President Barack Obama had to cut short his current three-day visit to India, by one day, so that he could pay his respects in Saudi Arabia, following the death of King Abdullah on Friday. A decade or so ago, an Arab diplomat compared the relationship between the two countries to a Catholic Marriage “where you can have no divorce”. But, there can be estrangement.
King Abdullah had wanted President Obama to take a more militaristic approach in dealing with its neighbor Iran, rather than the on-going negotiations to dismantle its nuclear arms program. Oddly enough, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been arguing for America to take that very same approach. Both the Saudis and the Israelis seem to be enjoying the current split between the President and Congress in hope that it might scuttle the U.S. negotiations with Iran.
Much of the dealings in the Middle East seem to have a religious edge to them–that Sunni-Shia divide. The Saudis, who are predominately Sunni, have been disappointed that Obama has not done more to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Shia, while Obama did not back former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who is a Sunni. At the same time, various Saudi sources provide considerable funding to al Qaeda and other extremist terrorist groups.
By opening the floodgate of oil entering the global markets, the Saudis are keeping the price down. That action exerts heavy pressure on predominantly Shia Iran, which is already suffering from the economic sanctions that have been placed upon it. The result, in this case, is that the Saudis might be contributing to the potential success of the negotiations with heavily oil-dependent Iran on its nuclear program. How ironic!
The on-going disagreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia might also be fueled by the significant differences between the two countries. While America is a constitutional democracy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. Saudi Arabia uses its large petro-dollar reserves to maintain the various social programs that ensure domestic stability. At the same time, the much larger U.S. is a pluralistic society, with a very competitive–often dysfunctional–political process.
As in every “marriage”, the relationship between Washington and Riyadh has its Ups and Downs; but, the two countries truly need each other. America needs a respected, stable friend in the Region. And Saudi Arabia, given the explosive powder keg that is the Middle East, enjoys being included under the U.S. military umbrella.