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Behind the Saudi-U.S. Breakup

Furious over Obama’s Mideast policy, the Saudis are shifting away from the U.S.—but where else will they turn?

By Karen Elliott House
The Wall Street Journal
Oct. 24, 2013

When Saudi Arabia this week rebuked the United States, using media leaks to send a message to the kingdom’s longtime ally, the episode was no petty fit of pique. It reflected a calculated decision by the Al Saud rulers that their own survival requires distancing themselves from the very country that has protected the royal family for more than half a century.

In a tribal society like Saudi Arabia’s, it is well understood that weakness breeds contempt and invites aggression. To the Al Saud, the Obama administration’s retreat from its red-line ultimatum on Syria’s use of chemical weapons and the administration’s unseemly rush to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program are simply the latest evidence of such weakness. It diminishes U.S. influence in the region while offending and endangering America’s allies. Already facing social tensions inside the kingdom and confronting growing instability throughout the Mideast, the ruling Al Saud have concluded that they can no longer risk being seen holding hands with a timorous great power.

Sadly for the Saudis, there is no alternative protector, which means the two countries will continue to share an interest, however strained, in combating terrorism and securing stability in the Persian Gulf. The kingdom has courted Russia and China in recent years, but they won’t protect the Saudis from the primary threat of Iran. Indeed, they support the regime in Tehran. This reality makes Saudi Arabia’s distancing itself from the U.S. all the more startling.

To understand the U.S.-Saudi rift, it is essential to realize that from the capital in Riyadh the world looks more threatening than at any time since the founding of modern Saudi Arabia in 1932. There have been other menacing times. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s sought to destabilize the Al Saud by fomenting trouble in neighboring Yemen. In 1979, religious fanatics took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and had to be ousted by military action. The Saudis feared, in 1990, that their kingdom was next after Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. In all those troubled moments, the U.S. was either a trusted if silent supporter of the Saudis or an active defender, as in the 1990 Gulf War.

Today, the Saudis find themselves alone regarding Syria, trapped in a proxy war with Iran, their religious (Sunni Saudi Arabia vs. Shiite Iran) and political enemy. The Saudis had sought and expected U.S. help in arming the rebels against Syrian ruler Bashar Assad, but the military aid never materialized. Instead, last month at the United Nations General Assembly gathering, President Obama eagerly sought a private meeting with Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, to discuss its nuclear program. Mr. Obama seemed desperately grateful merely to get him on the phone.

A few days later, the Saudi foreign minister abruptly canceled his own speech to the General Assembly. Then last week, Saudi Arabia took the extraordinary step of turning down a Security Council seat it had long sought. According to a Reuters report this week, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of the kingdom’s intelligence and national security operations, told European diplomats that both moves at the U.N. were intended as a blunt message to the Obama administration.

Only a year ago, Saudi officials expressed great confidence that Assad would be ousted from Syria by this fall. Instead, the Saudis now find themselves trapped with their foot on the snake Assad: They can’t step away, lest the snake strike, but lacking American help, they don’t have the means to kill the snake either.

The kingdom’s relationship with the rebels is similarly precarious. The longer the Saudis supply them with arms, the longer the war drags on, and the greater the risk that the rebels—whose ranks already include at least 500 Saudi jihadists—will grow more radical and eventually return home to fight the regime that funded them.

Worst of all for the Saudis is the new U.S. dialogue with Iran. The Saudis, much like the Israelis, fear the sort of deal likely to result from a weak and naïve U.S. administration eager to avoid a military confrontation. Such a deal, the Saudis worry, would paper over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions while boosting Iran’s prestige and influence at the expense of Saudi Arabia. If Iran can convince the U.S.—the country that Tehran still calls the Great Satan—to lift economic sanctions without first obtaining ironclad evidence that Iran has abandoned its nuclear program, in Mideast eyes Iran would be the clear winner.

The Saudi nightmare doesn’t end there. Iran, supported by Russia and China, is seen by the Saudis as a direct threat to their oil exports, the lifeblood that keeps the ruling Al Saud in power by providing the billions of dollars annually that allow the regime to buy, bribe and, when it deems necessary, brutally repress its citizens.

Meanwhile, with U.S. oil and gas production soaring, Americans may increasingly question the wisdom of spending billions on a military presence to protect the Persian Gulf through which Saudi oil exports flow—increasingly to China. When President Obama briefly threatened to strike Syria for using chemical weapons on its citizens, Saudi Arabia understandably sought a larger U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf to protect against a potential Iranian counter-strike. The U.S. told Riyadh it lacked the ships to meet the request, another shock to the Saudis.

These external challenges come at a time when senior members of the Saudi royal family are consumed with a generational succession. A geriatric band of brothers has ruled the kingdom since the death in 1953 of their father, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the country’s founder. Power soon will have to go to a son of one of those three-dozen brothers.

But who? Each brother feels one of his own sons deserves the crown—which would keep his family’s branch in line for royal succession and likely shut out the others. There are hundreds of these grandsons of the founder. Managing royal family politics must be a daunting task for the 90-year-old King Abdullah, already weakened by three back surgeries in four years.

Prince Bandar is among the many contenders who could be crowned, but he is not widely considered a future king because his mother wasn’t a member of the royal family. He is nonetheless a powerful presence. A pilot and colorful raconteur, he spent nearly a quarter-century as the kingdom’s ambassador to the U.S., a post he left in 2005.

The savvy diplomat was close to the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but since his emergence last year as head of intelligence—and the kingdom’s point man for securing U.S. cooperation in Syria—he has had little influence on the Obama administration. He hasn’t taken kindly to the personal affront, and now he seems to be speaking for the Al Saud ruler in telling European diplomats of Saudi Arabia’s anger with the U.S.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal is fond of saying that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia no longer have a Catholic marriage but rather a Muslim one. This is a clever way of saying that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are not faithful to each other. In the absence of any major-power alternative to the U.S., for the Saudis in this Muslim marriage the U.S. may well remain Wife No. 1. Even if she is not about to be divorced, however, the Saudis are clearly declaring a trial separation.

Ms. House, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal who won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for her coverage of the Middle East, is the author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future” ( Knopf, 2012).

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