Can Riyadh Make the Case for Stronger Partnership?

The leaders of the Saudi Kingdom worry that the foundation undergirding a 70-year partnership with the United States is eroding. A pro-Iran narrative assigning the fatherhood of jihadist extremism to Saudi Arabia picks up steam, while White House denizens make no secret of their displeasure with the Kingdom. Even the President of the United States counseled Riyadh to “share the neighborhood” with an Iran aggressively extending its hegemony to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Can Saudi Arabia get off the back foot and make a positive case for stronger partnership with Washington?

Never in its history has the US-Saudi bilateral relationship been able to replicate the people-to-people depth of (for example) the US-UK or the US-Japan relationships. Yet even if the foundation did not penetrate the bedrock of public opinion, it has consistently garnered powerful support from American political and foreign policy elites. Saudi Arabia has traditionally been seen by the White House as a strong and reliable partner in the Middle East and beyond.

Indeed, the current administration would claim that the Kingdom remains a strong partner and that official high regard for the Kingdom has not slackened. Suffice it to say that Saudi leaders place limited credence in such protestations. What they see instead is a flirtation with Iran at their expense. What they pick up are bitter White House complaints about Saudi criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. What they fear is that Iranian attempts to dominate Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon will go essentially unopposed by a West hopeful that the nuclear transaction will eventually produce a less aggressive, more pacific Iran.

One suspects that Saudis would not agonize over prevailing media narratives if they believed that Obama administration policies were correct. They would not be worried, three decades after Iran-Contra, about the resurrection of an Iranian ‘moderates versus hardliners’ story were it not for the apparent success of Iran’s foreign minister in selling the recycled tale to Western counterparts. They would be fully content with resting on the historical record of the Assad regime sustaining Al-Qaeda in Iraq—the father of ISIS in Syria—were it not for an American policy in Syria sensitive to Iranian interests. Similarly, they would be happy to let the fact of the Iran-Russia-Assad triumvirate in Syria fighting everyone except ISIS speak for itself, but for American policies in Syria that inadvertently but inevitably put wind into the sails of a false narrative identifying Iran’s Syrian agent as a bulwark against ISIS.

Saudi leaders see American policies and a growing media narrative blaming Riyadh for most (if not all) of the region’s terrorism as mutually reinforcing. Iran, pushing on an open door of ‘progressive’ elite sentiment in Europe and North America, claims that the Kingdom (not its client Assad) is responsible for the presence of ISIS in Syria. Yet when Saudi Arabia offers to put ground combat forces into eastern Syria under American command to confront ISIS—not to fight Assad and the Iranians, but to defeat ISIS—the Obama administration rope-a-dopes the offer and its author until it all fades into nothingness.

And herein lies the challenge for the Kingdom. When the offer to put ground forces into eastern Syria to help kill ISIS was made, was it serious? If it was, then where was the follow-up with the US Congress? With the American media? Where was the sustained public diplomacy campaign in Western Europe, where ISIS had committed mass murder and where public opinion was increasingly receptive to ‘blame the Saudis’ propaganda? How many American congressmen and European parliamentarians even know the offer was ever made?

The starting point for the Saudi Kingdom to reverse a negative narrative and build a stronger relationship with President Barack Obama’s successor is to fill in the blank at the end of the following sentence fragment: “Saudi Arabia is an essential and effective partner in the global coalition against violent jihadist extremism because . . .”  And unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia will not be able to get away with smoke and mirrors in shaping narratives. Like it or not, the Kingdom will be held to a higher standard, one in which public diplomacy must reflect actual policies and practices, whether the issue is ISIS, the Arab Peace Initiative, or civilian protection in Yemen. Iran, touting its rich history and marvelous culture, can somehow be the great hope of some in the West even as it facilitates mass murder in Syria, subsidizes a loathsome criminal enterprise in Lebanon, and practices internal terror. Saudi Arabia, reflecting as it does societal practices largely unattractive to the West, does not have Iran’s advantages with certain audiences.

Facts, however, really do count when bullets fly and bombs explode. If Saudi Arabia is serious about wanting to help kill ISIS on the ground in Syria, it should renew its offer and sustain an information campaign centered on it. The original offer and the instant, alarmed, and panicked reaction of the ‘anti-ISIS’ Syrian foreign minister have long since evaporated. Indeed, the Assad regime reaction was particularly instructive: it was terrified by the prospect of ISIS—its ‘enemy’ of choice—being done in.

If the Saudi offer was bogus, it never should have been made. But if the Kingdom is really prepared to put a brigade or more into eastern Syria to help the United States do something Iran, Russia, and Assad will not touch, even those pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of Iranian ‘moderates’ might look up, take notice, and reevaluate their assumptions about whose interests are really served by the survival of ISIS and other variations and off-shoots of Al Qaeda in the Middle East. For Saudi Arabia—unlike Iran—the sizzle will never substitute for the steak: effective narratives are possible for the Kingdom only in the context of sound policies, well-executed. Although salesmanship requires skill and perseverance, having a good product is essential: particularly if you are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia bids farewell to President Barack Obama at Erga Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)