Recently there has been a shift in the Saudi King Abdullah's attitude and rhetoric towards the U.S. In an apparent policy shift, he now describes the American presence in Iraq as “an illegitimate foreign occupation.”
Some observers think the Saudi-U.S. alliance is crumbling. But is it? At a time when Middle East stability or the lack thereof depends on the behaviour of so many players, perhaps it is too early to make any rash judgements. It could well take a year or more to determine whether the Saudi relationship with the U.S. is actually changing – or whether it is anything more than an attempt by the Saudi monarchy to regain credibility with their population and their Arab League counterparts at a crucial time for Sunni (Arab) unification.
Perhaps Saudi Arabia is simply attempting to distance itself from U.S. adventurism in what looks like the run-up to war in Iran with the hope of avoiding retaliation from the Shiite state, which would undoubtedly damage Saudi oil infrastructure and revenues. This is backed up by King Abdullah's recent meeting with Iranian President Ahmadinejad, which went strongly against U.S. policy toward Iran.
Saudi Arabia is a very important ally for the U.S. because they have a strong role in the region, the world's largest oil reserves and a strategically important location. However, the U.S. is also an important ally for Saudi Arabia, because their military cooperation provides Saudi forces with training and the best weaponry. The U.S. is also the largest importer of Saudi oil and petroleum products. The safety of these products and infrastructure thereof is a major priority for Saudi Arabia, and so it is likely that recent Saudi actions and those in the near future are at least partly aimed at ensuring they don’t become directly embroiled in any of the region’s wars. Saudi Arabia is also attempting to exercise its growing influence in efforts to stabilize the region.
One aspect of these efforts is to extend their role in stabilizing the region by resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. The initiative currently at the centre of it all is to restart the peace process. It was originally the brainchild of then acting Saudi regent Crown Prince Abdullah and presented to an Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002. The initiative offers Israel normalized relations with all Arab League states (i.e., practically all Arab states) including longstanding enemies Lebanon and Syria. The initiative is the best opportunity Israel has ever been offered to ensure its future security. In return, it asks Israel to return land taken in the 1967 war, for the creation of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, and "a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem".
No doubt a big aspect in implementing the initiative will be getting both sides to agree. But, as we have seen in all other attempts at resolving the crisis, perhaps an even bigger aspect is ensuring that both sides honour their commitments. Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and the many rogue elements within could –and have—the ability to destroy in five minutes what has taken months of hard negotiations to secure.
Hamas and Hezbollah harbour a deep-rooted hatred for the U.S., as do many Palestinian and Lebanese Muslims, for what is seen as a biased Middle Eastern policy heavily favouring Israel. These beliefs have solidified after the years of considerable U.S. financial and military aid to Israel, despite what seems at times to be a lax attitude towards collateral damage. In other words, some believe the U.S. is in part responsible for the high civilian casualties inflicted by Israel in the decades-long conflict.
This hatred is translated into a cold fact. If Saudi Arabia were to succeed in implementing the Arab peace initiative, but were seen by militant groups to be acting on U.S. interests or orders, the agreement may be killed before it can live. So, at this crucial stage of trying to get the initiative off the ground, it can be seen to be in Saudi Arabia's best interests to weaken their alliance with the U.S., or at least to create that impression.
This would seem to be the main reason behind King Abdullah's recent actions and statements because of their timing. In recent days he cancelled his attendance at a formal White House dinner in his honour, scheduled for April 18. The official reason was a scheduling conflict. And a few days later, on the first day of the Arab League Summit in Riyadh (Mar. 28-29), in which the 2002 Arab Peace initiative was unanimously revitalized, King Abdullah launched a scathing attack on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East:
"In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing between brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war."
He also spoke out against U.S. and Israeli desires to maintain the P.A. blockade:
"In wounded Palestine, the mighty people suffer from oppression and occupation. It has become vital that the oppressive blockade imposed on the Palestinians end as soon as possible so the peace process will get to move in an atmosphere without oppression."
Because of U.S. dependence on Saudi oil and Saudi's reliance on U.S. exports and military training, it is unlikely that their ties will be completely severed. But as Saudi Arabia attempts to take a leading role in stabilizing the tinder-box Middle East, the courage to resist U.S. pressure and try a different approach will perhaps serve them well.
For instance, many analysts believe there should be negotiations with Hezbollah about stabilizing Lebanon and with Iran. The U.S. has continually advocated that both be completely shunned, whereas Saudi Arabia seems at least willing to give it a try. Maybe the Saudis will fail as miserably at stabilizing the Middle East as the U.S. has. But maybe, just maybe, their suddenly divergent treks along the same road may manage to find suitable middle ground.