Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
May 16, 2011

The Saudi-U.S. Special Relationship Will Not Change

When in July 2005 the Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal became ambassador in Washington, he hired a young Saudi "analyst" Nawaf Obaid as a "security consultant". Nawaf Obaid wrote policy papers for the Zionist lobbyists at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and worked with Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is something like a Saudi neoconservative.

In late November 2006 the Washington Post published an op-ed by Obaid in which he threatened a Saudi intervention in Iraq should U.S. troops leave. (This was shortly after the Iraq Study Group urged Bush to retreat from Iraq, an initiative which Bush answered with the "surge".) The King in Riad did not like what Obaid had written and he was immediately fired. Not coincidentally a few days later Turki himself was fired by King Abdullah. Even before the op-ed affair the King had preferred to work around rather then with the hawkish Turki.

Today the Washington Post published another op-ed by Nawaf Obaid: Amid the Arab Spring, a U.S.-Saudi split. Obaid now works for the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies where the Chairman is Prince Turki.

From the op-ed:

For more than 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been bound by an unwritten bargain: oil for security. Riyadh has often protested but ultimately acquiesced to what it saw as misguided U.S. policies. But American missteps in the region since Sept. 11, an ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement building have brought this arrangement to an end. As the Saudis recalibrate the partnership, Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.

The backdrop for this change are the rise of Iranian meddling in the region and the counterproductive policies that the United States has pursued here since Sept. 11. The most significant blunder may have been the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in enormous loss of life and provided Iran an opening to expand its sphere of influence.

It follows some ballyhoo of how mighty, stable and prosperous Saudi Arabia is, how treacherous Obama is and how dangerous Iran and it ends much like it started.

With Iran working tirelessly to dominate the region, the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt and unrest on nearly every border, there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability. The special relationship may never be the same, but from this transformation a more stable and secure Middle East can be born.


1. It is certainly a significant op-ed and it will make some waves in DC but the question is how official it is. Is Turki again out of his depth with this or was it sanctioned by the King?

2. In an interview with Der Spiegel in December 2010 Turki sounded much less hostile towards the United States: "Our ties are strong and strategic. They will continue."

3. What changed this was, I believe, the little support (from the Saudi view) Obama gave to Mubarak. They fear that in case of a threat to their regime, they would probably also get insufficient support.

4. The Saudis are certainly already in the process of changing their foreign policy. There has been recently a lot of travel by various Saudi ministers and princes to China, Malaysia and Islamabad to renew or extend their relations with those states. A new security agreement with Pakistan was said to allow the Saudis access to two Pakistani divisions if needed.

5. The Saudi led military alliance Gulf Cooperation Council just added Jordan and Morocco. It now, for the first time, includes at least some competent militaries. (They should rename the GCC it royal Sunni club of counterrevolutionaries.)

6. The op-ed is boosting about Saudi power but how much power do the Saudis really have?
-- Their military has lots of modern weapons. But the Houtis in Yemen recently kicked its ass with much less resources.
-- The Saudis have tons of money and freely spend it to buy allies. But it often comes with strings attached like the demand of acceptance of their suffocating Wahhabi ideology. That's not a global winner.
-- Their global "soft power" sympathy factor is thereby zero if not negative.

7. The Saudis see Iran as their strategic enemy, but without big external support there is little chance they could win a (sectarian) fight against it. There are more Shia around the Gulf than Sunnis and while Saudi Arabia has an oil industry and some tourism it lacks food and other capabilities. Iran has an oil industry too, but is also grows its own food and it is reasonably industrialized in all other fields. 

In total the Saudis may well move towards a bit less dependency on the United States but if they really want to push against Iran and its influence there is little chance that they could win such a competition without serious U.S. involvement on their side. In this the special relationship will not change.

Posted by b on May 16, 2011 at 17:56 UTC | Permalink


I do not think the future is bright for the Saudi government and probably not for Saudi Arabia. I would make the following observations.

1) US middle east policy rests most of all on the Saudi pillar. Whether by accident or design, Saudi Arabia happens to support every defacto ally of Israel: Hariri in Lebanon, the Syrian exiles under Abdul Hamil Khaddam, Mubarak in Egypt, probably Rafsanjani in Iran. It provides the US White House with cash so that in can avoid congress. Iran-Contra is but one example. It is likely pressuring the Egyptian Junta to maintain Mubarak's policies and in Egypt's current economic condition, it is hard to resist. Surreptitiously, it supports the Hamas-Fatah division and more than any other party helps the "peace process sham" to continue. Maintaining Israeli hegemony becomes much more complicated for the US without this Saudi pillar. And I haven't even begun to discuss what its support for Salafism has done.

