Watching John Kerry trying to mollify Saudi Arabia isn’t a particularly edifying spectacle, but then the relationship between these two countries has never been one to warm the heart. On the one hand you have a superpower that claims to believe in freedom, democracy, religious tolerance, human rights and the rights of women, and which regularly fights wars on behalf of all these values.
On the other you have an utterly repressive and reactionary dynastic monarchy which believes in none of these things, and which routinely uses money and religion to shore up its own corrupt power within its own borders and promote its interests outside them.
It’s a contradiction, or so it seems. But oil and money have a way of smoothing out these differences of perspective. And the relationship between the two countries has been surprisingly firm and constant, ever since February 1943, when Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that ‘the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States’ and extended the Lend-Lease program to the Saudis.
These common interests have been demonstrated on various occasions. Saudi support was crucial in the US transformation of Afghanistan into a ‘bear trap’ for the Soviets and the CIA covert operation that followed. Financially and logistically, the global jihad that brought thousands of anti-communist fighters into Afghanistan relied heavily on the support of the Saudi intelligence services under Turki bin Faisal al Saud, as Osama bin Laden could once have told you.
Saudi money also helped keep the cocaine-dealing Contras afloat, as you might expect any religiously-devout country to do. Saudi Arabia also cooperated fully with the Bush administration during the ‘war on terror’, regardless of the fact that the majority of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, who entered the country with visa waivers from the US consulate in Jeddah, or the odd coincidence by which the wife of the then Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar, sent regular monthly payments to two of the pilots.
Well any longterm relationship is going to have its hiccups, and the Bush administration tactfully passed over these and other 9/11 curiosities without referring to them for the sake of longevity.
The US has also done its bit for its ally, sending troops into Saudi Arabia as soon as it seemed under threat after Saddam Hussein’s radical miscalculation in Kuwait, and more recently pouring a new generation of weapons into Saudi Arabia for possible use against Iran.
But now that relationship is under strain, because the US hasn’t done what the Saudis wanted in Iran, Syria and Egypt. And so Kerry has been holding ‘urgent talks’ with the Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Paris in attempt to patch things up.
And US spokeswoman Marie Harf is at pains to remind the world that ‘the fundamental relationship with the Saudis is a strong one. We working together on some challenging issues and we share the same goals, whether it’s ending the civil war on Syria, getting back to a democratic government in Egypt, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.’
Like so much about the US-Saudi relationship, these statements bear little relation to anything that could be called objective truth. Saudi Arabia is not interested in ‘ending the civil war on Syria’, but in overthrowing Assad and getting a government into power that will uphold its interests viz a viz Iran.
The US wants that too, which is why US Marines are currently training 1,500 Syrian insurgents in Saudi Arabia. But Obama has balked at the full-on military option that the Saudis wanted, partly because of domestic political conditions, and also of divisions within the US military about its potential outcome.
The Saudis have absolutely no interest in a democratic government in Syria or anywhere else in the Middle East, whether Islamist or not. They are in fact desperate to repress the democratic impulse behind the Arab Spring and channel it into a religious sectarian conflict that they can take advantage of, regardless of the consequences.
As for wanting to return to ‘ a democratic government in Egypt’, Saudi Arabia has no interest in anything of the kind. Not only does it fervently support the military dictatorship there, just as it once supported Mubarak for decades, but it has bitterly condemned the Muslim Brotherhood and the ‘haters’ and ‘terrorists’ who supposedly threaten the military’s grip on power.
This is partly because Saudi Arabia wants Egypt to be an ally against Iran. But the Saudis also fear that they too may one find day find themselves facing a Tahrir Square in their own country. And as for not wanting Iran to ‘acquire nuclear weapons’, that may be true. But the Saudis, like Israel, also recognize the usefulness of the nuclear issue as a means of prodding the world’s only superpower to blast Iran and hopefully destabilize the regime in the process.
Unfortunately for them, the United States isn’t playing the game. It hasn’t attacked Syria, it’s threatened to stop funding the Egyptian military, and it’s talking to Iran instead of bombing it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the relationship is over. Saudi Arabia has too much money and too much oil for the US to ignore it completely, and the House of Saud is ultimately as dependent on US military power as it always was.
But even in a marriage that was definitely not made in heaven, this isn’t a happy moment, and given the generally malignant impact that this special relationship has had on world affairs, even a tiff is a positive development.