Abdel Bari Atwan
Saudi-US relations have reached crisis point as is made clear in the publication of two unprecedented documents: the first, a long interview with President Obama in Atlantic Magazine; the other the Saudi Shadow Foreign Minister, Prince Turki al-Faisal’s repost. Both are characterized by extraordinary anger and viciousness, far exceeding all diplomatic norms and traditions established over the eighty-year relationship between the two countries. So what has changed? Is this simply the personal opinion of Barack Obama as he prepares to take leave of the White House or has there been a fundamental shift which has seen Saudi Arabia transit from regional champion to loser?
It is significant that President Obama will visit Riyadh late next month to attend the Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Perhaps he intends to do some bridge-building, but this will not be an easy task; trust was already as brittle as a pane of glass after Washington’s rapprochement with Iran last year.
In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama described ‘Gulf countries’ as ‘freeloaders’ who have developed ‘a habit over the years of pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put skin on the game…
Prince Turki Al-Faisal’s open letter, published in Arab News expresses a deep sense of betrayal, particularly over this accusation: ‘No, Mr. Obama. We are not “free riders.” We shared with you our intelligence that prevented deadly terrorist attacks on America.
We initiated the meetings that led to the coalition that is fighting Daesh’.
Describing the Saudis’ bloody war in Yemen as ‘helping the Yemeni people reclaim their country from the murderous militia the Houthis, who, with the support of the Iranian leadership, tried to occupy Yemen’ Turki goes on to bemoan Obama’s change of heart in regard to Tehran: ‘You affirmed the “need, in particular, to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities,”’ he writes. ‘Now, you throw us a curve ball. You accuse us of fomenting sectarian strife in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. You add insult to injury by telling us to share our world with Iran, a country that you describe as a supporter of terrorism and which you promised our king to counter its “destabilizing activities.”’
Next, Faisal describes how the Saudis have used their enormous wealth to help out the West: ‘We combat extremist ideology that attempts to hijack our religion, on all levels. We are the sole funders of the United Nations Counter-terrorism Center, which pools intelligence, political, economic, and human resources, worldwide. We buy US treasury bonds, with small interest returns, that help your country’s economy. We send thousands of our students to your universities, at enormous expense, to acquire knowledge and knowhow. We host over 30,000 American citizens and pay them top dollar in our businesses and industry for their skills.’
Faisal’s letter demonstrates how out of touch the Saudi regime has become – or at least with current US thinking. Money is no longer enough to buy loyalty and guns. Obama – a strategic thinker – has clearly pondered greatly on the failures of his predecessors who became involved in disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama also criticized other architects of failed interventions such as David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy. Describing how he agreed to the intervention in Libya he says: ‘We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition…we averted large-scale civilian casualties and averted what would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict… yet despite all that Libya is a mess’.
Will the American attitude change with the Presidency? We do not think so. John Kerry also reflected an irritation with the assumption in the Middle East that the US will fly in to fight other peoples’ battles – he asked a member of the Syrian opposition ‘you want me to go to war with Russia for you? Is that what you want?’ It seems there is a new mood now in Washington not to fight any more wars for regime change – or at least not in the Middle East, which itself is no longer of the great economic and strategic importance it once was for policy makers.
Analyses and news reports suggest that the Saudi Government believe that Obama is finished, and are betting on a Republican victory in November’s presidential elections. Yet Donald Trump has trumpeted his hatred for Moslems, saying he doesn’t want any to be allowed into the US… will we see him cosying up to the ‘Ayrab’ King in Riyadh? We really doubt it.
Some might argue that the Kingdom has been diversifying its diplomatic, political and military relationships. It initiated the Islamic Coalition which participated (reluctantly) in Yemen and in the ongoing military manoeuvres codenamed ‘Northern Storm’. However, the coalition’s two most important members are weakening: Turkey is struggling economically, politically and is under attack (Ankara bombing) while Egypt is experiencing a severe economic crisis.
America, very briefly, is tired of the Arabs and their petulant antics and is looking for less ‘high maintenance’ friends elsewhere – such as Africa and Southeast Asia.
In our opinion this could be very beneficial for the Middle East which will revert to self-reliance, develop greater regional tolerance and co-operation (rather than rushing to war), evolve diversified economies, better welfare provision and greater harmony and happiness all round.