Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit Riyadh, Saudi Arabia today.
As the United States looks to regional actors for support on Iraq, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian issues, it will find that Riyadh is not going to play its assigned role. While the Bush administration faces long odds on these issues already, the Saudi position makes the prospect for success even less likely.
On the major regional questions, the United States and Saudi Arabia are in agreement to a greater extent than at almost any time in their relationship. They both:
• worry about increasing Iranian regional influence and the Iranian nuclear program;
• see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a wound that needs to be healed;
• worry about the spill-over effect of Iraqi violence; and
• vigorously oppose al Qaeda and its regional affiliates.
However, they have very different tactical approaches, a fact that will become more salient as Washington puts forward new initiatives to move the Arab-Israeli peace process forward, salvage something from Iraq and isolate Iran:
• Israel-Palestine. President George Bush announced on July 16 a high-profile diplomatic effort to move Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority (PNA) towards a political settlement. Saudi Arabia quickly voiced its support, but Washington and Riyadh have very different visions of how to approach the issue:
The Bush administration seeks to isolate Hamas diplomatically and choke off the economy in Gaza. Meanwhile, it hopes to encourage economic growth and political progress in the Fatah-controlled West Bank, showing Palestinians that their best choice is to abandon Hamas and support PNA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Riyadh is pushing for a renewal of Fatah-Hamas dialogue and a return to the Mecca Agreement on power-sharing, which the Saudis brokered earlier in the year. Saudi thinking revolves in part around the desire to limit Iranian influence among Palestinians — Riyadh sees an isolated Hamas turning more toward Tehran, and wants to use its influence to bring Hamas back into an Arab-supported, unified Palestinian front.
These tactical differences have already expressed themselves in Egypt. After Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, Cairo joined the U.S. effort to isolate the Hamas government, but Riyadh publicly called for negotiations between the Palestinian factions.
Amid Arab media commentary about Saudi-Egyptian tensions, Cairo toned down its criticism of Hamas and joined the Saudis in talking about reconciliation. Given Egypt’s centrality to any effort to isolate Gaza, a U.S.-Saudi tug of war to influence Cairo on this question is likely.
• Iraq. The Bush administration needs to show tangible progress to fend off congressional pressures to begin troop withdrawals. To that end, it has opened direct (if low-level) talks with Iran and encouraged greater regional involvement to support the Iraqi government, symbolized by the May Sharm al-Sheikh summit. While Saudi Arabia attended that summit, and agreed to forgive the bulk of Iraqi Saddam-era debt, it has made clear that it is not willing to take other steps to support the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which it sees as an extension of Iranian influence in Iraq.
Indeed, it is supporting efforts by Maliki’s opponents (including former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, various Sunni political factions and Maliki’s Shia opponents) to form a political front to challenge the government’s parliamentary majority. King Abdallah also very publicly refused to receive Maliki on the latter’s regional trip preceding the summit. With Riyadh facing the likelihood of a reduced U.S. role in Iraq, it is less likely to follow the U.S. lead there and more willing to forge its own alliances with Iraqi players and factions.
In this context, the issue of Saudi suicide bombers and jihadists in Iraq is resurfacing in the United States. While some in the Washington debate focus on Iranian and Syrian support for anti-U.S. groups in Iraq, others are re-emphasizing the key role played by Saudis in the most damaging attacks. No U.S. sources are contending that Riyadh is actively encouraging jihadists to go to Iraq. However, as Washington becomes more desperate to show some kind of progress in Iraq, its frustrations over the Saudi element in the insurgency will grow. The issue is likely to become a lever by which Washington tries to pressure Riyadh to be more supportive of the Maliki government. The Saudis, believing that they are doing all they reasonably can be expected to limit the flow of jihadists, will bristle.
• Iran. Both Washington and Riyadh want to limit Iranian regional influence and discourage Iranian nuclear plans. As long as the United States continues using diplomatic pressure, multilateral and U.N. sanctions and indirect military threats to push Iran away from the nuclear path, it will have Saudi support. However, if the Bush administration pursues a military option, this will change. The Saudi leadership is pursuing a subtle policy of both engaging and containing Iran. It does not want to return to the 1980s, when the two states were directly confronting each other and Tehran was actively encouraging domestic opposition to the Saudi regime. Moreover, it knows that it will be on the front line of any Iranian retaliation for a U.S. military strike.
Tactical differences over Iran help to explain the recent, and probably temporary, eclipse in the influence of Saudi National Security Adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to Washington:
• Bandar is identified with a harder-line approach toward Iran, and reportedly assured his Washington friends that Saudi Arabia would back a confrontational policy toward Tehran.
• When that backing did not materialize, the administration concluded that Bandar could not deliver and cut back its dealings with him.
• Given that U.S. access is the source of Bandar’s influence in Riyadh, the fall of his U.S. stock led to a similar fall at home.
With oil prices edging toward $80 per barrel and the U.S. presidential primary season approaching, candidates looking to appeal to voters frustrated by high oil prices are likely to engage in traditional anti-Saudi and anti-OPEC campaign rhetoric. However, there is more substance to the charges that Saudi policy is keeping prices high than in the past, with OPEC production 1 million barrels per day less now than it was a year ago. With Republicans looking particularly vulnerable in 2008, even this administration is likely to feel the need to pressure the Saudis to increase production if prices go much higher. Furthermore, the tensions will be played out in the U.S. and Saudi media, exacerbating mutual negative popular perceptions.
Such tensions are a normal feature of the Saudi-U.S. relationship, and do not herald a crisis in the making. However, while core relations will not be affected, they will add to the tensions likely to emerge between the countries on Middle East issues and make for an uncomfortable few months in bilateral relations in 2008.
Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com .