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U.S.-Saudi Relationship Weathers Arab Spring

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It's been just over two years since the Arab Spring first exploded into the global consciousness with demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere.

Pundits and analysts have filled hours of television airtime and spilled barrels of ink discussing the implications of U.S. relations with the countries affected directly by the uproar. But much less has been said about the Arab Spring's impact on relations with Saudi Arabia, which has managed — at least so far — to keep widespread protests at bay.

In late October, at the 21st Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference hosted by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, several speakers touched on this largely ignored dynamic, providing some insight into how the unrest in the Middle East could affect relations between two of the world's richest, most influential and tightly bound countries.

James B. Smith, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Riyadh's former envoy to Washington, joined dozens of officials at the annual high-powered event, held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. A variety of Arab and American leaders from government, military, business and academia also spoke at the conference, including Libyan Ambassador Ali Aujali, who's slated to become Tripoli's foreign minister, Arab League Ambassador Mohammed Al Hussaini Al Sharif, and Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed M. Tawfik (profiled on the November 2012 cover of The Washington Diplomat).

Founded in 1983, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) is an American nonprofit, nongovernmental, educational organization dedicated to improving American knowledge and understanding of the Arab world. Since 1991, NCUSAR's annual policymakers conference has invited internationally renowned specialists to analyze, discuss and debate issues of overarching importance to the American and Arab people.

Not surprisingly, at the top of this year's agenda was the Arab Spring, which percolated in panel discussions that touched on wide-ranging developments in North Africa, Iran, Yemen and elsewhere.

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Photo: Kaveh Sardari / National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations
Former Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki Al-Faisal speaks to the audience gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center for the 21st Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference hosted by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, whose founding president and CEO, John Duke Anthony, is seated to the left.

Though it doesn't always grab headlines like Syria's civil war or Egypt's constitutional crisis, the pivotal U.S.-Saudi relationship underpins much of the region's dynamics. For decades, Washington has been bound to the conservative kingdom by oil, security and stability. The world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia is home to about one-fifth of the world's proven petroleum reserves. It's also a bulwark against anti-American states such as Iran and a critical defense partner in the battle against Islamic extremists and terrorists (in 2010, the U.S. approved a 10-year, $60 billion arms package for Riyadh).

Yet Washington's cozy relationship with the wealthy autocratic monarchy has long angered Arabs who cite it as a classic example of America's strategic interests trumping its democratic principles. The Saudi ruling family's oil money has largely insulated it from the kind of upheaval that's rocked its neighbors, though that hasn't quelled speculation about the future of the House of Saud and its aging, opaque leadership structure. In many ways, Saudi Arabia illustrates the quandary facing President Obama, whose reaction to the Arab Spring invariably provokes backlash from one group or another.

For instance, two years ago, when Obama sided with Egyptian protesters by urging longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak to step aside, he was hailed by democracy activists but denounced by Saudi Arabia (and even Israel) for abandoning a stalwart U.S. ally. Although the Obama administration spearheaded the international coalition that dislodged Libya's dictator from power, it's been criticized for not taking a more confrontational stand against nations such as Syria and Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is located. In March 2011, Saudi Arabia sent troops to help its tiny next door neighbor quash an uprising by the disenfranchised Shiite majority, and since then, Washington has only offered mild rebukes against Bahrain's crackdown against the opposition.

Indeed, the prevailing narrative in the Arab world is that the United States supports democracy only when it's useful — i.e. when Washington pushed for elections in the Palestinian territories but then recoiled when Hamas emerged as the victor. Obama's tentative outreach to new, democratically elected leaders such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood sought to counter that narrative, but it has been met with leeriness by Americans who fear an Islamist takeover.

It's also viewed with suspicion by Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, which doesn't want to cede any of its influence to unpredictable new powerbrokers. The Arab Spring has also exacerbated the Sunni-Shiite divide, with Saudi Arabia looking to prevent rivals such as Iran and Syria (whose rebels Riyadh has been arming, along with Qatar) from gaining a stronghold in the region. The Sunni monarchy also wants to keep the Shiite contagion of discontent from spreading to allies such as Bahrain, Jordan and even to its own borders (Saudi Arabia's oil-rich eastern province is home to some 2 million Shiites who call for greater political rights).

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor at the United Arab Emirates University in Abu Dhabi and the author of seven books, told the audience at the Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference that Saudi Arabia — where two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30 — has good reason to worry.

