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Cold Desert Nights

Is the Obama administration putting the U.S.-Saudi relationship on ice?

Lee Smith
January 19, 2010
Saudi King Abdullah and President Barack Obama in Riyadh on June 3, 2009.(Mido Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi King Abdullah and President Barack Obama in Riyadh on June 3, 2009.(Mido Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images)

The Saudi Embassy is covered in snow, and U.S. Foreign Service officers on their lunch breaks in Foggy Bottom skid by and giggle. Washington is notoriously incapable of digging itself out from under, and almost a year into the Obama administration, it seems the Saudis are having the same problem. For years, the Saudis have had a direct line to the Oval Office, thanks in part to the two-decades-long tenure of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the larger-than-life Saudi ambassador to Washington who shaped the capital of the free world after the image of his rolodex. Now, as Iran turns up the heat on Saudi and American interests across the region—in Yemen, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the Persian Gulf—it appears that no one in Washington is managing the Saudi account. The rulers of the desert kingdom that has allied itself with America for 60 years are not accustomed to weather like this: the Saudis are out in the cold.

The Saudi-American relationship has traditionally been managed from the Saudi embassy, especially during the heyday of U.S.-Saudi comity presided over by Prince Bandar, a high-spirited Dallas Cowboys fan affectionately known to members of two recent administrations as Bandar Bush. “Bandar used to have strong ties with everyone in town,” explained Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a Washington-based journalist with Kuwait’s Al-Rai newspaper. The prince, who once bought a Jaguar for the wife of his long-time tennis partner, Colin Powell, and was shown war plans for Iraq, was far and away Washington’s preeminent diplomat. “The new Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir,” said Hussein, “is just not as influential.” While Bandar was famous for visiting presidents at their homes and smoking cigars on the Truman Balcony, al-Jubeir has apparently visited the White House only once during the first year of the Obama presidency—as one of some 50 Muslim guests invited for Iftar, the evening meal during Ramadan.

Riyadh is in special need of a capable point man in Washington, one who can prevent Saudi Arabia’s contradictory signals from confusing the Americans. This is no mean feat, for it often seems there are as many Saudi policies and agendas as there are Saudi royals with private treasure chests. Princes like Al-Waleed Bin Talal donate hundreds of millions of dollars to American universities, such as Georgetown, to promote a positive view of Islam, while other Saudis distribute still greater sums to disseminate Wahhabism, an austere version of Islam that provides the ideological bedrock for al-Qaida.

Yet relations between states are never a one-way street, and they’re rarely the product of personal chemistry—or a lack thereof. Knowledgeable observers point to a sea change in American behavior towards the Saudis since Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush and began paying less attention to what the Saudis want. “We’re the ones who’ve changed,” said a former senior official in the Bush administration who worked closely enough with the Saudis to learn that it’s a very high-maintenance relationship. “Look around. Sure, the Saudis have a new U.S. ambassador, and Yemen is heating up, but what’s really changed for them? Nothing. The trouble in the relationship is from our side.”

We were having lunch in a noisy cafeteria close to Dupont Circle in downtown Washington. It’s the kind of place where people out of power like to have lunch. “The Saudis need to have their hands held all the time,” the former official said. “They had it for 20 years with Bandar, and their ambassadors are accustomed to access straight to the Oval. It seems that no one is caring for the Saudi account.”

Whatever side of the political divide you are on, it seems clear that Obama’s June 2009 trip to Riyadh was a disaster. After pushing the Israelis on settlements, Obama counted on securing some minor confidence-building measures from the Arabs and instead wound up with an earful from the 85-year-old Saudi king. The administration had not done its homework.

“People at the upper echelons do not seem to understand the complexity of Saudi Arabia,” the former official said. “If you come at it blindly and conventionally, then you assume that their main concern is the peace process: ‘It is a huge issue for all Arabs, so the Saudis must care.’ The Palestinian-Israeli issue was not the highest priority with the last administration, and we found that if you don’t bring it up, the Saudis won’t bring it up either. But if you do bring it up, they feel they have to talk about it, or else they will be shamed—the Saudis can’t be less pro-Palestinian than the Americans. The Obama people didn’t know this or care, and they didn’t seem to know or care what the Saudis were really concerned about. The number one issue in Riyadh is Iran.”

