'Arab spring' drives wedge between U.S., Saudi Arabia

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 24, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The United States and Saudi Arabia — whose conflicted relationship has survived oil shocks, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq — are drifting apart faster than at any time in recent history, according to diplomats, analysts and former U.S. officials.

The breach, punctuated by a series of tense diplomatic incidents in the past two weeks, could have profound implications for the U.S. role in the Middle East, even as President Barack Obama juggles major Arab upheavals from Libya to Yemen.

The Saudi monarchy, which itself has been loathe to introduce democratic reforms, watched with deepening alarm as the White House backed Arab opposition movements and helped nudge from power former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, another long-time U.S. ally, according to U.S. and Arab officials.

That alarm turned to horror when the Obama administration demanded that the Saudi-backed monarchy of Bahrain negotiate with protesters representing the country's majority Shiite Muslim population. To Saudi Arabia's Sunni rulers, Bahrain's Shiites are a proxy for Shiite Iran, its historic adversary.

"We're not going to budge. We're not going to accept a Shiite government in Bahrain," said an Arab diplomat, who spoke frankly on condition he not be further identified.

Saudi Arabia has registered its displeasure bluntly. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were rebuffed when they sought to visit the kingdom this month. The official cover story was that aging King Abdullah was too ill to receive them.

Ignoring U.S. pleas for restraint, a Saudi-led military force from the Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping of six Arab Persian Gulf states, entered Bahrain on March 14, helping its rulers squelch pro-democracy protests, at least for now.

A White House statement issued the day before enraged the Saudis and Bahrainis further, the diplomat and others with knowledge of the situation said. The statement urged "our GCC partners to show restraint and respect the rights of the people of Bahrain, and to act in a way that supports dialogue instead of undermining it."

In a speech Sunday in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to Washington, said the Gulf countries now must look after their own security — a role played exclusively by the United States since the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran.

"Why not seek to turn the GCC into a grouping like the European Union? Why not have one unified Gulf army? Why not have a nuclear deterrent with which to face Iran — should international efforts fail to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons — or Israeli nuclear capabilities?" Turki said, according to a translation of his remarks by the UAE's state-controlled Emirates News Agency.

U.S. relations with the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies "are as bad as they were after the fall of the Shah," said Gregory Gause, an expert on the region and political science professor at the University of Vermont.

"The whole idea that Saudi Arabia still needs U.S. protection for anything ... we've already moved beyond that," the Arab diplomat said. He termed it "not necessarily a divorce, (but) a recalibration."

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the falling out, experts say there are limits to the U.S.-Saudi disaffection, if only because both countries share a common interest in oil flows, confronting Iran and countering al Qaida and other violent Islamic extremist groups.

Past efforts by the GCC countries — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman _to handle their own security have failed. In 1990, when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Saudis and Kuwaitis turned to the U.S. military to save them.

"In the end I think geopolitics will push the U.S. and Saudi Arabia back together again," Gause said. "Iran is still out there."

Still, the tensions have already had real impact.

Saudi Arabia is moving on its own to secure its interests in neighboring Yemen, where Saudi-and-U.S.-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh is barely clinging to power after weeks of protests.

The United Arab Emirates had pledged military aircraft to support the no-fly zone over Libya. But it has reconsidered, and for now is offering only humanitarian assistance.

U.S. officials acknowledge stark differences with the Saudis over Egypt and Bahrain. Washington does not see Iran's hand behind the protests in Bahrain, they said, nor does it view the entire region through the sectarian lens that the Gulf monarchies do.

While tempers are said to have cooled over Bahrain — the Obama administration did not denounce the Saudi incursion or demand GCC troops withdraw _tensions seem certain to persist.

Saudi concerns about U.S. policy are deep-seated, dating to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which brought into being the first Shiite-led Arab nation in modern history. In Lebanon, Washington has not been able to stop Iranian-backed Hezbollah from steadily expanding its political clout.

"The problem is, the Saudis and the Gulf states are terrified by change," said Ken Pollack, director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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