A decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks inaugurated a new era of U.S.-Saudi relations, it is time to reexamine how the bilateral relationship has changed over time and what it might look like in the future—particularly in areas such as counterterrorism cooperation and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
To examine this question, the Carnegie Endowment hosted two panel discussions. The first featured a discussion of the potential challenges facing the U.S.-Saudi relationship with Mustafa Alani, director of the Security and Defence Studies Department at the Gulf Research Center, and Gregory Gause, a professor at University of Vermont, and Carnegie’s Christopher Boucek. Christian Koch, director of the International Studies Research Program at the Gulf Research Center, moderated the discussion.
The second panel featured a discussion of U.S.-Saudi relations in the wake of the Arab Spring with Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Sager, the chairman and founder of the Gulf Research Center, and Carnegie’s Marina Ottaway. Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher moderated.
U.S. – Saudi Relations
- Strong Cooperation: Alani and Boucek emphasized that the United States and Saudi Arabia cooperate extensively in the areas of counterterrorism, law enforcement, and security.
- Challenges to Relations: Gause observed that U.S.–Saudi relations have not changed substantially since 9/11 and noted that the relationship had previously survived a number of major global events, such as the 1973 oil embargo and the Iranian Revolution. However, a number of potential challenges for the relationship remain, including disagreement over how to react to the Arab Spring, rising sectarianism, and rising oil prices as a result of a possible economic crisis in Saudi Arabia.
- Limited Cooperation: While the U.S.–Saudi relationship was previously based on a shared worldview and common economic interests, it now exists primarily because neither country sees an alternative, Gause and Freeman said. The current relationship is a transactional one with cooperation focused on specific issues.
- Domestic Focus: The increased weakness of the U.S.–Saudi relationship is also the result of both governments’ focus on domestic issues, Freeman said.
- Areas for Cooperation: While the Obama administration’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict has been a disappointment for Saudi Arabia, Sager stated, it still relies on the United States for security and would be willing to cooperate on other issues such as Afghanistan and Yemen.
- Successful Efforts: Alani and Boucek commended Saudi Arabia for its counterterrorism efforts, stating that they have largely succeeded in dismantling terrorist networks within Saudi Arabia. Both also noted that Saudi Arabia has taken important steps to prevent terror financing by giving the state greater oversight over financial channels and charities.
- Broad Areas of Cooperation: Alani, Boucek, and Freeman all highlighted that U.S.–Saudi counterterrorism cooperation is not limited to direct attacks on terrorist cells and detention of terrorists, but also involves a major rehabilitation program for terrorists and the use of religion to combat extremist ideology.
- Short-Term Stability: The strength of U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism cooperation indicates that both countries are focused foremost on short-term stability in the region, Ottaway noted.
The Arab Spring
- U.S. Concern: Ottaway noted that the United States is very conflicted about the Arab Spring because it recognizes that reform is necessary for long-term stability, but is also concerned that the region will become increasingly unstable in the short term if reforms are initiated.
- Reform Needed: The United States must communicate to the Saudi government that stability requires political and economic reform, particularly in Bahrain, Freeman stressed.
- Saudi Role in the Region: Gause stated that these divergent positions on the Arab Spring could become a source of tension in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. He added, however, that accusations that Saudi Arabia is leading a counterrevolution in the region overstate Saudi influence and ambition.
- Resistance to Reform: Alani emphasized that it is difficult for the Saudi government to impose democratic reforms because a large portion of Saudi society is very resistant to reform. The government, he added, must take this section of society into consideration when discussing reforms.
Palestine’s UN bid for statehood
- Cooler Relations: Freeman observed that the quality of the U.S.–Saudi relationship decreased after the Saudi regime realized the United States was unable to control Israel and guarantee Saudi regional interests. While Palestine’s UN bid for statehood will not end U.S.–Saudi cooperation on other issues, it could lead to a further chilling of relations, he argued. Gause agreed that the U.S. refusal to support the Palestinian bid for statehood is unlikely to be a serious barrier to U.S.-Saudi relations.
- Arab Peace Initiative: The Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for two-state solution, began as King Abdullah’s own initiative and thus Saudi Arabia is committed to its political and economic costs, Alani added.
- Domestic Pressures: Boucek and Freeman emphasized that domestic pressures in Saudi Arabia may require the Saudi regime to take a harder stance in support of Palestine and against the U.S. position on Palestine.
- Saudi Concern: Saudi Arabia is concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its history of regional interference, and its increasing influence, particularly in Iraq, Alani stated.
- Challenging Iran’s Influence: Gause stressed that Saudi Arabia’s encouragement of sectarianism as a way to challenge Iran’s influence in the region could result in increased radicalization in the Gulf. He also stated that Saudi Arabia wants to resolve its problem with Iran in a way that will have no negative impact on the Arab world, which is an unrealistic goal.
- Assad’s Fall: The potential fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria will weaken Iran and its regional alliance with Syria, Hezbollah, and Iraq, Sager argued.
- Complicated Relationships: Gause emphasized that the Saudi relationship with Salafi groups at home and abroad is complicated. Saudi Arabia has funded some of these groups, but has not been able to maintain control over them.
- Three Groups: Alani argued that there are three types of Salafi groups—preaching Salafis, who have no political or military ambitions; Jihadi Salafis, who support Jihad as a defensive strategy like the Taliban; and Takfiri Salafis, who are best exemplified by al-Qaeda—and that Saudi Arabia has supported the preaching Salafis. He stated that while the Saudi government lost some control over the groups, its new financing laws and greater institutionalization of religion have helped the state to regain control.
- Redefining Salafism: The Saudi regime, particularly King Abdullah, is seeking to redefine Salafism in order to regain control over it and encourage a view of Islam that embraces diversity and science, Freeman observed.