Editorial

Growing cracks in the U.S.-Saudi alliance

When U.S. President > Barack Obama arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday to attend a regional summit of Gulf leaders, he was welcomed by the local governor, not by King Salman Bin Abd al-Aziz himself. Given that the monarch personally welcomed other leaders who arrived for the summit, this is a strong indicator of the deep rift in the U.S.-Saudi alliance. The visit was positioned as a major diplomatic outreach to the kingdom by Mr. Obama, perhaps his last as the President, to allay concerns about Washington’s approach towards Iran and other contentious issues such as the civil war in Syria. But it turned out to be a low-key affair with both sides holding on to their respective positions. This is not the first awkward moment in the over 70-year-old U.S.-Saudi alliance. On the face of it, relations are riddled with contradictions. One is a democracy that has even embedded human rights issues into foreign policy actions. The other is a closed society ruled by a conservative, authoritarian family. But economic and strategic interests — the U.S.’s dependence on the Gulf for oil, the fight against Soviet communism and the war on terror — had helped both countries set aside these contradictions and build a strong partnership based on trust. Of late, with the region witnessing massive changes, this partnership has come under enormous strain.

Relations turned sour when Washington refused to protect the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator, when he was threatened by mass protests. The mistrust deepened when President Obama declined to bomb Syria. It hit a new low when the > Iranian nuclear deal was signed. The Obama administration is against bombing Bashar al-Assad’s regime because it thinks a collapse of the state in Syria would help the Islamic State. Likewise, it wants Iran to play a more responsible role in regional politics, especially in stabilising Iraq and defeating the IS in Syria: both are vital for American interests in the region. This marks a clear divergence of interests between the U.S. and its Sunni Gulf allies, who are worried about Iran’s growing stature in West Asia. Interestingly, Mr. Obama pressed ahead with his policy despite pressure from the Gulf. One reason is that the U.S. is no longer dependent on the Gulf for oil, thanks to its domestic shale boom. Another is the realisation in Washington that it needs Iran to stabilise the region. That doesn’t mean it is going to abandon Riyadh or embrace Tehran. Both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia still need each other. Despite tensions, U.S. defence sales to the kingdom and other Gulf countries have soared in recent years. The U.S. is still committed to the security of its Gulf allies. On the other side, Washington and Tehran do not even have full diplomatic relations. But the underlying message of Mr. Obama’s policy changes is that it can’t be business as usual for the Saudis. A rebalancing is under way.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 4:25:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/Growing-cracks-in-the-U.S.-Saudi-alliance/article14251749.ece

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