Did he say that after talking to Secretary John F. Kerry in Riyadh last week? No, he said it in 2009, after a talk with Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton. But after meeting with Kerry, he said pretty much the same thing: “A true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor, and frankness, rather than mere courtesy. . . . It’s only natural that our policies and views might see agreement in some areas and disagreement in others. That’s perfectly normal in any serious relationship that spans a wide range of issues.”
This rhetorical continuity reflects the reality that underlies the current unhappiness in Riyadh over US policy toward the Syria conflict and negotiations with Iran: Saudi Arabia and the United States have a deep, intricate security and strategic relationship that is likely to survive the disagreements of the day, as it has since President Harry S. Truman infuriated King Abdulaziz with his quick recognition of Israel in 1948.
No doubt the Saudis are unhappy about the US decision to pull back from a military strike on Syria in order to work with Russia on an effort to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal, a deal that had the unfortunate effect of validating President Bashar Al-Assad as a working partner. The Saudis are committed to Assad’s ouster, and Saud was blunt: “Reducing the Syrian crisis to merely destroying chemical weapons, which is but a small aspect of it, won’t help put an end to one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in our times.”
Saudi Arabia has given every indication that it intends to fill some of the vacuum it believes the United States has left in Syria by increasing its own support for the rebels, or at least those rebels whom it finds acceptable. The Saudis are unwilling to see Assad, propped up by Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, survive this conflict.
In the meantime, vital elements of the Saudi security partnership with the United States remain in place and are unlikely to be disrupted. The Saudis are buying billions of dollars’ worth of US weapons. The US Navy is providing security for critical Saudi installations on the Gulf coast. American advisers are training and equipping the Saudi National Guard—as they have done since 1977—and the new Facilities Security Force. American computer security experts are helping Saudi Aramco protect itself against the kind of cyber attack that struck 30,000 of its computers last year. Joint counter-terrorism programs are now well established. Finally, the economic ties that are important to both countries continue to grow; Alcoa, Pfizer, Bechtel and other giant US corporations have undertaken major industrial projects in the Kingdom.
Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia has any desire to disrupt any of these arrangements.
There appears to be little hope for a quick end to the nightmarish conflict in Syria, even if all parties eventually gather in Geneva, as the United States proposes. The noise from Riyadh has gotten Washington’s attention, but there is no appetite in the United States for direct involvement. A long winter lies ahead for the rebels, for displaced Syrian citizens, and for the millions who have fled the country. Whatever action the Saudis take in Syria, this is an issue on which they and the United States have apparently agreed to disagree. “There is no room for emotion or anger here,” Saud Al-Faisal said, “but rather for policies of common sense and levelheadedness based on mutual trust. That is how we solve any problem.” He may be right, if “mutual trust” still exists or can be restored.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.