US-Saudi alliance on the edge as Obama readies for visit

The Takeaway
US President Barack Obama meets Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (L) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, US. September 4, 2015.

US President Barack Obama meets Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, left, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, US. September 4, 2015.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

For decades, US presidents and Saudi Arabian kings have welcomed one another to their respective homes in Riyadh and Washington. The Saudis have provided the US with a reliable and cheap flow of oil since the 1970s, and have supported US policies in the Middle East for years — from the containment of Iran to support in Syria today.

But as President Barack Obama gears up for what may be his last trip to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, this decades-long friendship is being put to the test, and those close to Saudi King Salman are concerned the US is leaving the nation behind.

“There is deep suspicion between the two capital,s that the relationship between the king — who’s only been in office now for 16 months — and President Obama is not great,” says Robin Wright, joint fellow at the US Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Though both nations still need each other, as US energy independence grows, America has come to rely less on Saudi oil — a foundational element of the US-Saudi relationship.

“But it’s also an interesting time in Saudi Arabia’s evolution,” Wright says. “This is a country that now faces threats militarily on its northern border with ISIS moving into Iraq and Syria, and on its southern border with Al Qaeda operating in Yemen, and of course a violent [Yemeni] civil war in which Saudi Arabia is play the dominant role. This is a very different dynamic than it was the last time they met [in January 2015].”

In Yemen, the internal conflict between the Houthi rebels and the government strikes a nerve for leaders in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s biggest rival — Iran — has long supported the rebels, and the eventual outcome of the Yemeni civil war, the Saudis believe, is vital to their security and economic stability, and to the stability of the broader region, especially as Iran gains broader international acceptance.

“I think the United States actually wants to diffuse the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and that it wants Saudi Arabia to, first of all, embrace the nuclear deal more fulsomely than it has in the past, and also not look at Iran as an enemy with which to go to war,” Wright says. “At the same time, the United States is likely to commit greater defense support for not just Saudi Arabia, but the other five oil-rich Sheikdoms in the Gulf as well.”

Though President Obama will seek to reassure, back at home, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are set to vote on a bill that would hold the Saudi government responsible for any involvement in the 9/11 attacks, a maneuver that Wright says is representative of the fundamental problem between the US and Saudi Arabia.

“There is growing suspicion, not just of whoever is resident in the White House, but what’s happening in Congress as well,” says Wright. “There’s a sense that in a Republican-led Congress, you see growing efforts — punitive efforts — against Saudi Arabia. So there’s this broader tension that this relationship is eroding more than it has been anytime since 1973.”

In America, there is also a growing outcry against Saudi Arabia's military actions — some have even accused the kingdom of committing war crimes in Yemen. And US lawmakers are not taking this lightly — Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, is backing a resolution to temporarily halt future sales of aerial munitions to Saudi Arabia.

“We own the Saudi conduct inside Yemen,” Murphy says. “If you talk to Yemenis, they will tell you that this is a US-Saudi bombing campaign — not a Saudi-US bombing campaign, but a US-Saudi bombing campaign. So when you look at the thousands of civilians that have been killed, we have to go into this with eyes wide open — that we are going to be perceived to own those civilian casualties inside Yemen.”

Murphy’s resolution, which is co-sponsored by US Senator Rand Paul, would include several conditions.

“I’m proposing that the Saudis make a commitment not to use cluster bombs; that they don’t target civilians; and that they make a commitment to go after terrorists, like AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] and ISIL [the so-called Islamic State], with as much vigor as the use to go after the Houthis,” he says.

He continues: “I don’t know how anybody here in the United States Congress can argue with that, and I would challenge the Saudis to explain to us why that wouldn’t result in a, I think, fundamentally productive balance of their security interests and our security interests.”

Murphy argues that adding a few simple “common sense conditions” to a weapons deal does not mean the US is abandoning Saudi Arabia, even if the kKingdom thinks that way.

“This is a complicated relationship, and there are ways that the Saudis advance US national security interests, but there are lots of ways in which they are detrimental to US national security interests,” he says. “If this is truly a complicated relationship, then our support for the Saudis has to be conditional. When it comes to these arm sales right now, I don’t think it’s conditional enough. In the end, I think our support for this bombing campaign could come back to bite us in a very significant way.”

This story first appeared in PRI's The Takeaway, a show that invites you to be part of the American conversation. The producers were Oliver Lazarus, Berkley Wilson, Ellen Frankman, Todd Zwillich and Ben Jay.

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