US-Saudi Relations: A Perspective from the Region
Dr. Abdulaziz Sager *
November 7, 2013
The happiness and excitement were genuine and warranted when Barack Obama won the US Presidential election in November 2008. The eight years of his predecessor George W. Bush represented for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Arab world, the pinnacle of US irrationality and misguided political decisions. American policy under Mr. Bush was characterized by an unwarranted use of force and unprovoked aggressiveness, especially after the US invasion of Iraq. As a result, Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies lost trust in President Bush's policy. The region was eager and impatient to see the day of his departure from office.
When Mr. Obama assumed office in January 2009, he started out on the right path with promises which were aimed at correcting the mistakes of the past and restoring credibility in US policy. In the Kingdom, there was the expectation of a rational policy coupled with a more justified and legitimate use of US military power. However, with President Obama now well into his second term in office, it can only be stated that those expectations have been left unfulfilled. Instead of a more balanced approach that combines the elements of US political and military power, it appears to the region that the Obama administration has chosen to adopt the other extreme position as that of the Bush presidency. The result as seen from Riyadh is a"Paper Tiger President" in the White House.
Syria is the most clear-cut example in this regard. Saudi Arabia did not ask President Obama to punish the Syrian regime if it uses chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war in Syria. It was assumed that such a punishment would be a natural product of US policy and an integral part of its firm stand,adopted by all previous US administrations, against the use of Weapons of Mass Destructions (WMD). It was taken for granted that the US would react without hesitation against such a heinous crime. Initially, President Obama did not disappoint,declaring his "red lines" on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and branding such an act as a "game changer." This was a clear-cut commitment assuring all parties that the US would not tolerate the use of such prohibited weapons.
The flagrant use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime's forces on August 21, killing hundreds of innocent civilians in the opposition-controlled areas around Damascus, was the first crucial test of President's Obama's resolve and of overall US credibility. Unfortunately, the reaction proved a huge disappointment. Instead of taking a decisive stand that underlined the seriousness of the crime and making it clear that the actions by the Syrian regime would not be tolerated, the Obama administration wavered and quickly backed away from considerations of a military response. As a result, the Assad regime was left unpunished and untouched to continue with its brutal assault against its own population.
What is at stake here is not only the future of the Syrian regime and the potential devastating consequences a continued Syrian civil war has for the Middle East as a whole but also the role of the United States in a future Middle East, a region that is undergoing fundamental transformation at all ends. With its decision to erase the red lines that it itself announced, the United States has diluted its own moral standing and left huge question marks about its ability and willingness to uphold international order and enforce respect for international law.
While the US is the only country in the world that can project power effectively anywhere and any time, the Obama administration's hands-off approach, and its inability or unwillingness to take risks, have madeUS policy look like a set of meaningless and empty promises. Such an approach has undermined the outlook for stability and instead increased the likelihood of further division and chaos in the region. Moreover, Secretary Kerry's public praise of Mr. Assad for his cooperation with OPCW inspectors has added insult to injury as it brushes aside the seriousness of the crime while the daily massacres continue unabated.
One direct product of the weak US policy in the region is the sudden and recent increase of Russian influence and role in the Middle East. Sooner or later, the US will come to regret this as Russia's newly discovered strength will surely not be confined to the Syrian crisis but will be used to compete with the US on all other major fronts in the Middle East.
Outside of the Syrian example, the region has also observed the Obama administration gradually walking away from the two-state solution on Palestine, bending too far and too fast to restore relations with Iran, and renewing support for the sectarian government in Iraq. Taken together, this does not bode well for the future security and stability of the Middle East. In this context, it needs to be clearly understood that for Saudi decision making circles, the alliance with the US might be irreplaceable, but certainly not indispensable. As the late King Faisal indicated during the US-Saudi crisis in 1973, the Saudis were living long before the US, and they will live after the US. The differences are not irreconcilable yet, but considering the direction in which the Obama administration is moving, one cannot be very optimistic about the future of US-Saudi relations.
Dr. Abdulaziz Sager is the Chairman of the Gulf Research Center (GRC)