John Tulloh. The odd couple – the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and their uneasy relationship.

Apr 26, 2016

As enduring international couples go, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia must rank among the oddest. They have been kind of firm friends since 1933 when oil was discovered in the kingdom. Yet their societies are so different as President Obama might have seen for himself when his limousine drove through the streets of Riyadh last week. For starters, he would not have found a woman driver anywhere or one buckled up lest the bodily contours the seatbelt creates excite the male driver. America is a wide open democracy with rights for one and all whereas Saudi Arabia is like a feudal fiefdom where rights are limited – especially if you are a woman or non-Moslem – and it is an offence to question or challenge the king’s word. America has no restriction on religious establishments, but in Saudi Arabia only mosques are permitted. Apostasy is punishable by death.

It is money, oil, security, arms, influence, investment and even more money which keep them together. But the strains are showing. The Saudis cannot wait to see President Obama leave the White House. They feel he has let them down. No doubt, he must feel fed up with them as well. A lot of his time has been spent dealing with Islamic global terrorism, much of it inspired and even subsidised by Saudi Arabia’s Wahabism, the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the religion. A recent report in The Times said Saudi Arabia has contributed more fighters to Daesh than any other country.

The Saudis blame Obama for many things, starting with not supporting President Hosni Mubarak when Egyptians rebelled against his rule and forced him from office. Then he had second thoughts about confronting a Saudi nemesis, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, after he crossed the line in the sand regarding chemical weapons. Next he turned his main foreign attention away from the Middle East to Asia only to return and do a deal with Saudi Arabia’s arch rival in the region, Iran. The Saudis showed their displeasure when Obama arrived in Riyadh to attend a Gulf summit last week. King Salman, having personally welcomed Gulf leaders arriving earlier in the day, pointedly sent the local governor to greet Obama. State television, unusually, ignored the president’s arrival altogether.

Back in Washington, relations are fragile. Congress is considering a bill which could hold the kingdom responsible for any role in the September 11, 2001, attacks. The Saudis have threatened to sell up to $975 billion in securities and other assets in the U.S. lest they be frozen by American courts. President Obama has lobbied Congress to block the bill and, if necessary, promised to veto it. But a group of families of the 9/11 victims blame Saudi Arabia and want justice.

(The majority of the 9/11 airborne terrorists were Saudis. But the commission which investigated the attacks found ‘no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials individually funded the organisation’. However, suspicions to the contrary linger. There is now a move to release the suppressed 28 pages of the commission’s report which might answer that scepticism once and for all).

‘We’ve seen a long deterioration in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and it started well before the Obama Administration,’ a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, Charles W. Freeman Jr., told the Los Angeles Times. ‘The U.S.-Saudi relationship is based entirely on interests, not values. It’s been an impossible relationship in value terms from the beginning’.

‘U.S.-Saudi relations have never been in complete harmony’, observed the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. One of its senior analysts, Ray Takeyh, goes further. ‘Saudi Arabia is no longer tethered to the American alliance’, he writes. ‘The House of Saud is beginning to rely on its own resources. It is hard to see what role, if any, the United States has in this evolving foreign policy’.

Saudi Arabia arouses savage passions in the U.S., especially because of the 9/11 culprits and the country’s adherence to sharia law under which primitive punishments, such as beheadings and stonings to death, are still valid. 

     ‘The tragedy for the Arabs, especially, has been who got the oil wealth. It wasnt the sophisticates of Beirut or even the religious scholars of Cairo, but Bedouins with a bitter view of faith. The Saudis and their fellow fanatics in the oil-rich Gulf states have used those riches to drag Muslims backward into the past and to spread violent jihad’.

So wrote Ralph Peters, a Fox News strategic analyst, in the New York Post on the eve of Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

While Saudi Arabia in its huff has been trying to go its own way, most U.S. commentators say there will be no fracture in the relationship. ‘Despite all the differences, Saudi Arabia and America are not getting divorced – we need each other’, said former White House adviser and CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald. They share intelligence, the Saudis rely on America for their security, their investments in each other’s country are too big to endanger and for American arms manufacturers there is no better customer.

‘As unpalatable as cooperation with the kingdom might be for some, cutting it adrift is worse,’ wrote Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. ‘Whatever the resentments, neither side has a realistic alternative to the other — something President Obama has clearly had difficulty reconciling himself to’.

The Los Angeles Times noted that even when the two countries were closer, Saudi Arabia was never an ally. It was a partner. ‘Both countries still need each other, but less than before’, it said. ‘They’re still partners – but colder, more distant partners now’.

FOOTNOTE. One aspect of the relationship which is booming is the PR industry. The Washington Post says the Saudis are spending millions on PR companies and lobbyists to help burnish their image and protect their interests in the U.S. ‘Saudi Arabia is consistently one of the bigger players when it comes to foreign influence in Washington’, said Josh Stewart, a spokesman for the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money and influence in politics. ‘That spans both what you’d call the inside game, which is lobbying and government relations, and the outside game, which is PR and other things that tend to reach a broader audience than just lobbying’.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.    

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