by Yazan al-Saad
February 6, 2014 (TSR) – As the media continues to focus its spotlight on the recent Saudi-American political disputes, analysts believe that on a more fundamental level, the military and economic ties are likely to endure as the money continues to flow.
In 1933, as the Arab American Company (ARAMCO) started exploring and developing vast oil reserves, the relationship between the infantile Wahhabi kingdom and the developing Western superpower blossomed and an agreement was made.
It was simple: oil for protection. Saudi ensured the flow of oil at stable prices, while the US protected and provided security for the al-Saud monarchy. It became one of the most essential components that shaped power structures which govern the region to this day.
But as tensions surfaced in recent months, many began to speculate over the future relationship between the two countries.
In the final week of last November, a historical deal was struck between Iran and six world powers, including the US, that sought to lessen sanctions on the Islamic Republic in return for more international oversight on its nuclear energy program. That deal emerged after the US and Iran conducted secret meetings that sought to subdue the drums of war.
The Saudis were surprised and furious. They, like everyone else, were kept in the dark regarding the secret negotiations, and were concerned the deal would signal an end of Western attempts to contain Iranian regional power.
The Saudis were already fuming with their American ally over its last-minute decision to not strike Syria in mid-September, and over what the Saudis perceived to be inadequate support for former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian uprising in January 2011.
The Americans, meanwhile, have become exceedingly uncomfortable with the key role members of the Saudi monarchy are playing in fermenting and nourishing fundamentalist armed groups in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
But analysts say the current tension is not necessarily a radical development, as political disagreements have appeared in the past, and that such disagreements will not have a profound effect on the future of their bilateral relationship.
“This is not new,” Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force Reserve, said during a talk he gave at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“The Saudis were not particularly pleased during the Iraq-Iran-US talks in 2007. It goes all the way back to when the Saudis were in conflict with [Egyptian leader] Gamal Abdul Nasser,” he said.
The constant theme, Wehrey argued, is that the Saudis felt that they were not being consulted. With Iran, which the Saudis consider a major hegemonic threat in the region, the dispute arises from Saudi fears that they will be downgraded and confined to the status of ‘junior partner’ in America’s plans for the region.
“Saudi and much of the Gulf always wanted to internationalize security, and Iran does not. The Gulf will always fear two things: abandonment, and entrapment by American wars or policies,” he argued.
“There is no amount of assurances to fully assuage the Saudis. The US bent over backwards many times, and we can point to Obama’s upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia in March,” as an example of easing concerns, Wehrey said.
Fouad Ibrahim, a Saudi journalist and opponent to the monarchy based in Beirut, claims the main issue between the two nations is how Saudi conducts itself in the region.
“There were many issues historically, but I think today the US is concerned with the Saudi-Israeli plans against the Syrian state. The Saudis tried to get US involved in wars for Saudi interests, like Iran, but this is not possible,” he told Al-Akhbar.
Ibrahim further opined the Saudi monarchy was currently in a state of confusion, saying, “they were betting on a complete change in the power dynamics in the region, and because that did not happen, the monarchy has lost its nerves,” implying they are driven by emotional rather than political calculations.
For Ibrahim, the dispute was directly linked to Saudi’s role in fermenting fundamentalist armed groups in places like Syria.
“That is why the Americans waited first for the Saudi King to issue his decree that says Saudis fighting abroad will be jailed, before announcing Obama’s visit,” he said. “It was only a few hours after the decree was made that the Americans announced the visit.
“It shows you how sensitive the matter was and the amount of US pressure on the Saudi monarchy.”
Similarly, Wehrey noted that there is a growing belief in Washington that the war in Syria has “eclipsed the Iraq war as a magnet for foreign volunteers” which Saudi is seen as playing a major role in.
“And the worry [with Syria] is where the fighters are going next,” he added.
And stemming off the present dispute, media and political commentators have argued that Saudi, and the rest of the Gulf, would attempt to seek a more independent and less reliant relationship from the US, at least politically.
But for both Wehrey and Ibrahim, this trend is not entirely likely.
“Seeking a polygamous, if I can use this term, relationship with other powers is challenging. No body is equipped to fill in as a the security guarantor today – China, EU, or Russia are not candidates,” Wehrey said, adding “there is also a great deal of disunity in the Gulf over foreign policy objectives, and much of the efforts are aiming to deal with internal discontent and other ideological threats by passing draconian laws, ejecting expatriates, and so forth.”
And, Wehrey noted, according to Pentagon and Department of Defense officials he has spoken to, the military-to-military relationship continues to be solid.
“We are not going anywhere,” he said, “The Gulf is still a door-way for US power projection into the rest of the region. This still guides a lot of the thinking.”
“The Middle East has become too costly for the US,” Ibrahim said on his part, “and Asia is becoming an attractive region for the US because it’s stable and has large economic potential. While I think Saudi and America will not have the same political relations as before, the military relationship is still going strong because its purely about money.”
“This is the only advantage the Saudis provide [for the Americans]. It’s nothing else but a reservoir of money for the American military industry,” he concluded.
Indeed, in 2010 the US and Saudi Arabia inked an arms deal worth $60 billion – the largest US arms deal ever – which is expected to provide the Saudi military with state-of-the-art aircraft, bunker busters, and other advanced military equipment, as well as training.
No matter the extent of the political quarrel, the exuberant, lucrative profits made from this relationship – for the Americans at least – suggests that it will be business as usual for the near future.