In addition to projecting power through their ambassador in Washington, Saudis have gilded a number of think tanks and analysts, like Chas Freeman, who in March 2009 withdrew his nomination to head the Obama administration’s National Intelligence Council, citing a smear campaign by the Israel lobby. Freeman often stated that the Middle East’s single most important issue is the Arab-Israeli conflict—and yet the Saudis themselves tell anyone who will listen that their major concern is not in achieving a just resolution for the Palestinians but in countering the Iranian threat the the kingdom.

In the Middle East, Saudi policy is similarly incoherent, except for its consistent efforts to push back against what it perceives as a Shia crescent rising out of Tehran. In Yemen, the Saudis are fighting a proxy war on their Southern border against the Iranians. Yemen’s president has accused Tehran of supporting the Houthis, a band of Zaidi Shia rebels with some similarities to Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shia militia. Lebanon, too, was once a vital interest for the Saudis, and Riyadh closely worked with the Bush administration to counter Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors. Recently, however, the Saudis have jumped ship to get closer to Damascus in the conviction that this would weaken Syria’s alliance with Iran. Nothing of the sort has happened. Instead Syria and Iran have helped Hezbollah strengthen its grip over Lebanon.

It is possible to argue that abandoning the Saudis isn’t such a bad thing. It’s not clear, after all, why the United States should desire an alliance with a country that executes “witches” and lashes adulterers. Women are treated as second-class citizens, as are members of Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, who happen to inhabit the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province. Yet even after the Sept. 11 attacks and the revelation that 15 of the hijackers carried Saudi passports, the Saudis, like the Israelis, enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Bush White House. According to one Riyadh-watcher, Vice President Dick Cheney, who managed the Saudi file, rarely returned from any trip abroad without a stopover in the Kingdom to consult with and calm the King’s executive office, the Royal Diwan. There the Americans learned to defer to their hosts—and to eat quickly, for once King Abdullah had picked at the food during his one circumambulation of the buffet table, it was time to get down to business.

Obama, despite his famous bow to Abdullah, has hardly shown much deference to the Saudis. That raises the interesting possibility that the Obama administration has decided to reevaluate Washington’s regional commitments on a grander scale than has previously been imagined. Most observers have focused on Obama’s Israel policy, a strategy premised on the State Department’s conventional approach to the Arab-Israeli issue—to get tough with Jerusalem on settlements and punish right-wingers like Netanyahu. Perhaps Obama is freezing out Riyadh, too.

A Saudi freeze-out might be welcome in some quarters, especially among those who have moral qualms about America’s other “special relationship” in the Middle East. Yet it carries some of the same risks as Obama’s failed “get-tough” policy with Netanyahu—a situation in which American influence is reduced and the threat of independent action by American allies is increased. “The Saudi line,” the former official said, “was this: ‘Americans, are you going to do anything about our number one issue? If not, we will go our own road.’”

Wherever there’s an American vacuum, the Saudis are apt to stumble into trouble. Now that American troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq, Riyadh and Syria share an interest in bringing down Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Interior Ministry has named both countries as suspected supporters of recent attacks. “This is what happens,” says Tony Badran, a Middle East analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, “when the Americans leave the Saudis out on their own.”

Distance between Washington and the Saudi Kingdom allows Riyadh to pursue policies that are dangerous to U.S. interests and deadly to American citizens. “For the Saudis,” the former official said, “going their own road could mean making a deal with the Iranians, getting their own nuclear deterrent, or backing Sunni fighters such as al-Qaida. Or it could mean doing all of those things.”

Riyadh’s need to be protected from Iran is one way to understand the recent uptick in al-Qaida activities coming out of Yemen, where the Saudis are really fighting on two fronts. One front is a conventional counterinsurgency waged by the hapless Saudi military against the Houthi rebels. The other is a campaign to combat Iranian influence by dumping cash into al-Qaida bank accounts, and there is evidence that some of the Saudi money flowing into Yemen is not being used for its intended purposes. In October 2009, for instance, an al-Qaida operative tried to kill a Saudi counterterrorism official with explosives hidden in his underwear.

Al-Qaida picks up when and where Saudi money is dispensed. When the cash flow is curtailed, the jihadi handout lines move elsewhere. If you handhold the Saudis, they can be helpful partners. Let them wander off on their own, however, and you pay in blood.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.