Tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia are seemingly on the rise as protests continue to roil the Arab world. Some fear that an unfriendly relationship with Riyadh will damage Washington’s interests in the region.
In a Q&A, Christopher Boucek says that Washington and Riyadh have reacted in opposing ways to the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia wants to defend the status quo and worries that the United States is choosing political reform over security, stability, and long-term interests. But at the end of the day, the relationship remains strong and their interests overlap on Iran, terrorism, stability of oil, and the peace process. Washington needs to look for opportunities to work together with Saudi Arabia on areas of mutual interest.
How has Saudi Arabia responded to the Arab Spring?
In many ways, the Arab Spring caught Saudi Arabia off guard. This is not a situation that benefits Saudi Arabia or its foreign policy interests. Saudi Arabia likes to see stability and the continuation of the status quo. For many in Riyadh, when they look out into the region they see many of their friends—such as those in Tunisia, Egypt, or Bahrain—either under threat or gone.
At the same time, there are also regimes like Libya that Saudi Arabia is less sad to see go. But Riyadh also sees growing instability in the region, especially in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, and none of this serves Saudi Arabia’s interests.
Is Saudi Arabia trying to contain the wave of change in the region?
Since the onset of the Arab Spring, one of the things we’ve seen Saudi Arabia do is move to support its friends and allies in the region—Egypt before and after Mubarak and the monarchies in the region and within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the six-nation Arab Gulf state organization. Saudi Arabia is also on the ground in Bahrain, supporting the Bahraini government as it weathers the protest movement. But Saudi Arabia has also been involved in moving to expand the GCC to include Morocco and Jordan, two other monarchies.
Saudi Arabia typically uses a combination of money and religious ideology to support things or to advance its policies. We’ve seen the mobilization of Saudi connected religious networks to deliver the message that protesting is not authorized and that it’s illegitimate to protest and demonstrate against the government. Preservation of the status quo is the most important thing.
Is there a growing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
Regionally, Saudi foreign policy is guided in large part by the competition and rivalry with Iran. The relationship with Iran is often looked at as a zero-sum game—if Saudi Arabia wins, Iran loses; if Iran wins, Saudi Arabia loses. There is no space for both sides to win at the same time.
We saw this game play out in Bahrain—the idea that a friendly Arab Sunni monarchy was under threat by Shia protesters compelled Saudi Arabia to come to the support and assistance of Bahraini government. When you talk to Saudi officials, they say that there is no way that Riyadh can tolerate the emergence of a potential Iranian-affiliated Shia government right next door on Saudi Arabia’s border. They could not tolerate Hezbollah on the border and Bahrain is only separated by Saudi Arabia by kilometers.
How stable is the Saudi government?
Saudi Arabia is not immune from the protest movement and it will not be completely spared from the Arab Spring. But Saudi Arabia will weather this Arab Spring better than any other country in the region. The government is better equipped to manage this season, in large part through its religious community and its financial resources.
Saudi Arabia announced $136 billion in new social welfare spending to offset the economic and social drivers. The protests we have seen in Saudi Arabia have been very, very small so far—primarily confined to the eastern province and some other big cities—but through a very large police presence, the mobilization of the official clerical establishment, and spending money, the government has been able to contain this. So Saudi Arabia will weather this better than any other country in the region.
It is also important to look at what the regional protest movement has done and will do to the price of oil. The new Saudi budget to account for all of the new social welfare spending is fixed at about $88 per barrel, meaning that this is what the state must earn to break even on the new spending. As a result, we will most likely see Saudi Arabia not working to drive down the price of oil, but instead working to prevent the oil market from becoming overheated.
Are U.S.-Saudi relations in decline?
We have seen the emergence of greater tensions between Washington and Riyadh as a result of the Arab Spring. This comes in large part because in Saudi Arabia there is a belief that Washington has not managed this process very well, doesn’t know what it’s doing, and is putting issues of political reform ahead of security and stability in the region.
This is a part of the world where personal relationships, friendship, and loyalty are more important than anything else and we’ve seen the United States support the removal of former friends, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The Saudis feel that there is a likelihood that this is not going to stop.
Saudi Arabia and Saudi foreign policy generally loathe instability or uncertainty and that’s exactly what we see right now. Riyadh feels that the United States is more concerned about being on the right side of history, instead of standing by its friends and working to advance stability in the region—this is very concerning to the Saudis.
Whereas the United States and Saudi Arabia historically differed over domestic Saudi political issues, the two countries usually agreed on foreign and regional policy issues. But increasingly, this is not the case. Increasingly it seems that Saudi Arabia looks out into the world and thinks that its foreign policy interests do not overlap with the United States and Washington’s security interests. Saudi Arabia is now in a position to pursue its own interests.
All that said, at the end of the day, the relationship remains very strong. In the region, there are several special relationships for the United States and one of them is with Saudi Arabia. Despite all of the difficulty and tensions, the relationship remains strong and it will remain strong. The two countries need each other and there is no one else who can provide for Saudi Arabia what the United States does and no one that can provide for the United States what Saudi Arabia does.
The two will be forced to work together. What’s needed is better management of the relationship, especially on the American side. Washington needs to learn how to engage the Saudis in a productive way to advance mutual interests, not just American interests.
Why is the relationship between Washington and Riyadh important?
Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer, one of the pillars in the Gulf security arrangement, and also a primary figure in the global Sunni Muslim community. Saudi Arabia is an incredibly important state for the United States on a range of issues from energy to defense, to Afghanistan, to the peace process.
At the same time, the United States is the only country that can provide the security assurances that Saudi Arabia needs. Historically, Saudi Arabia has preferred to deal with the United States over states like China and others that may be purchasing more petroleum. Saudis want to send their children to university in the United States and they want to do business in the United States—they don’t want to do this to the same extent in other places.
How should the relationship develop going forward?
Oftentimes, American officials want to go to Saudi Arabia to do things to advance American foreign policy objectives, whether it’s to help Taliban reconciliation or the peace process. Washington shows up and wants Riyadh to help the United States achieve the things it wants.
Very rarely do U.S. officials go and say that Saudi Arabia has one set of interests and the United States has the same set of interests so how can the two countries work together on those interests. That’s what happened in the 1980s when both countries were working to support the Afghans against Soviet occupation—both countries had interests, both were working to advance those interests, and the relationship worked very well.
The United States needs to move this relationship from one where Washington tries to get the Saudis to do things to help American objectives, to one where both countries work together to reach the same common goal.
For all of the tensions now, Yemen is the one place where both countries want to see exactly the same thing—they want to see a managed, peaceful transition. Both also want to see progress on the peace process. And both want to see movement in the fight against al-Qaeda. So there are a number of security issues, but there is also the economy. As the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia wants to make sure that consumers continue to buy its product. And as one of the biggest oil consuming nations, the United States wants to make sure the oil market doesn’t get overheated.
So there are economic, energy, defense, and security issues where both countries have the same interests. Washington and Riyadh need to work toward advancing both countries’ goals and interests.
What is the future of Gulf security?
Both the United States and Saudi Arabia are concerned about the future of Gulf security. How will the United States engage with this part of the world as U.S. forces drawdown in Iraq? We’re going to have ongoing security interests in Iraq, but Washington and Riyadh also share common perceptions of Iran, developments in the Gulf, and stability in that part of the world. Both countries want to work toward a stable Gulf and reduce the likelihood of Iran becoming a nuclear power and serving as a global competitor.