2) Therefore, Saudi fears that the US will abandon them in their hour of need is unwarranted. The US will move heaven and earth to protect the royal family. But the simple fact is, beyond protecting them from foreign invasion/sabotage, there is little the US can do. In the face of a broad based national uprising as in Egypt, the US can't protect Saudi Arabia just as it could not save Mubarak, no matter how much it wanted to. Just as it could not save the Shah, no matter how much it wanted to. The fact of the matter is, their American patron is simply not as strong as he used to be. And even if he was, there's not much he could do against mass protests in another country. To the extent Saudi policy changes, it will be to start doing by themselves some of the heavy lifting they have relied on the US to do in the past.

3) The problem, therefore, from the Saudi POV is how can they assure their continued rule. There is no easy answer. Russia and China are even less able to help than the US. Jordan joining the GCC does add a small but effective military, but they were always available for hire anyway. Besides, who are they going to fight? Morocco's military is too far away to make much difference and their joining is meant to prop up the Moroccan royal family; the fall of a monarch would set a bad precedent for the Saudis.

4) SA's trump card has always been its money and the means to bribe politicians from very poor countries. In the next 10 years, Iraq will likely reach its potential of oil production, which could be as high as 11 million barrels per day.
How this will effect the middle east remains to be seen, but it will certainly dilute the Saudi money power. There are a myriad of ways this Iraqi money could (potentially) be used to thwart US/Israeli/Saudi plans and would be a great topic for a post.

In summery, SA faces a declining patron (US), a rising strategic rival (Iran), another potential rival allied with the other rival (Iraq), an Arab population that has grown weary of the defacto Saudi-Zionist alliance and its own restive Shiite population. If a smart, Bismarkian style diplomat were running Saudi policy, he would certainly try to move to split the Alliance between Iraq and Iran. Not sure that would be possible even for a skilled politician, but given the Wahhabi hatred for Shiites, they probably wont even try.

If I were a religious Shiite, I would be thanking God for cursing my enemies with such a tragic flaw (in the Classical Greek/Shakespearean sense) that will likely prove to be their undoing.

Posted by: Lysander | May 16 2011 21:48 utc | 1

The Saudi Royal family is also mortal.

Posted by: par4 | May 16 2011 23:33 utc | 2

great post and great comment (integration?) by Lysander

only one note: Obaid doesn't give me the impression of being polemic in particular towards Obama; when he talks of "a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability", the first thing that comes to mind are the Palestinian elections wanted by Bush (not Israel!) in 2006, which Hamas won; or the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (an ally of SA); or the campaign for "exporting democracy" in the ME waged by Bush in 2004

what Obama adds to the eternal fears of Israel and SA is the fact that the Us' priorities are now different, more focused on central Asia

"the special relationship will not change", but the context is changing, and SA's rethinking its stance is logical;

let's hope that Egypt will follow up on his promises of opening its border with Gaza, and let's hope SA and Israel (and part of the Us military establishment) will not conjure up something nasty for the region; (and while we are at it, let's hope the crusaders get a lesson taught in Libya without too much suffering for the Libyan people)

Posted by: claudio | May 17 2011 0:12 utc | 3

I am not well up on Saudi royal politics, but my impression is that Turki does not represent the official Saudi viewpoint. His own position is much more focused on the Muslim world, and its interests, than the official view (which gives absolute priority to the preservation of the rule of the house of Saud in Arabia).

Posted by: FB Ali | May 17 2011 3:16 utc | 4

Is there anything in the killing of the Saudi diplomat in Pakistan

Posted by: Khalid | May 17 2011 13:09 utc | 5

Promoting peace:NATO and the Pakistani Army clash in the Afghan frontier.

Posted by: ThePaper | May 17 2011 13:16 utc | 6

Then there's this:Published on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 by The Boston Globe
A Declaration of Empire
Proposed law would vastly expand boundaries of US military mission

by James Carroll
The House of Representatives is debating a new definition of America’s military mission in the world, replacing the mandate adopted immediately after 9/11. Instead of merely authorizing the president to make war against those who “committed or aided” the 2001 attacks, the proposed National Defense Authorization Act expands the notion of America’s enemy to include forces “associated” with named antagonists like Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Nothing like expanding the empire's power to move around the globe in the interests of our mega-corporations.

If this passes, and I think it will, it will surely enhance the US-Saudi relationship.

Posted by: ben | May 17 2011 13:38 utc | 7

The comments to this entry are closed.