The row is the culmination of at least two years of mixed signals from the United States toward the Arab world and a public shift of the American military away from the Middle East.
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“The US is already shrinking its security footprint in the Gulf,” Yoel Guzansky, a research fellow with Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “And if you take into consideration Iraq and the drawing back of forces from Afghanistan, it’s very fast paced.”
The recent diplomatic row became public when Saudi Arabia decided to reject its appointment to a two-year position on the United Nations Security Council in mid-October. A statement from its foreign ministry cited "double standards" within the UNSC as one of the primary reasons for its refusal, saying that "Saudi Arabia... has no other option but to turn down Security Council membership until it is reformed and given the means to accomplish its duties and assume its responsibilities in preserving the world's peace and security." The Saudis also voiced their frustration with the inability of the world body to come to a solution to the Syrian conflict. The move came as a surprise not only to other Arab states, but also to the US, a historic ally of the oil-rich kingdom.
The openness of the disagreement is unusual for Saudi Arabia, a country that usually deals with diplomatic issues far away from the public eye.
“What was behind the scenes is now in front of us, and I guess the US is not doing enough,” Guzansky said. “I guess it’s a wake up call for the administration.”
Many see the move by Saudi Arabia as the peak of frustration over American policy in the region.
“The US is signaling, and acting, that it doesn’t care anymore like it used to about the Middle East,” Guzansky said. “The Saudis ... see that as damaging their core interest. It’s damaging their national security interest.”
Among the issues that have frustrated Saudi Arabia is the lack of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a new round of diplomatic moves toward Iran, and the absence of promised strikes against Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons.
These policy differences come as Washington shifts its military away from the region, drawing down its commitment in Afghanistan and pivoting instead toward the area of Asia and the Pacific.
“Every day you see the United States backtracking on issues, not delivering the goods, and this is it,” said Khaled Al-Maeena, the editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette, in a conversation with The Media Line. “The Saudis are very upset that while peace talks are trying to get restarted that settlements are still being built and houses are being demolished and olive trees are being destroyed.”
While Saudi Arabia may seem uneasy toward American action, some warn that it is easy to overestimate the severity of the recent crisis.
“I think that Riyadh and Washington have a lot of interests,” Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri, an associate professor and the head of the Department of Humanities at Qatar University, said to The Media Line. “There’s a lot to maintain and keep eyes on. It may be a serious crisis, but … we have to be very careful on evaluating the situation.”
The concern doesn’t end in the Saudi capital. While they have been quiet in public, the Gulf States worry about what America’s movement away from the region and its overtures toward Iran could mean for their future.
“I think that the (Gulf States) are very worried, absolutely,” Guzansky said. “Right now there is no one to replace the US in its role as policeman of the Gulf.”
The Gulf States, among them Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are concerned that America’s lack of support for the fallen autocratic regimes in the region leave them susceptible to internal revolts and external pressures from Iran.
“The Arab Spring brought a new dynamic to the region, and the American administration seemed happy with the movement,” Zweiri said. “Saudi Arabia was not happy with the lack of reaction from the US towards the movements against the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.”
When the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia, Washington was quick to support the opposition and called on the Tunisian government to respect the human rights of its citizens. When protests spread to Egypt, where US-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak held power, the Saudis felt the Obama administration abandoned Mubarak to the will of the Egyptian people. Mubarak was removed by the military and thrown into jail. Though the Saudis would have been happy to see Mubarak’s rule maintained, the US showed that it had calculated that the removal of the long-term ally was a good move. The difference of opinion shows the breadth of policy change that has occurred since America became the global superpower in the 1990s.
“The end of the Cold War took away one of the things that put the US and the Saudis on the same page,” Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, told The Media Line. “And that means that on things like Syria and Egypt we see it differently. And I think it’s not so much that we have different goals, it’s just that we have different priorities.”
The change in priorities has led to a change in strategy on the part of the Saudis.
“They suggested, they hinted that (Saudi Arabia) might provide weapons that they hadn’t supplied before to the rebels, against specific demands from the US that they don’t,” Guzansky said. “They need the Americans and what they are signaling to the United States is, ‘Please don’t abandon us.’”
While the Saudis have voiced their opposition to America’s policies, their ability to respond is limited.
“For now I don’t see any good options for the Saudis,” Guzansky explained. “They can reject American policy, and they’ve done that for the last two years, and they may do that even more now. They’ve given the generals in Egypt, along with Kuwait and Qatar, something like $15 billion in the last few weeks. If we compare that with the aid from the US… which is only $1.5 billion, that's one check from the Saudis."
The lack of communication and trust in America has led to a situation where the oil-rich state relies heavily on its militarily superior ally. But Gause hopes that the relationship between the two countries will become transactional, based more on realistic goals than historical ties.
“I think that the transactional element is there,” Gause said. “Is the US making it clear? I think the Saudis would say no, but I think that it is because the Saudis don’t want to face up to the fact that the US is moving away from the region.”
Article by Rye Druzin
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line
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