From the CIAO Atlas Map of Middle East 

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CIAO DATE: 01/02

Saudi Arabia/United States — Strained Relations

In Perspective©
The Oxford Analytica Weekly Column
January 23, 2002

Oxford Analytica

Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz yesterday described relations with Washington as "excellent". Despite these remarks, US-Saudi ties are under greater strain than at any time since the 1973-74 oil embargo, with the value of relations under question in the media of both countries, reflecting public feelings. These sentiments are not shared by the governing elites in either Washington or Riyadh, but they are constraining how the governments deal with one another.

The removal of US forces from the Prince Sultan Airbase might ease the domestic pressure on Riyadh and give it more room to cooperate with Washington on other matters related to the war on terrorism. However, if Washington targets Iraq militarily, and Saudi Arabia rejects US requests for cooperation, relations will be severely damaged.

The public mood in Saudi Arabia towards the United States is extremely sour. In part, this is due to events such as the detention of Saudis in the United States after the September 11 terrorist attacks, many of whom have complained of mistreatment. Saudi officials have condemned what they see as an organised US media campaign against the kingdom, and the Saudi press has launched a counter attack on the US press and US policies in general. The success of the US campaign against the Taliban has also been criticised for brutalising an impoverished Muslim country on the basis of flimsy evidence of involvement in the September 11 attacks.

Such feelings are likely to dissipate over time. More problematic for relations in the long term is the widely held Saudi suspicion of US policy. In addition to longstanding anger at US support for Israel, many Saudis believe that the real target of the US ‘war on terror’ is not terror itself but Muslim groups and causes. There has always been a current of opinion in Saudi Arabia that accepts the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, and since September 11 this view has gained ground.

Riyadh balancing act. Riyadh is in a delicate position. It has condemned Osama bin Laden and his part in the September 11 attacks, not only on moral grounds but also because the Saudi ruling family is one of his major targets. It has also sought to support the US response, allowing the air campaign on Afghanistan to be coordinated from a command and control centre at Prince Sultan Airbase (see OADB, September 27, 2001, III). Saudi religious leaders and Saudi-supported international Muslim institutions have also condemned bin Laden and terrorism in general.

However, with public opinion in mind, Riyadh has also sought to put some public distance between itself and Washington. It announced that US forces could not use its facilities for attacks on Afghanistan and allowed the press to give a negative slant to its coverage of those attacks. In meetings with Saudi groups in October and November, Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz revealed that, prior to September 11, he had warned President George Bush that Saudi-US relations were at a crisis point because of US unwillingness to restrain Israel. The reported recent decision to ask US forces to leave the Prince Sultan Airbase may be the latest attempt to create such distance.

Islamist support. Since September 11, a number of Islamist activists jailed by the Saudi authorities in the mid-1990s have reappeared in public life. Figures such as Salman al-Awda, Safar al-Hawali, ‘Ayd al-Qarni and Hamad al-Surayhi have publicly condemned bin Laden and indirectly supported the Saudi government’s handling of the crisis. This may reflect a loss of credibility by the official religious establishment, with the government turning to alternative religious figures with a reputation for independence to enhance its legitimacy. Given the current international intolerance towards Islamic extremism, such figures may be seeking the support and protection of the Saudi government. However, if they continue to play a major role in public life as the crisis winds down, they will form an important pressure group drawing Riyadh away from overt cooperation with Washington.

Abdallah options. The fact that former enemies have come to the defence, even indirectly, of the regime can be seen as sign of its stability (see OADB, November 15, 2001, I). In this sense, Western criticism of the kingdom has had a short-term unifying effect. Abdallah’s moves to distance Riyadh from Washington play well at home — a US departure from the airbase would be widely welcomed. However, the larger question remains of what Abdallah intends to do with this public support:

US viewpoint. Public support in the United States for relations with Saudi Arabia is lower than at any time since 1973-74. The US public expected full support from all of their country’s allies after September 11; their disappointment with what appeared to be hesitant Saudi support, and the refusal of access to Saudi bases, was palpable. Given the large number of Saudis involved in the attacks, and bin Laden’s Saudi background, questions were raised about Saudi political stability and the Saudi religious-political environment. The media focus on Saudi Arabia highlighted the considerable social and political differences between the two societies. Those already opposed to relations with the kingdom saw an opportunity to increase pressure on it. Others began to view Saudi Arabia as an unreliable ally and even an indirect threat to the United States. Such perceptions were reflected in statements by leading members of Congress, who questioned Saudi motives and called for pressure to be applied to Riyadh for political, religious and educational reform.

To a large extent the US public focus on, and criticism of, Saudi Arabia arises from ‘hurt feelings’ rather than damaged interests. Many US citizens believe that Saudi Arabia should have been grateful for US support in the Gulf War, and therefore more publicly supportive of the US response to the September 11 attacks. The substantive support Saudi Arabia has in fact extended, including the use of the command and control centre to coordinate the campaign, was discounted as something to be expected. In an attempt to counter this growing public disenchantment with the kingdom, the Bush administration has emphasised that Saudi Arabia has cooperated fully with every request Washington has made. If reports are confirmed that Riyadh has requested US forces to vacate the airbase, it will be harder to make this case to the public and Congress.

Outlook. Historically, US-Saudi relations have been fostered at the elite level and based on a number of common interests. These interests — regional stability, a stable world oil market and a world economy that is safe for Saudi investments and conducive to continued demand for oil — remain strong. However, there has never been strong public support for the US-Saudi relationship on either side. Whenever there has been a strong public focus on relations, on either side, there have been tensions, constraining the governments from working together.

The key question is to what extent the relationship will remain a focus of public scrutiny. Iraq will be crucial in this regard. Should Washington extend its war on terrorism to include Iraq, its will seek Saudi cooperation in the form of political support, access to facilities and use of airspace. The Saudi government is unlikely to react positively. This would refocus public opinion on the relationship and could lead elites on both sides to question the extent of their common interests. However, if Washington does not move on Iraq in the immediate future, public opinion in the two countries will refocus elsewhere. Riyadh and Washington will then be in a better position to repair relations.