11/06/2013 05:59 pm ET

John Kerry Seeks Saudi Arabia Reconciliation On Middle East Tour


BEIRUT -- When Secretary of State John Kerry started his ongoing Middle East tour with a quick stop in Egypt over the weekend, he made a point of singling out some beleaguered allies for words of support.

But it wasn't just the Egyptians he was speaking to: it was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where Kerry was scheduled to travel next, and where the relationship with the U.S. has hardly ever been so openly strained.

"We will be there for Saudi Arabia, for the Emirates, for the Qataris, for the Jordanians, for the Egyptians and others," Kerry said when he spoke publicly beside the Egyptian foreign minister. "We will not allow those countries to be attacked from outside. We will stand with them."

Over the past few weeks, the bonds between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have become some of the weakest in memory, with both sides openly criticizing the other's foreign policy. In late October, the head of Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud, said that his country would be distancing itself from America, describing the imminent move as a "major shift." An American official later told the Wall Street Journal, "Our interests increasingly don't align."

The tension comes at a time when the U.S. has signaled renewed outreach toward Iran, a longtime Saudi antagonist and competitor for regional influence. It also comes against a backdrop of two years of Saudi frustration and disaffection toward the Obama administration for its reluctance to involve itself more aggressively in the war in Syria. Saudi Arabia has sent millions of dollars in aid and weapons to the rebel groups fighting against Syria's president, Bashar Assad, while the U.S. has played a minimal role.

F. Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont who specializes in the foreign policy of Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia, says the U.S.-Saudi relationship is strained over matters of somewhat fundamental -- and potentially unbridgeable -- foreign policies differences.

"They care about Syria a heck of a lot more than we do," Gause said. "And the Saudis are right that if we can get a nuclear deal with Iran that meets our criteria, we're not going to let Iran's regional role stand in the way of that."

For the Saudis, Gause noted, any deal with Iran that increases the nation's influence in the Gulf would be a first-order problem; not so for the U.S.

"People in the Gulf are right that we don't see the Iranian extension of influence [to be] as significant a problem as they do -- it's just not as important to us as it is to the Saudis," he said.

Perhaps anticipating these disagreements, Kerry sought to emphasize the ways in which the U.S. still does find accord with Saudi Arabia, and has come to rely on it, when he arrived in Riyadh on Monday.

"The Saudis are really the sort of senior player, if you will, within the Arab world, together with Egypt," he said. "Egypt is in more of a transition, so Saudi Arabia’s role is that much more important."

Later, at a joint press conference with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, Kerry added, "While we may differ once or twice on a tactic here or there, the bonds of our friends are much stronger than any of those differences at that moment in time."

Some analysts say the recent disagreements over Iran and Syria foreign policy have exposed a fundamental divergence between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that may not be worth trying to resolve.

"If there were a prize for Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy it would surely be awarded to Saudi Arabia," wrote Fareed Zakaria in a recent essay for Time. "It is the nation most responsible for the rise of Islamic radicalism and militancy around the world. Over the past four decades, the kingdom's immense oil wealth has been used to underwrite the export of an extreme, intolerant and violent version of Islam preached by its Wahhabi clerics."

But Gause and others say much of the recent bluster from the Gulf -- and the hyperventilating reports of a total rupture in the U.S.-Saudi discourse -- is overblown.

"The core common interests that brought the two sides together -- Persian Gulf security for instance -- that's still there," Gause said.

Thomas Lippman, a Saudi Arabia specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., agreed, noting that beneath the discourse, most of the "fundamental building blocks" of the relationship remain in place.

"Think about it: weapons deals, training and equipping of the national guard, the naval force in the Gulf, the economic relationship -- all that is going on all the time," Lippman said. "Neither side has an interest in a fundamental, durable breach of the relationship."

Given this, Lippman added, Kerry may have accomplished all he could in his brief visit -- and all he intended to.

"There are real differences, some of which probably can't be papered over," Lippman said. "But what they've done is agree to disagree about those."