By Iran Review
By Hossein Kebriaeezadeh*
Saudi Arabia and the United States, as two major actors in the Middle East, have enjoyed strategic relations during the past six decades, which have been dubbed as the “oil for security” equation. This strategic interaction, which contains various economic, political, and security levels, was important for Riyadh from the viewpoint of being in coalition with a hegemonic power, while it was also important to Washington from the viewpoint of Riyadh’s dependence.
During the Cold War period, Saudi Arabia along with Iran and within framework of Nixon Doctrine, was considered as one of the two pillars of the United States’ regional strategy. However, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, one of those pillars was lost and this greatly increased Saudi Arabia’s importance in the United States’ policy in the Middle East. The honeymoon between the two sides became even more pleasurable after Iran’s nuclear case was raised, so that, even later global developments could not bother Saudis much.
However, following 9/11 terror attacks, various dimensions of cooperation and contacts between the two countries underwent changes. At that juncture, non-state actors following a radical policy in the Middle East were depicted by Washington as the most important threat to the United States’ purported regional order. In the meantime, the United States could not remain indifferent to what was going on inside Saudi Arabia as the cradle of radical ideas. As a result, the inherent tension between two conflicting discourses caused the two countries’ interests not to be converging anymore.
Of course, at that juncture an identity-based conflict between the two actors was ignored in favor of their economic and security interests. However, before long and following the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, that conflict found its way into infrastructure of the two actors’ relations, because Saudi Arabia’s support for terrorist groups active in Syria was proven in practice. As a result, the rising power of a less known terrorist group, that is, Daesh, was attributed to supports provided to that group by Saudi Arabia and some other littoral states of the Persian Gulf.
Serious differences in recruitment methods used by Daesh, the tactics it used on the ground, methods the group used for terrorist operations, and even theoretical fundaments on which Daesh based its rule were all indicative of the high risk that Saudi Arabia’s dangerous regional behavior posed to the United States’ interests.
This came at a time that the United States spared no effort to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran. This measure by Washington, which was seen by Riyadh as a cause for increasing power of its main rival, further intensified the existing challenges in relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States. As a result, for the first time in the past six decades, Saudi Arabia did not see the United States as a trustworthy partner anymore; a development which increased fluctuations in the two countries’ relations to an unprecedented level.
It seemed that Saudi Arabia’s disappointment in the United States has made Riyadh determined to follow up more independent policies in the Middle East. An effort by Saudi Arabia to take advantage of its spiritual influence in the region and create a coalition of 34 Islamic countries to fight terrorism was good evidence to this issue.
However, it is possible that lack of all-out support for Saudi Arabia’s measures by the global community may cause Riyadh to change the rule of games with Iran, because in addition to Washington, Tehran is a major factor that influences Saudi Arabia’s behaviors in the region.
In line with its policy to increase tension in its relations with Iran, Riyadh executed senior Saudi Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, in a bid to create a bipolar atmosphere in the region and boost religious as well as sectarian tensions in the Middle East. This measure, which was taken within framework of a zero-sum game, was aimed at increasing the costs of further closeness between Iran and the United States. Of course, despite all efforts made by Saudi Arabia and its allies to isolate Iran in the region, even this policy could not serve as a major obstacle on the way of Iran’s return to international community under conditions that were created following the conclusion of Tehran’s nuclear agreement with the P5+1 group, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
While Washington plays a determining role in Riyadh’s relations with its traditional rival, and generally speaking throughout the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is not facing suitable conditions from the viewpoint of its domestic politics as the struggle for power within Al Saudi royal family and conflicts within the government has become more evident than any time before. On the other hand, the Saudi society is in transition and the most important examples of this situation include increasing use of social media by Saudi citizens and frequent social campaigns launched through them.
On the whole, all these conditions cannot cause meaningful distancing of the United States from Saudi Arabia to lead to radical behavior on the part of Riyadh. Of course, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy strategies and procedures may change in proportion to its distance from the hegemonic power, but it does not necessarily mean that the degree of divergence in relations between the two countries would become unmanageable. The friendship between these two countries is, therefore, expected to continue at a level lower than the strategic level in the course of time and following temporary tensions.
At any rate, the time will not go back for Riyadh and Washington. Regional conditions have greatly changed compared to a few decades before. Russians are now more determined than before about their presence in the Middle East, Iran is rejoining the international community, and the regional order in the Middle East is amazingly inclining toward the situation that existed in the Middle Ages. These conditions, along with countless number of other factors, will cause these two actors not to be able to remain committed to the unwritten “oil for security” agreement anymore. Both Riyadh and Washington have reached the conclusion that the time for classic dependence is over. Therefore, in proportion to the two actors’ independence, future relations between these two countries could be analyzed and assessed within framework of asymmetrical dependence.
* Hossein Kebriaeezadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues