Even though U.S. President Barack Obama opted to open his parting sweep through the Middle East with a visit to Saudi Arabia, newspaper headlines in the kingdom focused on an announcement by the king’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, assuring worried citizens that the new water rates “were set unsatisfactorily and will therefore be corrected.”
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What’s really worrying the Saudis are the gloomy economic forecasts stemming from the plunge in oil prices, the Doha conference’s failure to cut production quotas and thereby raise oil prices, and the unending war in Yemen, where negotiations to halt the fighting have reached an impasse.
Obama’s visit is at most collateral damage. Etiquette obligates the kingdom to pay him due respect, but the visitor should gird for a few cold showers. In Riyadh’s view, Obama has made too many diplomatic mistakes in the Middle East – mistakes that unfairly hurt mainly Saudi Arabia, which considers America its chief ally.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time and place where the rift between the two countries tore open. Some date the onset of Riyadh’s anger to Washington’s abandonment of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 revolution. Others accuse Obama of first doing nothing to stop the slaughter in Syria, then making a raft of concessions on Syria under Russian pressure.
But there’s no doubt the watershed was the nuclear agreement with Iran. Washington and Riyadh had opposing, almost hostile, positions on this issue. Obama, the Saudis say, sacrificed Syria for Iran's sake. The president, for his part, sought to convince them that the deal would usher in a long period of calm.
What concerned Saudi Arabia more than the nuclear issue was the new regional status Iran is expected to enjoy as a result of the deal. Riyadh tried to thwart the agreement, or at least to make Iran offer additional concessions. It increased oil production, causing prices to plummet, with the goal of putting economic pressure on Iran and Russia so that the former would make further concessions on its nuclear program and the latter would fall in line with the Saudi view of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s fate.
But the pressure didn’t work, and today it's Saudi Arabia that's in economic trouble. This is one reason it has jacked up water prices by a few times in a plan to cut government subsidies.
Iran, in contrast, has become a pilgrimage site for multinational corporations and Western diplomats. It continues to exert decisive influence over Syria and Lebanon, and its close ties with Iraq and support for the Houthis in Yemen are threatening Riyadh’s status in the region.
Obama’s interview with The Atlantic where he said the Saudis must learn to share the neighborhood with the Iranians didn’t improve the ailing Saudi king’s health. In another bitter pill, Washington failed to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And now Riyadh faces the threat of a lawsuit over its alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
In an unprecedented move, Riyadh threatened to sell its $750 billion in U.S. holdings if the administration lets the lawsuit proceed. The two have indeed grown far apart since the days immediately after the attacks when President George W. Bush allowed Saudi nationals, including members of the Bin Laden family, to escape the country.
Despite their litany of complaints, the Saudis realize they have no alternative to Washington. Moscow has tried to draw closer to Riyadh, but it can’t replace Washington – first because it’s an Iranian ally, second because the Saudi military is built on American and European platforms, and third because Russia and Saudi Arabia have no ideological commonality. If Riyadh wants a strategic ally against Iranian influence, Washington is the address, not Moscow.
This also isn’t an opportune moment for major strategic changes. King Salman is 80 and ailing, and reports of his dementia are multiplying. A behind-the-scenes succession battle is being waged between his son Mohammed and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Both support the alliance with Washington and fear for its future if Donald Trump is elected president. So this isn’t the best time to give Obama the cold shoulder.
But this troika won’t want to suffice with public statements emphasizing America’s commitment. They’ll seek to ensure the future of the relationship, either through a formal military alliance or long-term agreements that no president will be able to escape, even if, like Trump, he loathes Arabs and Muslims.
America and Saudi Arabia are intertwined; concerns for their own positions in the region prevent each from renouncing the other. But it seems the vital glue in their relationship is gradually melting.