Moving the New US-Saudi Relationship Beyond Reassurance

Over the past two months, US and Saudi officials have done what they needed to do to calm the waters in US-Saudi relations. Senior officials visited Riyadh to discuss the status of the negotiations with Iran; the Saudi interior minister visited the United States to coordinate Syria policy more effectively; the vocal complaints of the Saudi establishment have been consciously muted since the outbreak of discontent late last year marked by the rejection of a UN Security Council seat. The reassurance campaign paves the way for an inevitably “successful” visit to the Kingdom by President Barack Obama later this month. However fundamental changes in Saudi Arabia and the United States demand that the relationship move beyond ritualistic reassurance towards a more textured strategic partnership. Getting there requires recognition of major changes in the posture of both countries.

Recognizing Change

The changes influencing US policy are well known. The Obama administration will not be drawn into any vast new entanglements in the Middle East, priding itself on extricating the United States from the same. Neither is there evidence to indicate that either a Republican or Democrat successor to President Obama would support policies that would materially deepen US involvement in the region absent a crisis. Energy development in the United States will offer much more flexibility in its future energy policies and will likely, along with diminishing defense budgets, reduce the felt US obligation to provide the vast bulk of external security for Gulf partners and Gulf shipping lanes, (even though the United States will by default be the dominant military power in the Gulf for years to come). There also lingers a possibility that Iran could develop improved relations with the United States, with both positive and negative implications for the traditional US partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

While the United States gradually draws back from the Middle East in the coming years, Saudi Arabia has the potential to become a more active and effective regional power. Certainly measured by purchase of advanced defense equipment, the Kingdom (along with the United Arab Emirates) will have capabilities undreamt of in the Arab world until recent years. Due to the vast expansion of educational opportunities (including the return of thousands of graduates from study abroad), Saudi Arabia will have a pool of talent—including a large new cadre of educated women—it has not seen before. Putting this new generation into productive work will be the defining challenge for the leadership that succeeds King Abdullah and is likely to have a direct impact on Saudi ability to project power and influence outside its borders. As the United States contends with a surplus of energy, Saudis will need to figure out how to manage their supplies better to meet demands of a diversified economy and their largely Eastern customers for oil.

So What to Do?

These fundamental changes in both countries call for a refashioning of the US-Saudi relationship, which gradually weans both countries away from a largely transactional approach, centered around oil and military/intelligence ties, towards a more mature relationship in which Saudi Arabia plays a greater leadership role. This is not simply a way for the United States to extricate itself from a troubled region but rather a recognition that change is inevitable and should be managed rather than simply endured.

A few examples of what such a new relationship would look like in the context of military and political interactions:

  • Success in the US/Saudi defense relationship would no longer be measured only in the billions of dollars of equipment sold, but would center on clear division of defense roles among US, Saudi, and allied forces. A clear definition of who is to do what with clear commitments to provide the forces, training, and coordination necessary to implement such plans would reinvigorate the defense relationship. Call it burden sharing, shared responsibility, or best use of limited resources—the main message is that the US is taking seriously the capabilities of it Gulf allies rather than seeing Saudi Arabia as a market for weapons systems but a more symbolic than real military partner. Such a change would require a shift in attitudes on both sides and will take time, but has the potential to instill greater confidence in both the capabilities and intentions of the two defense establishments.

  • US-Saudi disagreement over how to deal with the Syria crisis indicates a need to improve coordination on regional issues as well as manage differences more effectively. The unfolding of negotiations with Iran—regardless of whether they succeed or not—also points to the need to understand each others’ interests and find common ground rather than merely cite differences. More importantly, such consultations also need to lead to effective action.

    Egypt provides a good example of where Saudi regional leadership, in concert with international institutions and Western partners, could make a positive long-term difference. This constructive role would require that Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf donors to Egypt, shift from using financial aid to simply maintain Egypt’s economy in its clearly inadequate state. Gulf states need to find methods to use their aid to encourage Egyptian economic policy reforms that will lead to sustained private sector investment and job creation. Otherwise, the Gulf desire for stability in Egypt will not be realized and the vast majority of the Egyptian population will continue to be denied basic economic opportunities. Banning the Muslim Brotherhood and hounding critics is not going to solve Egypt’s economic problems. 

  • The political relationship would also be served by a richer dialogue between US and Saudi officials. Too few Saudi diplomats are empowered to genuinely and vigorously represent Saudi interests, with a long-held Saudi preference for senior-level contacts. This operating mode has worked to the benefit of both sides for much of the history of US-Saudi ties, but can no longer be relied upon exclusively. With plenty of untapped talent in the Saudi diplomatic service and a rapidly-growing reservoir in the society as whole, Saudi Arabia should take advantage of its human resources if it aspires to leadership. It needs leaders at all levels, not just those clustered at the very top of the political pyramid. The United States could provide assistance in developing any specific capabilities, but must be accompanied by diffusion of authority—admittedly not a simple order in the Saudi context. 

  • As both countries confront profound shifts in their domestic and international energy positions, there is an opportunity for joint leadership that should not be lost in loose talk of US energy “independence” and freedom from Middle East suppliers. The United States, through its companies, through its universities and through its policy dialogue has long been an effective energy partner with Saudi Arabia and that experience should not be casually discarded but rather built upon as Saudi Arabia plans for more effective use of existing resources and exploitation of new renewable energy technologies and the United States considers becoming a net oil exporter.

King Abdullah and President Obama

While the focus of the President’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia will be to demonstrate that differences over Syria and Iran have been narrowed and that the path forward is clear, it would be useful for the President to reflect a bit with King Abdullah on the significant change that the King has brought to Saudi Arabia during his nine-year tenure. Undoubtedly, Saudi Arabia has a long path ahead, but most Saudi observers would credit the King with pushing the limits in creating modern institutions—some named after him such as the new economic city near Jeddah, the university of science and technology, and his massive foreign scholarship program. He has steadily improved the opportunities for women in Saudi society, recognized the need to discard the worst practices of both religious and civil bureaucracies, and tried to answer Saudi extremism with new and different opportunities for young people. We should not hesitate to offer critiques of Saudi domestic or international policies with which we disagree, but US interests would be well-served by recognizing accomplishment along with steady encouragement of progressive change. The US goal should be to help develop a more capable ally in Saudi Arabia, ready to exercise shared leadership over the long term. It is a policy that goes well beyond reassurance.  

Richard LeBaron is a resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Brent Scowcroft Center focusing on the Gulf region.

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Image: U.S. President Barack Obama greets Saudi's Haj Minister Fouad Al-Farsy and Saudi's Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi (C) Oil Minister upon his arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh June 2009. (Photo: Zamanalsamt/Flickr)