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World & Nation

U.S.-Saudi rivalry intensifies

Senior U.S. diplomats have been dropping by the royal palace in Amman almost every week this spring to convince Jordanian King Abdullah II that democratic reform is the best way to quell the protests against his rule.

But another powerful ally also has been lobbying Abdullah — and wants him to ignore the Americans.

Saudi Arabia is urging the Hashemite kingdom to stick to the kind of autocratic traditions that have kept the House of Saud secure for centuries, and Riyadh has been piling up gifts at Abdullah’s door to sell its point of view.

The Saudis last month offered Jordan a coveted opportunity to join a wealthy regional bloc called the Gulf Cooperation Council, a move that would give the impoverished kingdom new investment, jobs and security ties. To sweeten the pot, the Saudis wrote a check for $400 million in aid to Amman two weeks ago, their first assistance in years.

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The quiet contest for Jordan is one sign of the rivalry that has erupted across the Middle East this year between Saudi Arabia and the United States, longtime allies that have been put on a collision course by the popular uprisings that have swept the region.

“We do have a lot of friction there,” said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The ‘Arab Spring’ has injected tension into the relationship.”

The Obama administration has generally supported the protests, and urged the region’s governments to share more power. But when President Obama demanded reform from Arab regimes in a major speech last month, he carefully avoided any mention of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that brooks little or no dissent.

Riyadh, which believes the U.S. is turning its back on loyal allies, is trying to step out of America’s shadow. It is embracing a foreign policy that often diverges from Washington’s — and sometimes seeks to undermine it.

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On the key political issues “the Obama administration doesn’t really listen to the Saudi views,” said Abdullah Askar, who is vice chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the king’s Consultative Council, or Majlis Shura, in Riyadh.

This shift doesn’t mean the end of the 70-year-old U.S.-Saudi alliance, which is built on a simple foundation: Saudi oil for U.S. military protection. But it means a further loss of influence for Washington in the Middle East at a time when other crucial relations — with Egypt and Turkey, for example — are facing new strains.

The Saudis, who see their own stability threatened in the region’s unrest, have shelled out billions of dollars to neighbors in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and elsewhere in hopes they will resist political change. Saudi Arabia is expanding and strengthening ties to its fellow Sunni monarchies, charting a new course on both Arab-Israeli issues and its campaign to contain Iran. It is even showing independence from America on core energy issues — which could end up affecting the price Americans pay at the pump.

The pivot has come after years of growing unhappiness with the U.S. approach to the region.

Riyadh was alarmed when George W. Bush’s administration allowed a Shiite-dominated government to take control in Iraq after an invasion it opposed. Saudi King Abdullah was outraged when President Obama urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to surrender power after 18 days of street demonstrations.

The Saudis also have taken offense at other perceived slights, including a tough pro-reform speech by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar in January, in which she warned that the region’s foundations are “sinking into the sand.”

The Saudis “are upset, they are frustrated, they are angry,” said a former senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the Saudis’ traditional reticence. “They don’t know exactly what to do.”

A senior State Department official insisted that on security and energy issues, the alliance remains “rock solid.”

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The two countries also continue to cooperate closely on counter-terrorism, and have collaborated on the political crisis enveloping Yemen that has raised the specter of a resurgent Al Qaeda, officials note. The United States is selling the Saudis $60 billion in arms and other military hardware in a multiyear deal, the largest U.S. weapons transaction ever.

The tension has been most visible in Bahrain, where Riyadh ignored U.S. warnings and sent more than 1,000 troops in mid-March to suppress Shiite-dominated demonstrations. Saudi officials view the protests as an effort by Iran to gain a foothold on their border, and they believe Washington has failed to see the threat.

In Egypt, while U.S. officials urge reform, Riyadh has given Cairo $4 billion to maintain the status quo and to counter the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization. The Saudis fear the group could challenge the religious doctrine that provides legitimacy to the Saudi monarchy.

Deeply frustrated with the Obama administration’s stalled efforts on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Riyadh is pushing for U.N. recognition of Palestinian sovereignty this fall, an approach the White House is determined to thwart.

Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, warned this month in an op-ed in the Washington Post that an American veto of the Palestinian effort would have “disastrous consequences” for the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are drifting apart on energy, too.

For decades both countries saw mutual benefit in holding down oil prices. But now, with Riyadh stepping up foreign aid and embarking on a $130-billion domestic subsidy program to prevent internal unrest, it needs steeper oil prices.

“In the old days, you could call them and ask them to do something about high oil prices,” said Herman Franssen, former chief economist at the International Energy Agency, a 28-nation organization that seeks to ensure stable energy supplies. “They are not going to be dictated to by the United States anymore.”

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This month, the Saudis announced that they would break from OPEC’s consensus by increasing their oil output. But their motive was not Obama’s repeated public calls for price relief, but their own needs for revenue, experts say.

U.S. officials are clear that they intend to tread lightly because of their appreciation that upheaval in the world’s largest oil exporter could upend a fragile world economy.

Yet diplomatic delicacy will accomplish only so much to repair the relationship, and analysts expect to see the Saudis strike out again on their own.

Steven A. Cook, a Mideast specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Riyadh’s forceful response in Bahrain “demonstrates the Saudis have absolutely no faith in our position on the region, and are going to look after their own interests in a way they know how.”

paul.richter@latimes.com

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.


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