"I think the Arab Gulf states are not immune from the changes that are sweeping the Arab world. They are part and parcel of Arab history, of Arab identity, of Arab culture," Abdulla said. "Anything that happens there is bound to influence it."

He cited democracy and Islam as the biggest factors in that change. "Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, etc. — the Arab world probably is becoming more democratic than it used to be during the past 60 years," Abdulla said. "It's still in the making. Democracy is difficult, as everybody has heard, and there is no easy manual to build a democracy. But the Arab world is becoming more democratic."

Yet at the same time it is becoming more democratic, the Arab world is also becoming more Islamic. And Abdulla said he worried about what he described as America's indulgence of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, after it had denounced strict Islamists for most of the past decade.

"A more democratic Arab world is very likely; a more Islamic Arab world is also more likely," the scholar said. "Both of these trends are considered a huge challenge to the Arab Gulf states. The big story of the hour in the Arab world is the rise of political Islam, the rise of Muslim Brotherhood. But the real concern when it comes to the [U.S.-Gulf] relationship is the way Washington is starting to flirt with political Islam ... and pushing or empowering Islamists in places like Egypt and Tunisia and throughout the region.

"The concern here is not just that the United States has made a shift, but a sudden shift from old allies, the moderate regimes, to the new forces of change. And the suddenness of policy shift is raising some concern and creating mistrust," he added.

"How can you trust America when it shifts from one position to the other?" Abdulla asked. "Some call that shift ... naive. Is it possible if you make that shift, are you also in America ready to support Gulf Islamists, which are rising? If you make this sudden shift from one ally to another, what guarantee is there that you will not come to bargain, to make a grand bargain with Iran, and all of a sudden there is this question that we are left out of it. So it's sending a lot of messages — and most of it is not settling."

Prince Turki Al-Faisal, chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, has spoken at the NCUSAR conference for the last several years about the ups and downs in U.S.-Saudi relations — the low point being 9/11, when 15 of the 19 attackers turned out to be Saudi citizens — though he insists the relationship remains on solid footing, for the most part.

"Are we content in our relationship with this country? Yes and no. We are entrusting more than 70,000 of our youngsters to your universities to show our confidence in your educational system," Al-Faisal said, referring to the number of Saudis studying in the United States this year.

"We also differ with you on Palestine and wish that you would adopt the Abdullah Peace Initiative and that you are more evenhanded in promoting what is a declared policy of your government: a viable and contiguous Palestinian state," he added, citing the dormant peace initiative first proposed by the then Saudi crown prince in 2002 that offers Israel a complete normalization of relations with the Arab world in return for its withdrawal from Palestinian lands.

Al-Faisal, in fact, has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that America's efforts to block the Palestinians from achieving statehood at the United Nations undermine its credibility and threaten its relations with Riyadh. He's written numerous op-eds on the subject since leaving his post in Washington, where he served as ambassador from 2005 to 2006.

The fact that Al-Faisal departed so soon after taking over for Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who reigned as ambassador for more than 20 years, fueled speculation that Al-Faisal had fallen out of favor with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. In his book "Ghost Wars," Steve Coll wrote that Al-Faisal, a former director of Saudi Arabia's intelligence services, had "vast personal riches [that] bothered some of his rivals in the royal family. They felt the Saudi intelligence department had become a financial black hole."

Interestingly, Prince Bandar, who dropped out of sight for several years and has also had his fair share of financial and personal scandals, was just appointed Saudi Arabia's new intelligence chief over the summer.

Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, speculates the shakeup has a lot to do with the turmoil in Syria.

"Although the kingdom's main obsession is Iran, its immediate preoccupation is Syria. On that issue, Bandar may indeed be the man for the moment. Over the years, he has acquired a reputation for discreet diplomacy and intrigue in both Syria and Lebanon," Henderson wrote in a July 24 Foreign Policy article.

But the scholar also said the appointment "suggests panic in Riyadh" and a "limited talent pool in the House of Saud."

"With Saudi Arabia's most senior princes dying off, it's time for this generation to step into a leadership role if the kingdom hopes to avoid a messy succession crisis in the near future — or at least that is probably what these men, spring chickens in Saudi royal terms but already in their fifties and sixties, think," he wrote.

Indeed, questions continue to swirl about the transition plans of the ossifying leadership. King Abdullah, 88, has had serious health problems, like many of his elder brethren. And just a month before Bandar's appointment, the government announced the death of Abdullah's successor, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, 78, a hard-line interior minister who fought against al-Qaeda — and against democratic reforms.

