- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Q&A: Improving U.S.-Saudi Dynamics

| Summer 2016

We asked two Belfer Center experts on Saudi Arabia to tell us what should be done to improve the strained relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at the Center, served until recently as special counselor to Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf and previously was special advisor for strategic communications to Prince Turki Al Faisal. Karen Elliott House, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center, is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and editor and former publisher at The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future, published in September 2012.

Nawaf Obaid

The increasing discrepancy between the “Obama Doctrine” and the “Salman Doctrine” has led to a growing divergence of opinion and commitment vis-à-vis the Syrian and Libyan civil wars, the rise of ISIS/Al Qaeda, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the various Iran-sponsored revolts via terrorist proxies. And while the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been cooperating militarily on the liberation of Yemen, the Kingdom has begun pursuing a go-it-alone approach to security in the region, as evidenced by the recent announcement of a Saudi-led 34 nation Islamic coalition to fight terror and the conducting of multi-nation military exercises, codenamed Northern Thunder, on the Kingdom’s northern border in preparation for a possible incursion into Iraq and Syria. Such an approach clearly puts the two nations on a possible collision course.

What, then, might be done to mend the “special relationship”? First, with Obama almost out of office, the next president needs to realize that the Kingdom’s actions have emerged out of harsh regional necessities and thus they must be supported. All the political analysts in the world are no match for the Kingdom’s experience on the ground, and this experience must be respected. Second, the next president needs to usher in a paradigm shift in how one thinks about “terrorism” in the Middle East.

ISIS and Al Qaeda are certainly threats, but the many Iran-sponsored terrorist groups plaguing the region—such as Hezbollah and the Shia militias in Iraq—are just as bad. They need to be fought as hard as ISIS and Al Qaeda. Finally, there will be little improvement in the region until Assad is removed, the Palestinians are free of Israeli occupation, and the many failed states of the post-Arab Spring era are provided with the resources and stability they need to move forward. Washington must support Riyadh in pursuing these vital goals.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are connected by a variety of mutual economic, strategic, and political interests. In order to continue to further those mutual interests, the next president needs to support and respect Saudi decisions in the region. Only then can the “special relationship” avoid an eventual collision.

Karen Elliot House

We can stipulate that nothing about U.S.-Saudi relations will improve in the waning months of an Obama administration that is more focused on outreach to its enemies than loyalty to old allies and under a president who seems genuinely embarrassed by a Saudi regime he sees as antithetical to his progressive values.

That said, there are opportunities for a new U.S. administration with a new Mideast mindset to begin to mend badly frayed relations.

First, the U.S. must show some empathy for the Saudi view that Iran, whatever its nuclear ambitions, is a clear and present threat to the region and specifically to the Saudi regime. And the U.S. must openly support Saudi Arabia’s efforts to thwart growing Iranian hegemony.

Second, the U.S. must understand the Saudi perspective that our actions of commission and of omission in the region—from invading Iraq to failing to confront Syria’s Assad to nudging aside Egypt’s Mubarek—have been antithetical to Saudi interests.

Third, we must recognize that Saudi Arabia, for all its internal shortcomings, is an island of relative stability in a tempestuous regional sea. Yes, we must consistently encourage the Saudis to ensure their own future stability by making certain domestic reforms—privatizing more of the economy, reducing dependence on oil, curbing excesses of their so-called religious police, opening up more opportunities for women. Some of these reforms already are tentatively underway; the U.S. role now should be to support these domestic changes. For its part, the Saudi ruling regime must be serious about its efforts at domestic economic and social reforms.

Finally and most important, we need to understand the stakes. Saudi Arabia is our most important Arab ally as well as the world’s largest oil producer. Its stability, along with the security of Israel, must be our highest policy priority. The louder the U.S. criticizes Saudi Arabia the more we embolden its enemies, especially Iran and ISIS, and weaken an ally. Whatever problems we have with the ruling Al Saud can only pale by comparison to any alternative regime that might follow them. The Al Saud are right to believe “après nous la deluge” and we cannot sit by to watch the regime be swept away and thereby hand the region to the Iranians, the Russians, and chaos.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen Elliot; Obaid, Nawaf. Q&A: Improving U.S.-Saudi Dynamics.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Summer 2016).