian Gulf. Iran could threaten the strategic and economically vital straits of Hormuz, a narrow passage way through which most Persian Gulf oil flows. With Iraq now developing closer ties to Iran – Saudi leaders openly distrust and will not talk to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – they feel the balance of regional power is shifting away from them. In fact, the Iraqis complain that the Saudis are arming and funding Sunni groups fighting against Iraq’s central government. Some would argue that Saudi Arabia is at war with Iraq!
In that light, closer US – Iranian ties would cause the Saudis to worry about not only their regional power, but also the royal family’s hold on government. As the region changes, their traditional and very conservative rule becomes harder to maintain. And, as much as the West relies on Saudi oil, it may be in our interest to slowly sever the close alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.
First, compare life in Iran with life in Saudi Arabia. Most Americans assume Iran is a bit of a hell hole. Run by an Islamic fundamentalist government, people conjure up images of the Taliban or al qaeda. The reality is quite different. Iran is not only far more democratic than any Arab state (though Iraq is working towards democracy), but Saudi Arabia is where living conditions are defined by a fundamentalist view of Islam. Women cannot drive, they cannot go out publicly without their husband, they cannot work in office where men are present. They can’t even shop in stores which have men! Indeed, if we went by human rights concerns, we’d clearly be on the side of Iran over Saudi Arabia! The Saudis are second only to North Korea in terms of oppression.
In Saudi Arabia not only would such a protest not be allowed, but the woman pictured above would be arrested for simply being out of the house, head not fully covered, and in the company of men. In short, the Saudis have an archaic system that should dissuade us from doing business with them. We do business with them because they have oil. Lots of oil.
Yet Saudi oil isn’t as important as it used to be. The Saudis were the world’s number one producer of oil for decades. Last year, the US took their place. Thanks to natural gas development in the US, as well new oil finds, the United States is producing more domestic oil and gas than people thought possible just a decade ago. That doesn’t mean our troubles are over, but as we shift towards alternative energy sources and develop our own fossil fuels, the utter dependency on Saudi Arabia is weakened. We can afford to have them a bit upset.
Beyond that, they have no real alternative. Oil is a global commodity so they can’t punish only the US by cutting oil supplies. That affects everyone, especially the Saudis! They need to sell their oil to keep their economy afloat. They have not used their oil wealth to build a modern economy, they’ve simply spent it or bought off their population. When the oil runs out, they’ll have squandered an unbelievable opportunity – with our help.
The Arab Spring of 2011 was the start of a regional transition that will take decades. The Saudis, despite the brutality and repression of their secret police, are not immune. Their anachronistic Kingdom has persisted decades longer than it should have. It will not last deep into the 21st Century.
Therein lies the dilemma for the US. Actively supporting a dying Kingdom only makes it likely that the successors will be more fervently anti-American. That’s why Iranian-American relations have been so sour, the US had supported the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran from 1954-79. Yet as tensions continue with that other major energy producer, Russia, the US doesn’t want to needlessly anger the Saudis or risk some kind of crisis. So while our actions will reflect interests that are our own, and not those of the Saudis, expect friendly talk from the President.
Our interest is to mend relations with Iran, the true regional power, settle the dispute over Iranian nuclear energy, and work to support change in the Arab world. The Saudis would love to have us help overthrow Syria’s pro-Iranian government, but that is not in our interest. Change in the Arab world will come about over decades as the culture shifts, it won’t be achieved with just a change in government – look at the troubles Egypt has had since 2011.
So President Obama’s response to Saudi complaints should be to smile, say he understands, and that he’ll take Saudi suggestions seriously. He should have his advisers take vigorous notes about Saudi suggestions, promise his full attention, and then simply say goodbye. If there are symbolic gestures that can soothe their discontent, by all means, soothe. But overall the US should extricate itself from its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and work to address the new realities of the Mideast.