Analysis: Saudis standing up for US allies in Middle East

Saudi Arabia is testing its 70 year US dependence.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Prince Salman 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Prince Salman 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia has reacted with unusual bluntness to US moves at rapprochement with the kingdom’s enemies in Tehran and Damascus, forcing President Barack Obama to either alter his stance or risk a breakdown in relations.
The Saudis are testing Obama, as they have seen how he tends to waver under pressure while trying to keep both sides happy.
And quietly, America’s traditional allies in the region – such as Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Gulf states – are rooting for the Saudis.
The Saudis observed how Obama was willing to compromise and settle for a deal with Syria after he had called for President Bashar Assad’s removal from power two years ago. On Iran, Obama is warming to the country despite its involvement in terrorism, the fighting in Syria and its history of deception as it strives towards nuclear weapons.
The Saudis are starting to push back hard.
Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats that Riyadh is contemplating a “major shift” away from the US over Washington’s policies on a host of issues, including Syria.
That message reflected the views not just of Prince Bandar, a noted hawk on Middle East issues and outspoken former ambassador to Washington, but of King Abdullah and the rest of the Saudi leadership, diplomatic sources in the Gulf said.
While Saudi Arabia’s frustration with the US was real and has led it to explore alternatives to its 70-year dependence on their strategic alliance, nobody seriously thinks Saudi cooperation with Washington will cease, the sources said.
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, who previously served as US deputy assistant secretary of defense and a senior director at the National Security Council, told The Jerusalem Post that the Saudis are upset that Obama is unwilling to take a stronger stance against the Iranian-Syrian alliance.
“The failure to support the Syrian rebels is a big part of the story, but the Saudis also see a general tilt in American policy in favor of Iran and away from the traditional allies of the United States,” said Doran.
Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), told the Post that the Saudis are not the only ones bewildered by Obama’s conduct in the Middle East.
“Their exasperation with American weakness is clear.
Their fear of Washington striking a grand bargain with Tehran is evident.
Unfortunately, there is no real alternative to American involvement and the Saudis as well as others have no real other choice but to wait until Obama is gone,” said Inbar.
Amir Rapaport, a researcher at the BESA Center and editor-in-chief of Israel Defense magazine, told the Post that Israel believes the US is demonstrating that it cannot be counted on as an ally and that other countries in the region, such as Egypt, are looking elsewhere for support, such as with the Russians.
Brandon Friedman, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at its Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told the Post that “there is not much the Saudis can do except demonstrate their extreme displeasure.” Friedman believes that in the medium-to-long term, the Saudis will probably try to get nuclear weapons and that it is more likely the Saudis will turn to China, rather than to Russia, for support.
In January 2012, the Saudis signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with China and from 1986-1988, they secretly imported Chinese made intermediate range ballistic missiles, under the nose of the Americans and in order to keep up with the Iranians. While there is a tendency by the media to blow things out of proportion, “the Saudis in the long-term are likely going to move towards some kind of more self-reliant regional security policy."
Reuters contributed to this report.