Two highly significant diplomatic messages were sent during US President Barack Obama’s four-hour visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. The first came from Washington when President Obama deliberately headed a large, high-ranking delegation from the government and the Republican and Democratic parties. Its members included the current Secretary of State John Kerry, two former secretaries of state, Republican Senator John McCain, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the commander of the US Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin. The other diplomatic message came from Riyadh, which organized a high-level reception headed by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Naif, as well as other Saudi ministers and senior officials. Both sides explicitly said the strategic alliance between them should be sustained and strengthened no matter how profound their differences are.
The Saudis realize how important and indispensable the US role is. On the other hand, Washington is aware it will not find a better strategic ally than Riyadh, an ally it has relied on for 70 years and which has played a pivotal role in the region’s political, security and economic stability. The Kingdom has been a rational ally to the US, and has not involved Washington in wars, embroiled it in political conspiracies, or embarrassed it by pursuing undesirable policies. Even when differences emerged between the two allies, this has fortunately not affected their direct relations but involved other regional issues, such as Iran’s regional interference and nuclear program, the Syrian crisis, the war on terror, and Washington’s attempt to appeal to Islamist groups, such as in Egypt and Bahrain.
The number of points on which Riyadh and Washington see eye to eye far exceed those they differ on. One problem Washington has caused is that it formulates its policies without taking into account the fundamentals of Saudi policy or seeking to understand the indispensable motives underlying them. Added to this is Washington’s delay in comprehending developments, the circumstances of which are best understood by those who are close and not thousands of miles away from events.
An example of this is the expansion of the operations of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its sister groups in Iraq and Syria. For more than three years Riyadh has been issuing calls and warnings that the situation in Syria indicates armed groups will eventually expand and that the solution lies in strengthening Syria’s moderate rebels rather than weakening them. At the time, Washington did not take Saudi Arabia’s warnings seriously, and only when terrorists seized control of half of Syria and Iraq did it wake up, realizing that it should fight terrorism through the creation of an international coalition and arming and training the Syrian opposition. Had Washington heeded Saudi Arabia’s advice, the situation in the region would not be what it is today.
Even countries with the best relations go through crises and tensions, which is natural and unsurprising. What is important here is how to overcome these differences. It can be said that Saudi–US ties have been through two dangerous crises—one was the 1973 oil crisis and the other the 9/11 attacks of 2001—but both were overcome exceptionally well. The US and Saudi Arabia emerged from these two crises with even closer ties than before. Indeed, no matter how profoundly one side disagrees with the other, they will still realize they can find no better partner.
Throughout their 70-year-old alliance, Saudi–US ties have been slowly developing for the better, overcoming challenges as they have come up. Washington is well aware of how significant and indispensable Riyadh’s regional role is. Equally, it holds onto a significant principle that provides the basis for their ties and which cannot be violated: being an ally does not mean being a follower.