U.S.-Saudi Relations Face Difficult Questions

06/24/2015 11:39 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Despite Washington's efforts to persuade its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies that a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran would serve their long-term interests, most Gulf Arab monarchs remain far from sold. In addition to economic concerns about the potential reintegration of Iranian gas and oil into global markets, the GCC fears that a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations will diminish the council's strategic value to Washington.

Under the leadership of King Salman, the kingdom has assumed an increasingly hawkish posture aimed at countering Iran's regional influence. As Riyadh doubles down its support for militant Sunni Islamist extremists (including the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra) fighting the Tehran-backed regime in Damascus, Washington's incoherent Syria policy seems to prioritize countering Daesh ("Islamic State"). Despite Washington's rhetoric and its sponsorship of so-called "moderate" anti-Assad militants on Syria's battlefields, recent jihadist gains in Syria are prompting the Obama Administration to further question the wisdom of pushing for regime change in Damascus.

Washington and Riyadh's differing perspectives on Iran's nuclear program and Syria's civil war have heightened tensions in an already turbulent relationship dating back to September 11, 2001. At the center of the tension are Riyadh's concerns about Iran's alleged hegemonic aims in the region and resentment of the Obama Administration's efforts to shift Washington's Iran policy away from "containment" toward "limited engagement."

Despite Saudi Arabia's anger, Riyadh appears relatively powerless to dissuade Washington from making diplomatic overtures to the Islamic Republic. While the kingdom has significantly deepened its economic ties with China as a means of limiting dependence on the U.S., neither China, nor any other world power, can be expected to replace Washington as Saudi Arabia's main military partner. Regardless of whether the P5+1 and Iran reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement, the GCC will remain within Washington's geopolitical orbit. A case in point is Saudi Arabia's ongoing war in Yemen, which has been sustainable solely due to U.S. support in the form of in aerial refueling, intelligence sharing, and logistics.

Saudi Arabia's Shifting Foreign Policy

Following the 2011 Arab uprisings, King Salman's predecessor, King Abdullah, actively countered democratic opposition factions associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in several countries. From Riyadh's perspective, the Muslim Brotherhood - a grassroots movement that embraces political activism, social justice, democratic institutions, and champions a competing version of Islamic rule - represented an existential threat to the ruling family's legitimacy, its self-anointed divine right to rule, and its role as custodian of Islam's two holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

In contrast to other Arab states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia) with legislative bodies, in which Islamist parties hold seats, democratic institutions do not exist in Saudi Arabia. The rulers in Riyadh viewed forward-thinking, democratic-oriented Islamists as a threat to Saudi Arabia's authoritarian political model, which is intolerant of dissent and demands full obedience from its subjects.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the kingdom provided support and sanctuary to the Muslim Brotherhood members who fled the deadly anti-Islamist crackdowns waged by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Hafez al-Assad in Syria.(5)(6) During this period of the Cold War, Riyadh viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as an ally against Communism, socialism, and Arab nationalism in the Muslim world. The kingdom hosted religious charities (including the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth) of which the Muslim Brotherhood played crucial roles. During the 1980s, the Saudis utilized international networks that the Muslim Brotherhood established to fuel the flow of young Muslim fighters and weapons into Afghanistan throughout the Soviet invasion and occupation.

However, relations between Riyadh and the movement soured following the Gulf War (1990-1991), during which the Brotherhood supported Saddam Hussein and condemned the ruling Al Saud family for backing a U.S.-led military campaign against a Muslim country.

The kingdom's crackdown on the group intensified following the Arab revolts of 2011 due to grave concerns that the Brotherhood's growing influence in Egypt and elsewhere could mobilize the kingdom's subjects to challenge the monarchy's political establishment. Last year, Saudi Arabia joined the UAE and Egypt in labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a "terrorist" organization.

Despite this crackdown, the Muslim Brotherhood's message (anti-corruption, rejection of U.S. foreign policy, and promotion of social justice) has significant support within the Saudi population, according to a poll commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The kingdom's fears of the Muslim Brotherhood were perhaps most underscored by the tension that mounted between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which provided extensive moral, financial, and diplomatic support to the movement's regional branches. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha as punishment for the Qataris' backing of the Brotherhood in Egypt and other countries.

Saudi Arabia even threatened to impose a land and sea blockade on Qatar before returning its ambassador to Doha last November. Less than one week after the July 2013 coup d'état, Riyadh offered $5 billion to the Egyptian military, further underscoring Saudi Arabia's commitment to counter the Islamist party that had gained power in Egypt's first democratic election.

Early in his reign, however, King Salman began easing Riyadh's tensions with the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the first signs of this evolving position came in February when Ahmed al-Tuwaijri (a former member of Saudi Arabia's Consultative Assembly) declared that it was "completely unreasonable" to designate the Brotherhood a terrorist group. Tuwaijri was asked about an interview given by then-Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who explained that Riyadh had "no problem" with the Muslim Brotherhood, despite having followed Cairo's lead the previous year in designating the movement as a terrorist organization. In response, Tuwairjri went so far as to call the Brotherhood Saudi Arabia's "natural ally" and sought to justify the labeling of the group as a terrorist organization on the grounds that there was a complicated "linguistic context" behind last year's designation.

