US-Saudi relations in rough waters
WASHINGTON - Both the Obama administration and the US Congress seem to be having doubts about the continued efficacy of the close US-Saudi relationship that has been the norm since the 1940s. Although Congress is more openly critical of the relationship than the administration, it is unlikely that bilateral ties will improve in the remaining months of the Obama presidency.
From the perspective of the Obama administration, the Saudis have pursued some problematic policies. First was their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, which Obama sees as his signature success story in the Middle East. Although the Saudis reluctantly endorsed the deal, they remain deeply sceptical about it and continue to worry about Iran’s behaviour.
The Saudis were also put off by Obama’s comment, in an interview in the Atlantic magazine, that “the competition between the Saudis and the Iranians, which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen, requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood”.
From the Saudi perspective, this was a sign that Obama was tilting in favour of Iran despite his administration pledging to sell Riyadh very sophisticated military hardware to allay their fears about the nuclear deal.
Washington has also been concerned about the Saudis’ inflaming the Sunni-Shia conflict. In January, for example, the US State Department indirectly criticised the Saudis’ execution of the opposition Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. That execution led to the torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran as well as protests in Shia areas of the Arab world.
Iran has also helped fuel this sectarian conflict. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Saudi authorities of “murdering” Muslim pilgrims in last year’s haj. In response, Saudi Arabia’s top Wahhabi cleric charged that Iran’s leaders were “not Muslims”.
Next is the Saudi penchant, pushed by its Defence minister, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, to play a more assertive military role in the region and engage in sectarian proxy wars. The Saudi-led war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, who follow the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam and have received Iranian assistance, has been indirectly supported by US logistics and intelligence assistance, but US officials have deep reservations about it.
This conflict has resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties partly due to Saudi air strikes, thus hurting the US image in Yemen, and allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and the Islamic State (ISIS) to make territorial gains in Yemen.
Reports from August indicate that the US military has withdrawn a planning team based in Saudi Arabia that had been helping coordinate the Saudi and UAE air campaign in Yemen, in part because of concerns about being too closely associated with air strikes that have caused civilian casualties. A spokesman for the Pentagon emphasised that cooperation with Saudi Arabia since the Yemen conflict escalated this summer “is modest and is not a blank check… at no point did US military personnel provide direct or indirect approval of target selection or prosecution”.
Some members of Congress also voiced concerns about the Yemen conflict. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this year, Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he had a “hard time figuring out what the US national security interests are” in Yemen. In response, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the administration had lent support to the Saudis because they were threatened by the Houthi rebels.
Kerry went on to say the United States would not reflexively support all of Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars against Iran — a telling comment indeed.
What has disturbed the US-Saudi relationship most, however, was the recent passage of legislation by Congress that allows families of the victims of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia for damages based on allegations that some Saudi officials had a role in the attacks.
Obama opposes the legislation and plans to veto it but reports indicate that he might want to do this via the “pocket veto” — which allows him to put the bill aside during a congressional adjournment, effectively killing it — rather than veto it outright. Republican Party candidate for president Donald Trump has been much more critical of Saudi Arabia than Hillary Clinton, the nominee for president from the Democratic Party, has been and could exploit an Obama veto.
Whichever way the bill is vetoed, the fact that Congress even passed the legislation with no significant opposition indicates that the US-Saudi relationship is in rough waters. For its part, Saudi Arabia led the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in issuing a strong condemnation of the legislation.