U.S.-Saudi Tensions To Increase In 2008
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on July 31. As the United States looks to regional actors for support on Iraq, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian issues, it will find that Riyadh is not going to play its assigned role. While President George W. Bush's administration faces long odds on these issues already, the Saudi position makes the prospect for success even less likely.
On the major regional questions, the United States and Saudi Arabia are in agreement to a greater extent than at almost any time in their relationship. They each:
--worry about increasing Iranian regional influence and the Iranian nuclear program;
--see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a wound that needs to be healed;
--worry about the spill-over effect of Iraqi violence; and
--vigorously oppose al-Qaida and its regional affiliates.
However, they have very different tactical approaches, which will become more salient as Washington puts forward new initiatives to move the Arab-Israeli peace process forward, salvage something from Iraq and isolate Iran.
Bush announced on July 16 a high-profile diplomatic effort to move Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority (PNA) toward a political settlement. Saudi Arabia quickly voiced its support, but Washington and Riyadh have very different visions of how to approach the issue. The Bush administration seeks to isolate Hamas diplomatically and choke off the economy in Gaza. Meanwhile, it hopes to encourage economic growth and political progress in the Fatah-controlled West Bank, showing Palestinians that their best choice is to abandon Hamas and support PNA President Mahmoud Abbas. Riyadh is pushing for a renewal of Fatah-Hamas dialogue and a return to the Mecca Agreement on power-sharing, which the Saudis brokered earlier in the year.
In Iraq, the Bush administration needs to show tangible progress to fend off congressional pressures to begin troop withdrawals. To that end, it has opened direct (if low-level) talks with Iran and encouraged greater regional involvement to support the Iraqi government, symbolized by the May Sharm al-Sheikh summit. While Saudi Arabia attended that summit and agreed to forgive the bulk of Iraqi Saddam-era debt, it has made clear that it is not willing to take other steps to support the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which it sees as an extension of Iranian influence in Iraq.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia is supporting efforts by Maliki's opponents (including former prime minister Iyad Allawi, various Sunni political factions and Maliki's Shia opponents) to form a political front to challenge the government's parliamentary majority. Saudi King Abdallah also very publicly refused to receive Maliki on the latter's regional trip preceding the summit. With Riyadh facing the likelihood of a reduced U.S. role in Iraq, it is less likely to follow the U.S. lead there and more willing to forge its own alliances with Iraqi players and factions.
Both Washington and Riyadh want to limit Iranian regional influence and discourage Iranian nuclear plans. As long as the United States continues using diplomatic pressure, multilateral and United Nations sanctions and indirect military threats to push Iran away from the nuclear path, it will have Saudi support. However, if the Bush administration pursues a military option, this will change. The Saudi leadership is pursuing a subtle policy of both engaging and containing Iran. It does not want to return to the 1980s, when the two states were directly confronting each other and Tehran was actively encouraging domestic opposition to the Saudi regime. Moreover, it knows that it will be on the front line of any Iranian retaliation for a U.S. military strike.
Such tensions are a normal feature of the Saudi-U.S. relationship and do not necessarily herald a crisis in the making. However, while core relations will not be affected, they will add to the tensions likely to emerge between the countries on Middle East issues and make for an uncomfortable few months in bilateral relations in 2008.