Is there a crisis in US-Saudi relations?

Washington cannot afford to ignore Riyadh'€™s regional concerns

November 26, 2013 6:15AM ET
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud (L) greets US President Barack Obama during an arrival ceremony at the King Khaled international airport in Riyadh on June 3, 2009.
AFP/Getty Images

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.

Shared interests

Despite these differences, the U.S.-Saudi relationship will remain a central pillar of the geopolitics of the Middle East because of the fundamental interests the two countries share. For example, both place great emphasis on regional stability, the containment of Iran, the fight against Al-Qaeda, the peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, most important, the reliable supply of oil at a steady price. The last factor is greatly misunderstood in the U.S., including within the Obama administration. As is well known, Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves of conventional oil in the world and the largest spare capacity (oil that remains unproduced but is readily available). These two factors make Saudi Arabia the equivalent of the central bank of oil. Because oil is a globally traded and fungible commodity, any diminution in its supply anywhere will lead to higher prices everywhere.

That the U.S. might become self-sufficient or supplied only from the Western Hemisphere does not really spell energy independence. Should Saudi production, for example, be disrupted, the global economy would be devastated, the U.S.'s included. The only way to become independent from Middle Eastern oil is to reduce drastically the domestic demand for the commodity. This can be achieved only by switching our transportation fleet to compressed natural gas, which is plentiful, or by finding a real substitute for oil's characteristics in energy density and storage or by both. Unfortunately, we appear to be decades from accomplishing these goals because of, among other factors, the prohibitive cost of converting to natural gas and the lack of scientific breakthroughs in battery technology.

Thus the U.S. and the rest of the world are tethered to the Middle East and will sooner or later pay a heavy price if this region is allowed to implode, as it is threatening to do now. The Obama administration's failure to understand that for Saudi Arabia the battle with Iran in Syria is crucial, if not existential, and that engaging with Iran as if it could be cajoled into better behavior through negotiations is to effectively turn the U.S.'s back on the most important player in the region, namely Saudi Arabia. These negotiations, despite this week's interim agreement on Iran's nuclear program, are unlikely to result in long-term success, and history teaches us that the problems of the Middle East have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt the world if the U.S. ignores them.

Bernard Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, where he is also the director of the Institute for Transregional Studies. His research focuses on the politics and history of the modern Arabia peninsula.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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