What benefits remain in the U.S.-Saudi alliance?

The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington hosted a discussion on Wednesday on the nature of U.S.-Saudi relations and the conflicts and challenges that could threaten their close alliance. Heading the discussion was F. Gregory Gause, an AGSIW board member and professor of international affairs.  In response to recent friction in U.S.-Saudi relations, and the apparent absence of shared interests and strategic goals, some have predicted that ties between the two countries may soon be broken. Gause, however, says it is unlikely that the U.S. would distance itself from Saudi Arabia, as it remains an important ally in a region that lacks political leadership.

“It is extremely useful to have a good working relationship with countries that actually govern their territory and that have some influence in areas where real governance no longer exists,” Gause says, adding that the Saudis "are susceptible to the normal instruments of diplomacy and have influence in these areas where governance has collapsed or is contested in the region.”

Gause explains that the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. started with the dependence of the Saudi oil industry on American companies and the countries’ shared strategic interests during the Cold War. Today, those interests seem to have disappeared, with Saudi Arabia now controlling its own oil and tackling regional conflicts in a different way than the. U.S.

Gause cites the perception of Iran’s role in the Middle East as the main difference in U.S.-Saudi strategic relations. Saudi Arabia views most conflicts in the region, such as those in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, through the lens of Iranian influence, while the U.S. sees these conflicts as stemming from domestic instabilities.

In view of these differences, why are both sides working to sustain this relationship? Gause asserts that there are still a significant number of common interests that unite Washington and Riyadh. Both sides see Salafi jihadism as a threat and both have an interest in preventing any other power from dominating the Gulf region and the Middle East as a whole.

Yemen in particular illustrates the strategic differences and commonalities between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. As Gause says, “Yemen encapsulates both the tensions in bilateral relations and the desire by both sides to sustain the relationship despite these tensions.”

“The U.S. has no quarrel with the Houthis. The only real interest the U.S. has been willing to act on in Yemen in recent years has been the priority of attacking Salafi jihadists...and we worry that the Saudi intervention is going to indirectly increase the influence of Salafi jihadists in Yemen, and yet the U.S. has been willing to support the Emirati-Saudi campaign.”

Saudi Arabia is often charged with exporting the exact Salafi jihadist ideology that the U.S. is committed to defeating, but Gause explains that this strain of Islamic extremism is not a purely Saudi phenomenon.

He rejects the claim made by Senator Chris Murphy (who introduced legislation to increase oversight of U.S. weapon sales to Saudi Arabia) that the kingdom is only a few degrees removed from terrorists inspired by the ISIS ideology. Gause says that if the Saudis did ever have ideological or political control over Salafism in the past, it has since lost it.

Gause also questions how the U.S. would go about distancing itself from Saudi Arabia. Unlike countries such as Egypt or Jordan, the U.S. does not provide Saudi Arabia with foreign aid that could be suspended. If arm sales were halted, Saudis could easily purchase them elsewhere, and if the intelligence relationship was cut off, it would only serve to harm American interests.

“It’s hard for me to avoid the conclusion that the talk of distancing ourselves from Riyadh has no practical benefit and is simply an emotional reaction. But foreign policy isn’t simply about feeling good about ourselves, it’s about furthering our country’s interests, and having a decent relationship with Saudi Arabia advances those interests.”