Saudi Arabia has officially renounced the seat it was offered on the U.N. Security Council. This has been widely interpreted as signaling a rupture in the country’s relationship with the United States. Some observers have welcomed this split because they blame Riyadh for spreading Islamic radicalism and sectarian violence and supporting the forces of counterrevolution during the Arab uprisings. Some of those who hold this view have further argued that the U.S. no longer needs the kingdom because the so-called shale revolution in oil and gas at home guarantees energy independence.
There is no doubt that the Saudis are angry with U.S. President Barack Obama's administration for not doing enough to stop the civil war in Syria and, in particular, for not attacking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's killing machine, which is backed by Iran and its Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as Russia. There is widespread and deep popular anger about Syria among neighboring countries, and the Saudi leadership must respond to this. Saudi King Abdullah personally knows Syrians who have suffered terribly and is incensed. The king is also upset by a permanent agreement the U.S. might strike with Iran to lift sanctions in return for guarantees that Tehran will stop its efforts to obtain the capability to build a nuclear weapon. From Riyadh's perspective, the nuclear issue, while important, is not the central point of controversy with Iran. The Saudis see the Iranians as infringing on Arab affairs, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Tehran's influence is dominant. The Saudis, perhaps unrealistically, wish to reverse this trend, and Syria is where they hope this will happen. One prominent Saudi businessman told me, "If we don’t do this in Syria, we'll be fighting them next inside the kingdom."
The problem for Saudi Arabia, however, is that unlike Iran, it has a limited ability to project power regionally. It can provide funding to anti-Iranian forces like the rebels in Syria, but this doesn’t buy loyalty, and it underscores that Saudi Arabia has no equivalent to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps or to Hezbollah, which unquestioningly carry out Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's will. As such, U.S. projection of force in the region is crucial for Riyadh, hence the disappointment at Obama's unwillingness to use it.