Prominent Saudi officials have been wagging their fingers at the U.S. since 9/11, trying to convince Washington that Riyadh is as indispensable to the U.S.’s Middle East status quo as Tel Aviv is. One such prominent Saudi official, Prince Bandar, has gone so far as to compare the arrangement between Saudi Arabia as a “Catholic marriage,” i.e., periods of separation are allowed but divorce is not. He is, by U.S. standards, an exasperating partner because of his proclivity to make statements along the lines of “the U.S. shouldn’t be counted on to restore stability across the Middle East” and to go around the U.S.’s back in conversations with Pakistani, Emirates and Malaysian officials.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador and intelligence chief (one of the main silent partners in the U.S.-led campaign to arm the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s) is suggesting the stubborn U.S. will soon be seeing some unwelcome papers from his lawyer. He warns the U.S. that its recalcitrance over the Palestinian Authority’s effort at the UN will force the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to reconsider its ties with Washington. From the New York Times:
The United States must support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations this month or risk losing the little credibility it has in the Arab world. If it does not, American influence will decline further, Israeli security will be undermined and Iran will be empowered, increasing the chances of another war in the region.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has. With most of the Arab world in upheaval, the “special relationship” between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.
Saudi leaders would be forced by domestic and regional pressures to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy. Like our recent military support for Bahrain’s monarchy, which America opposed, Saudi Arabia would pursue other policies at odds with those of the United States, including opposing the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq and refusing to open an embassy there despite American pressure to do so. The Saudi government might part ways with Washington in Afghanistan and Yemen as well.
Considering that the Saudis have long been our partners in making Afghanistan, Yemen and Bahrain what they are today, their newfound “unhelpfulness” would certainly undermine U.S. interests in those countries — if it actually comes to pass.
Saudi statements about Israel today essentially amount to (hypocritical) bluster. Saudi Arabia is no sudden human rights champion, however much the royal family goes on about Palestinian refugees and self-determination. And in foreign policy, there is far too much at stake for both Riyadh and Washington to have a falling out.
Nor can the Saudis realistically expect to get a better deal in Iraq than the one they currently have in the form of the U.S.-backed al-Maliki, since a different government might be more willing to work with Iran, the Saudis’ archenemy and “populist” theocratic rival (though Tehran today is about as authentically populist as Rick Perry).
In Yemen and Bahrain, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia basically have the same interests: marginalize Iran and suppress popular dissent under the banner of counterterrorism. The Saudis also cannot expect to easily switch out military suppliers and consultants when it comes to their armed forces, as U.S. intel and equipment dominates the Saudi defense apparatus.
Most likely, there will be a flurry of diplomatic snubs (“Emirates, please tell the U.S. to pass the salt.”), but little more than that — you cannot say the Saudis are going to undermine aspects of U.S. policy in retaliation because, well, Saudi officials have done that on a regular basis in both good times and bad, in sickness and in health, for rich or for … rich.
It’s a turbulent marriage, to be sure, but remember, divorce is not permitted! And while you can annul a Catholic marriage, neither the U.S. government nor the Saudi royal family will be annulling theirs, whatever happens in Israel and the Occupied Territories from here on out.
Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.