Last week's decision by Saudi Arabia to pass on an opportunity to become a member of the UN Security Council speaks to the Council's perceived ineffectiveness on a host of issues, and what comes with membership -- the need to take a public position on sensitive issues in international relations. This is contrary to the Saudi approach to influencing its neighbors, which is essentially to throw money their way and presume doing so will result in policies that are in line with that of the Saudis. To many countries this would seem an odd approach to conducting international affairs, but it actually makes a good deal of sense given the context. Saudi Arabia has the money, and they use it, often obtaining the desired effect. The Kingdom's decision vis-à-vis the UN seat does not have a major impact on its relations with its neighbors and allies, but rather preserves it.
However, the Saudi announcement that is will implement a major shift in its relations with the U.S. should serve as a major wake-up call for Washington -- not only in terms of bilateral relations, but for what it implies about the Kingdom's relations with other nations in the Middle East and beyond. In essence, the Saudis have said they disagree with the U.S. approach to both Iran and Syria, and plan to 'go it alone' in addressing Iran's nuclear program and the ongoing Syrian conflict. They are betting that they will do no worse by embarking on an independent path than they did in achieving their objectives by being aligned with the U.S. The Saudi government not only sees the Obama Administration as ineffective on both subjects, but acting in a manner contrary to their own interests and policies.
When combined with the reception the Obama Administration has been receiving from stalwart allies France and Germany vis-à-vis allegations of spying by the NSA, the Saudi pivot should be a cause for real concern in Washington. Several of America's most important bilateral relationships are now being threatened by actions taken by the U.S. In the case of France and Germany, they may not like what the NSA has done, and how President Obama has handled it, but they will ultimately get over it. In the case of Saudi Arabia, disagreement over fundamental policy is the issue, and the fissure between Riyadh and Washington could turn out to be permanent. Surely, the Saudi government did not take the decision to break from Washington lightly; it seems hard to imagine the Saudis will have a change of heart, even in the longer-term.
This signals trouble for Washington on several fronts. First, Washington will likely have an even more difficult time corralling allies to back future UN resolutions it supports on Iran, Syria and Palestine. The Saudis are influential with a broad range of states and their action will no doubt encourage anti-U.S. sentiment in many quarters. Second, other states may now consider doing the same thing and choosing either an independent path, or becoming aligned with states that may not agree with the way the U.S. would like the world to be. Third, China gains from this, having already made significant inroads economically, and having long represented itself as an alternative to a U.S.-centric world.
The Kingdom is China's largest trading partner in the greater Middle East. Chinese industrial products have for years been replacing western goods in Saudi markets, which has impacted Saudi attitudes regarding the relative importance of China -- and therefore the West -- in long-term strategic relations. Given that the acquisition of natural resources is central to China's foreign policy, the fissure between Riyadh and Washington will enable Beijing to transcend working within the confines of the post-War diplomatic landscape crafted by the U.S. in the Middle East. Doing so would break the century-long dominance America and its allies have had on Gulf diplomatic relations, and enable China to mold its bilateral and regional relations in its own image.
When combined with the charm offensive Beijing is currently undertaking in Asia, and given the equally disturbing deterioration of relations between Cairo and Washington, Beijing has a real opportunity here to assume the role the U.S. had enjoyed in the region for decades. As the Kingdom's economic ties grow even firmer with China, their military relationship will expand. As China's military power comes to match its political and economic power globally, it could become Saudi Arabia's strongest military ally.
The Obama Administration would be well advised to try to contain the damage it has inflicted on itself, but it may already be too late to do so. Many of America's allies have already lost confidence in American foreign policy, wondering whether Washington can indeed be relied upon to support them when the going gets tough, without getting caught up in a blizzard of debates and convoluted actions coming out of Washington. Historians will no doubt look back at Riyadh's actions as a genuine turning point in how the world views the U.S., and Washington's perceived ability to get things done. In the end, the U.S. really only has itself to blame by not embarking on a more inclusive approach to decision-making and the implementation of foreign policy. The Obama Administration still has the ability to do so if it chooses to.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk".