Political turmoil tests relations

31 October 2013

The US’ response to regional unrest has pitched Washington and Riyadh against each other, but they are better off working together

On the morning of 18 October, Saudi diplomats were enjoying a brief moment of celebration. They had just found out the kingdom had been elected to a coveted two-year seat on the UN Security Council, the highest body for international security in the world.

Abdullah al-Moullimi, Riyadh’s ambassador to the UN, called it a “defining moment” in the kingdom’s history. Just a few hours later, news came from the Saudi capital that it was rejecting the seat.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry blamed the Security Council’s failure to end the bloodshed in Syria or find a peaceful solution to relations between Israel and the Palestinians. The real target of Riyadh’s ire was Washington.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, Washington’s policies in the Middle East have consistently incurred opprobrium in Riyadh. From failing to launch military action in Syria, trying to promote democratic reform in Bahrain, to pulling support for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and then failing to back the subsequent removal of a Muslim Brotherhood government by the military, US policies have been directly opposed to Saudi Arabia’s actions over the past few years. The possibility of a US rapprochement with Iran also worries the Saudis.

With Riyadh feeling the US is no longer protecting its interests, the kingdom is adopting a more muscular foreign policy. It will find that no one is able to replace its relationship with the US, which gives the kingdom protection against the threat of Iranian expansionism and valuable cooperation on counterterrorism.

Washington has leapt to respond to Riyadh’s concerns, with Secretary of State John Kerry meeting Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud
al-Faisal. A key reason for the breakdown in relations has been poor communication. The US response to the Middle East turmoil has been muddied at best. The two sides have held opposing views in the past, but have resolved their differences. Both governments know they need each other to protect their wider interests.

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