Mideast tensions are straining U.S.-Saudi ‘special ¬†relationship’

To say that no one is very happy about American involvement in the sectarian political cauldron of the Middle East is to exaggerate very little. The public wants the United States to extricate itself from the Sunni vs. Shiite wars that plague the region and reliable allies are not plentiful as long-term alliances shift with the escalating chaos.

Take for instance America’s decades-old “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia. The alliance was first sealed when President Roosevelt met the first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz, in 1945 aboard the cruiser USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. They cut a simple deal: America would bring the Saudis under its security umbrella and the Saudis would supply oil.

For decades, the Saudi-American relationship largely worked well for both parties. After all, the Saudis were the world’s largest oil producer and sat on better than one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves, giving it great influence over global oil prices.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance may be an old one, but since the Arab Spring in 2011, the relationship has deteriorated. The latest fissure was sparked by the Saudi’s recent execution of a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, which prompted condemnation throughout the Middle East.

There are several reasons why the Saudis are upset with America. They bitterly opposed Washington’s support of pro-democracy protestors in Egypt during the Arab Spring and urged President Obama to use force to preserve President Hosni Mubrarak’s dictatorship. America’s accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood during their brief reign in Egypt further angered the Saudi monarchy.

Then Washington was critical of the military coup responsible for displacing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi, while Saudi Arabia pledged billions to the new Egyptian government. After this experience, the Saudis became paranoid that America would sell them up the river as they had Mubrarak.

As the Syrian civil war worsened in 2013, President Obama backed off his threat of military force against President Bashar al-Assad, who allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people while concurrently announcing a rhetorical pivot to Asia. The Saudis and other longtime American allies felt abandoned.

Since the overthrow of the Shah during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Saudi Arabia and Iran have what could mildly be described as a tense relationship. While the two Islamic countries are separated by only a few miles of Persian Gulf, the religious and political gap is much wider. Underlying Saudi concerns is the schism between Sunnis and Shias, who have been at each other’s throats for more than a millennium. Iran is mostly Shia Muslim and, like most of the countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni.

The two are currently engaged in proxy wars in Yemen and Syria that exemplify the Sunni/Shia divide. The Saudis were horrified when the U.S. recently entered into a nuclear deal with Iran. They consider the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran intolerable.

Finally, the United States’ continuing support for beleaguered Israel remains a point of contention. Joint opposition to the emergence of ISIS is the only recent development that reinforces the mutual interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Despite the growing list of grievances, the two countries need each other. The U.S. retains a strong military presence in the Persian Gulf and cannot soon be replaced as the ultimate guarantor of Saudi security. In the midst of regional turmoil and with the ever-present threat of jihadist terrorism, the U.S. still relies heavily on the Saudis to help police the neighborhood.

Still further, the Saudis are a major buyer of U.S. weapons, having spent more than $46 billion on American arms since President Obama took office. The kingdom is also the largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that controls about 40 percent of the world’s oil.

Since sectarian wars in the Middle East are likely to get worse before they get better, the relationship calls to mind the old English proverb: “With friends like this who needs enemies?”

originally published: January 23, 2016

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