In his remarks, Al-Faisal didn't broach the subject of Saudi Arabia's perpetual royal intrigue or the chances of liberalizing the monarchy, whose rule is based on the hard-line Wahhabi interpretation of Islam (Saudi Arabia is famously the only country in the world where women can't drive).

But he did talk extensively about the tremendous strides the kingdom of nearly 27 million people has made over the last century, with the government "using the growing oil revenues to expand its economic base and provide its citizens with a better standard of living."

"At the beginning, there was high illiteracy, very few roads, and a serious lack of technology. There was also another problem. Many of the people simply didn't want to become modern," he said.

"And in many ways, this obstacle of the people not wanting to become modern is linked very closely to the obstacle that faces the ambition to maintain the land as the beacon of Islam. There are many around who frankly state that they see so-called modernity as completely antithetical to Islam. With modernity come things like women being educated, foreigners walking on the holy soil, and technologies that are not only sinful in their view, but they bring forbidden thoughts and images into the minds of the believers," he added.

"The challenge that the kingdom faces today is the perennial one of how to reconcile the seemingly contradictory forces for reform and development with the traditional status quo beneficiaries seeing all innovation as a threat to identity and well being."

On that front, Al-Faisal said Saudi Arabia is "still a work in progress," but suggested it will avoid the kind of impassioned, sometimes violent demonstrations that other Arab countries have seen over the past two years.

"Have we achieved 'first world' status? Not yet. But our rankings are rising higher every year on any scale. Are we, as Saudis, satisfied with our lot? No. We always aim higher and want to be better," he said. "Government programs to encourage employment and incentivize training of young Saudis are well in hand, including unemployment benefits tied to enrollment in training. By the end of this year, the Saudi state will have a $600 billion economy, making for the largest economy in the Middle East-North Africa region."

However, many skeptics contend the only reason protests against the ruling family never materialized in the capital of Riyadh is because King Abdullah essentially bought the populace off with more than $130 billion in spending, which included salary hikes for government workers, easier-to-obtain home mortgages and a dramatic expansion of worker benefits.

James B. Smith, who has spent the past three years as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, acknowledged the skepticism but said the spending made a positive difference.

"Saudi Arabia took note of the Arab Spring, and the government moved quickly, first with a $138 billion package in programs, all targeted toward the needs and concerns of its population," Smith told attendees. "Now, I realize that there was criticism in some circles that saw the Saudi response as buying off the population with increased subsidies. But I have to say that the government response was much more sophisticated than that.

"At the time we in the embassy, we listed the top issues facing the Saudi population were jobs, housing, corruption, civil society and the security apparatus," Smith continued. "After the economic package was announced, the government responded publicly on each of these key issues, and in my view they demonstrated a keen understanding of their own population and responsiveness to the concerns of that population. Indeed, they continue on a course of measured modernization."

Smith suggested that the cloistered Saudi regime realizes the days of unquestioned rule are coming to an end.

"There does seem to be a genuine understanding that change is inevitable, but this is still an extremely conservative society, one steeped in tradition and cultural constraints, and the government is attempting to manage the rate and pace of that change," he said. "But like all governments in the region, it continues to struggle with the forces of inertia that are intrinsic in traditional governing systems."

Smith added that the Arab Spring — fanned in part by difficult-to-control social media — "produced a very real sense of accountability on the part of the leadership in the region."

"The key difference in the region is that whole populations are searching for dignity," Smith said. "They are beginning to see themselves as citizens not subjects, and certainly are demanding that their governments be responsive. Plus, they want their governments to be transparent in the process. These populations are connected and they are engaged."

But despite all the turmoil and tensions, Smith said the United States and Saudi Arabia are poised to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship — one that goes beyond the traditional linkages between the two countries, namely billions of dollars in energy trade and military sales.

"U.S. universities and colleges have professional relationships with every university in Saudi Arabia. Every Saudi medical center has some sort of partnership with an American medical center or teaching hospital. Our non-defense exports to Saudi Arabia have climbed double digits in each of the last three years. Agricultural exports alone increased 103 percent last year. Over 240 American companies have exported to Saudi Arabia for the very first time in the last two years," Smith pointed out.

"We came out of the Arab Spring with a deeper understanding of ourselves and each other," he said. "The concept of mutual trust and mutual respect has paid great dividends. The U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship is sound."


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 11, 2013