Saturday, November 2, 2013

Time for the U.S. to press the reset button on Saudi Arabia

Full Comment's Araminta Wordsworth brings you a daily round-up of quality punditry from across the globe. Today: Is the Saudi-U.S. relationship worth saving? — that's the question being pondered in Washington after Riyadh complained about Barack Obama's inaction on Syria

It was a fit of pique likened by one commentator to "the diplomatic equivalent of a baby throwing its toys out of a pram — an expression of displeasure, sure, but not one likely to garner much respect or support."

The Saudis want the U.S. president to drag his nation into another foreign war — a prospect that has little support from his battle-weary people. Many Americans also wonder why the U.S. continues to prop up a regime that often works contrary to its interests and has an appalling human rights record.

Riyadh is also worried by what it sees Washington's cosying up to Iran, the Shiite neighbour that is the arch-enemy of the fundamentalist Sunni kingdom.

It's not as if there's a lineup of other nations vying to step into the U.S. 's shoes. Nonetheless, David Ignatius at the Washington Post takes the Obama administration to task.

The strange thing about the crackup in U.S.-Saudi relations is that it has been on the way for more than two years, like a slow-motion car wreck, but nobody in Riyadh or Washington has done anything decisive to avert it …

Saudi Arabia obviously wants attention, but what's surprising is the White House's inability to convey the desired reassurances over the past two years. The problem was clear in the fall of 2011, when … Saudi officials in Riyadh [said] they increasingly regarded the U.S. as unreliable and would look elsewhere for their security. Obama's reaction to these reports was to be peeved that the Saudis didn't recognize all that the U.S. was doing to help their security, behind the scenes. The president was right on the facts but wrong on the atmospherics.

The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy wonders why pleasing the Saudis should remain a high priority for the U.S.

This is a country that, after all, fueled the rise of the jihadi militants in Afghanistan that morphed into Al-Qaeda; that allowed private donors to funnel financial support to Sunni militants during the U.S. occupation of Iraq (who then attacked U.S. troops); and has done more than any other nation to export a variety of Islam that is deeply hostile to U.S .interests.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has always looked the other way on Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses and medieval treatment of women in the interests of "friendship." The Obama administration has been happy to carry on that tradition. So Saudi claims of feeling "double-crossed" should be seen in context – an attempt to manipulate the U.S. into behaving as Saudi Arabia wishes. But is it really going to amount to anything?

An opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal suggests the Saudis' decision is founded on its perception of the U.S.'s weakness.

In a tribal society like Saudi Arabia's, it is well understood that weakness breeds contempt and invites aggression. To the Al Saud, the Obama administration's retreat from its red-line ultimatum on Syria's use of chemical weapons and the administration's unseemly rush to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program are simply the latest evidence of such weakness. It diminishes U.S. influence in the region while offending and endangering America's allies.

Already facing social tensions inside the kingdom and confronting growing instability throughout the Mideast, the ruling Al Saud have concluded that they can no longer risk being seen holding hands with a timorous great power.

But as Ben Hubbard and Robert F. Worth at The New York Times note, there are few good options for the Saudis, despite their bluster.

Saudi officials concede that their efforts to forge an alternative strategy in Syria have run up against the same issue the Americans face: how to bolster the military might of a disorganized armed opposition without also empowering the jihadists who increasingly dominate its ranks.

And while Saudi officials have hinted at a broader diplomatic shift away from the United States, their options are limited there, too: Saudi Arabia is dependent on American military and oil technology, and the other countries the Saudis have courted — including France and India — can help only on the margins, analysts say.
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