What’s behind the widening division between U.S. and Saudi Arabia?


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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on the state of this relationship, I’m joined by Toby Jones, a historian at Rutgers University who studies and writes on the Gulf states, and Frederic Wehrey, a former U.S. Air Force officer who served in and around the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf. He’s now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Fred Wehrey, let me start with you. Tell us — fill in the picture a bit more about these recent tensions. What do you see as the main issues here?

FREDERIC WEHREY, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Well, I think the discord stems from a series of disagreements about the way the Middle East is unfolding, Iran, Syria, Egypt.

The Saudis fundamentally are worried that this nuclear deal will leave Iran’s regional aggression unchecked, that the United States is really being sort of hoodwinked by Iran. On Syria, they believe we’re not doing enough to check Iran’s influence in that country, that we’re not supporting the Syrian opposition enough.

But there’s also a series of fundamental disagreements about the post-Arab spring Middle East, especially in Egypt. The Saudis believe the administration had a dangerous naïveté about the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudis have stepped in and backed the military government there.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Toby Jones, all of these are big developments of the last few years.

TOBY JONES, Rutgers University: Yes. That’s right.

There is also something more fundamentally at stake from the perspective of Riyadh, and that’s that the United States was, at best, ambivalent about the prospect of democracy in the Arab world following the Arab uprisings. The Saudis are deeply fearful of the possibility of political empowerment and popular rule, and so they have acted in a very that is very aggressive to counter that.

I think that caught the Americans off-guard, although it could have been easily anticipated. So, I would add, in addition to the geopolitical problems that Fred outlined very clearly, the Saudis are terrified by the prospect of a new political order across the region and that the Americans might support it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, staying with you, Toby Jones, what did the U.S. want out of this meeting, and what does it want now from this relationship?

TOBY JONES: Well, I think American and Saudi interests align theoretically around issues of terrorism, about how to deal with Iran if it doesn’t accommodate the United States’ demands with respect to its nuclear program and negotiations there.

But, in practice, there are deep decisions, and I think the Americans wanted to show up, reassure the Saudis that, look, this is a relationship that’s lasted for quite a long time and it should proceed going forward. But there are also — there’s a moment on the horizon, if you will, in which these things might have to be rethought.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fred Wehrey, how — deep divisions, a rift, we use these words. How big a rift? How does it show itself? What’s being done, if anything, to mend it?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, this is a significant, I think, period of turbulence that we’re going through.

But we have to remember, throughout the period of — or the history of U.S.-Saudi relations, there’s always been the sense by the Saudis that the United States is not a reliable security guarantor. You go back to the Kennedy administration, they were saying, look, you’re not doing enough to support us against Nasser, after the Iranian Revolution, the same thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is an old story.

FREDERIC WEHREY: It’s an old story.

We’re — I think the region is changing and fundamentally different — in fundamental ways. The U.S. sees it going one way. The Saudis see it going another. And I do think the relationship will have to be renegotiated later on.

Right now, the pillars of the relationship, the fundamental pillars of the relationship, the mil-to-mil cooperation between the U.S., the military assistance that the U.S. gives to Saudi Arabia remains solid. There’s also excellent cooperation on counterterrorism.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is that from both sides, from the Saudi military and U.S. military? Those interests have not changed, you’re saying?

FREDERIC WEHREY: That’s my understanding, yes.

I think there’s still this fundamental recognition by the Saudis that they need U.S. military support. We see them going on shopping sprees to other countries, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, but, fundamentally, no one else is providing the type of support that the U.S. provides.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Toby Jones, you’re suggesting that these — some of this rift is really due to the perceptions by the Saudis of the Obama administration and more recent actions.

TOBY JONES: Yes, I think that’s correct.

I think the Obama administration has staked out a minimalist position in the Middle East, where it would like to sort of reduce the American footprint there. I know military strategists don’t see our position in the Persian Gulf as being sustainable over the long term. And this is a very serious concern for the Saudis.

I think Fred is exactly right that the relationship, at least rhetorically, has been framed through the language of security and Saudi Arabia’s anxiety about its own stability in what it calls a dangerous neighborhood, that the Americans have bought into that and protected — protected it for their own political and economic interests.

But let’s also remember that the Americans have profited a great deal from being in the region. This hasn’t been something that we have been strong-armed into. There’s a great deal of oil wealth that gets recycled through the American economy, with the purchase of massive and expensive American military weapons systems.

So there’s been a lot of agreement, if you will, on some basic issues. And I don’t see those things necessarily changing. The question is whether the Americans are willing to commit their military resources in the long term in the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about, Fred Wehrey, starting with you, values issues, human rights issues? The White House said today there was no discussion of human rights at the meetings today. But this remains important for many people.

Should the U.S. be taking those more seriously? Have we turned a blind eye to practices by the Saudis within their own country and throughout the Arab world?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Unfortunately, I think we have turned a blind eye. And I do think we should be pressing more. It’s really unfortunate that we seem to be so focused on soliciting Saudi support for these regional objectives, that we’re ignoring or brushing off some very disconcerting and I think alarming domestic developments.

The Saudis have just enacted a sweeping anti-terrorism law. There’s massive censorship. They have criminalized the Muslim Brotherhood, which most Arab — other Arab states and the United States regards as a legitimate political movement. So, this is very worrisome. And I do think we should be raising these issues, not solely because they align with our values, but you can argue from a security perspective.

We know from 9/11 that what happens inside the kingdom and the Gulf doesn’t stay in that region, and it can affect our security.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Toby Jones, one other issue we saw in our setup piece, an aging monarch, a new person named as number two. There are many princes, I gather, vying for that, I gather.

How much of this unsettled period has to do with what happens with the succession in Saudi Arabia?

TOBY JONES: Well, I don’t think the Saudis have anxieties about succession. I think they see pretty clearly what the line of transition will look like.

And let’s remember that the Saudis have historically had difficult moments of succession in the 1960s, as well as at the very end of the 1970s. I think their priority is to protect the, to protect the family’s privilege, its status atop what is a difficult system to manage, because they don’t rule by popular consensus. They rule through brutality and through the threat of violence and through co-option.

But I think that they have an idea in mind they want to stick together through good times and bad times. And they will protect themselves pretty effectively.

JEFFREY BROWN: Toby Jones and Fred Wehrey, thank you both very much.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Thank you.

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