Since January, the kingdom has also improved relations with Hamas (a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot) and al-Islah (the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood branch), both of which have historically troubled relations with Riyadh. Analysts contend that Riyadh's embrace of Muslim Brotherhood offshoots must be understood within the context of Saudi Arabia's efforts to establish a pan-Sunni order to counter Iranian-influenced actors in Yemen and other Middle Eastern hot spots. Indeed, having received support for "Operation Decisive Storm" from Hamas and al-Islah, King Salman's overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood appear to have paid off politically.

In a further move, Riyadh has also officially embraced more extreme Sunni Islamists in the region. Last month a source in Saudi Arabia's ruling family admitted that Riyadh was working with Turkey and Qatar to back Jaish al-Fatah ("Army of Conquest") in Syria, marking a significant shift in foreign policy strategy. Jaish al-Fatah is an Idlib-based jihadist coalition dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra and other Sunni Islamist militias, including Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (HASI), Faylaq al-Sham, and Ajnad al-Sham.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia's commitment to defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria has become increasingly questionable as Riyadh's voiced concerns about Iraq are more focused on the central government's relationship with Tehran. Most experts agree that King Salman has prioritized Saudi Arabia's military campaign in Yemen above efforts to help NATO powers and other Arab states defeat Daesh. Despite the clear and eminent threat that Daesh poses to the kingdom, a number of Saudi Arabians consider the group an effective bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, which Riyadh perceives as a graver threat.

Riyadh's turnabout regarding Jabhat al-Nusra is likely driven by an understanding that the organization is better poised to gain influence in Syria than other factions fighting the regime in Damascus. This reality was underscored in March, when Idlib fell from the regime's control to Jaish al-Fatah, marking the second provincial capital to fall from Damascus' control, the first being Raqqa in March 2014. After Jaish al-Fatah seized control of the entire province the following month, the group's fighters carried out a massacre in the village of Qalb Lawzah, which targeted the Druze, a religious minority with ancient roots in Syria.

In sum, to achieve its geopolitical objectives of overthrowing Iran's ally in Syria and crushing the Houthi Zaiydi Shi'ites in Yemen (regardless of whether either of those goals are realistic), Riyadh has concluded that joining Ankara and Doha in supporting Jaish al-Fatah, while improving relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, best advances Saudi Arabia's strategic objective of countering Iranian influence in the Arab world.

Implications for U.S.-Saudi Relations

U.S. officials are alarmed by Saudi Arabia's support for Jaish al-Fatah. Whereas Washington's limited support for militants in Syria is geared toward "moderate" rebels fighting Daesh, Riyadh remains focused on efforts to topple the Damascus regime, which Saudi Arabia blames for Daesh's rise in Syria. Washington's commitment to overthrowing Bashar al-Assad has become increasingly questionable now that Daesh - the Obama Administration's main concern in Syria - has seized large swathes of territory.

By sponsoring Jabhat al-Nusra, Saudi Arabia is supporting a group in Syria that the U.S.-led military coalition continues to target. Last September President Obama ordered air strikes against Jabhat al-Nusra, deemed a direct threat to U.S. national security, along with Daesh targets. Washington has learned that support for such factions is risky, given that such extremist groups' loyalties to state sponsors, arms providers, and financial backers usually prove maddeningly temporary in the fluid and chaotic morass of the Middle East.

By canceling his visit to last month's Camp David summit, King Salman sent a clear message of disapproval regarding Washington's diplomatic overtures to Tehran. Bahrain's King Hamad, who spent those days at a horse show with Queen Elizabeth in England, delivered a similar message. Ultimately, the summit proved a futile attempt by the Obama Administration to convince most GCC leaders that a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran would serve the interests of all states in the region. Like the Israeli leadership, King Salman is not buying the argument and instead perceives a zero-sum game, in which any geopolitical win for Tehran constitutes a loss for Riyadh.

Unquestionably, the Saudi Arabian leadership is resentful of Obama's efforts to move past the 1979 hostage crisis and to initiate a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations. Simultaneously, U.S. officials see Saudi Arabia's backing of hardline jihadist militias as a dangerous policy that threatens to contribute to further terrorist gains in Syria. While cognizant of the widening gaps between American and Saudi Arabian foreign policy strategies, the Obama Administration is determined not to rock the boat with Riyadh. During the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the White House last month, President Obama hailed the kingdom's "extraordinary friendship" with the U.S. dating back to the 1940s. Officials in the Obama Administration even dismissed claims that King Salman's absence at the Camp Davis summit constituted any sort of snub against Washington.

While U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations have been strained in the past - particularly due to the Palestinian question, human rights, and oil prices - Washington and Riyadh have maintained a strong alliance, driven largely by economics. Yet the U.S. will have to answer tough questions regarding its alliance with Saudi Arabia as Middle Eastern rulers contemplate the geopolitical implications of a potential comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran and as Saudi-sponsored jihadist militias in Syria continue to alarm the West.

Giorgio Cafiero is the Co-Founder of Gulf State Analytics