Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Saudi Arabia and USA: incompatible values, but still bedfellows

From BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 140, May 23, 2011, by Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum*:

[brief excerpts only - follow the link to read the full article]

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Many in the West have looked upon the “Arab Spring” with hopeful optimism. But for the rulers of Riyadh the Arab Spring’s primary result has been a shaking of the strategic foundation and alignments that have shaped Saudi regional policy since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The Saudis had previously believed that they were the leaders, with US backing, of a united Sunni coalition against Shiite Iran. Now its partners have fallen by the wayside – Egypt appears to be dropping out, Bahrain is threatened, and the US is wobbly. And, US President Obama’s speech on May 19 did not calm the Saudis down.

This is certainly a rocky period in Riyadh-Washington relations. As the US struggles to align its interests with its values, it finds it more difficult to support authoritarian monarchies like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

But values and interests do not neatly align themselves in international relations. While the US wants to favor democracy and oppose authoritarianism, the authoritarian Islamic regime in Riyadh still plays an integral role in long-term stability and assuring oil supply.

In October 2010, the US announced an arms deal with the kingdom worth over $60 billion. In early April 2011, the US Navy disclosed that Saudi Arabia had asked the US to prepare a proposal for the supply of warships with integrated air and Aegis missile defense systems, as well as helicopters, patrol craft and shore infrastructure. Even if this latter deal does not go through, it demonstrates that the long-term survival of the Saudi regime is still a major US priority in light of the mutual Iranian threat. And, the Saudis knew they could turn to America, indicating business as usual.

There are those who have counseled the administration to reach a new understanding with the Saudis that would lead to the establishment of constitutional monarchies in the region. But it seems the Saudis are in no mood for such talks, nor will they be for many years. The current King, Abdullah, is 87 years old and ailing. The Crown Prince, Sultan, is also over 80 and ailing. The next in line, Prince Nayif, is a known conservative. It is hard to conceive of the Saudi ruling family countenancing any power-sharing arrangement in the near future.

Thus, both countries [USA and Saudi Arabia] will have to continue strategic cooperation, even as their values continue to be at odds. When President Obama said in his speech “there will be times when our short-term interests do not align perfectly with our long-term vision of the region,” he was speaking about Saudi Arabia.

*Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, principal research associate at the IDC’s GLORIA Center, and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University. He is also a visiting fellow and contributor to the Task Force on Islamism and the International Order at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is Saudi Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape (Stanford: Hoover Press).

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