‘This Is Not How a Protection Racket Is Supposed to Work’

Why the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are increasingly at odds.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

When Saudi Arabia rejected its U.N. Security Council seat on Friday, the move caught nearly everyone off-guard. In retrospect, it shouldn't have.

When Saudi Arabia rejected its U.N. Security Council seat on Friday, the move caught nearly everyone off-guard. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have.

In recent months, the United States has increasingly pursued a foreign policy at odds with its Persian Gulf ally, scaling back assistance to the Saudi-backed Egyptian military, abruptly dropping its plans to attack Syria despite Saudi support, and entering into a new round of nuclear talks with the kingdom’s  regional rival, Iran. According to U.N. diplomats and officials, the Security Council move merely reflected the Saudis’ deeper anxiety over the course of American diplomacy in the Middle East, exposing a deepening rift in one of America’s most important and longstanding alliances in the region. In short, Saudi Arabia’s U.N. snub was a sign of the monarchy’s mounting panic over the possible demise of its special relationship with Washington.

For decades, Riyadh and Washington have been bound by a basic tradeoff: America guarantees protection from potential predators in the region, while Saudi Arabia supplies the lifeblood –relatively inexpensive oil — to run the world economy and pumps billions each year into the U.S. arms industry. But America’s failure to back Saudi Arabia on matters it considers vital to its security is raising questions in Riyadh about the value of that exchange.

"This is not how a protection racket is supposed to work," said Christopher Davidson, a scholar and author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies. "Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with a relationship it thought it had in the bag, despite having handed over several percent of their GDP to Western arms companies." As a result, he said, "Saudi Arabia is retreating into its shell of countries that surround it and who rely on its aid and good will."

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has sought to take matters into its own hands.

When the U.S. threatened to withhold financial assistance from Egypt’s generals following their overthrow of President Mohamed Morsy, the Saudi king held a fundraising campaign — undercutting U.S. diplomatic efforts to negotiate a political settlement between the generals and Morsy’s government. As Secretary of State John Kerry applies pressure on the Syrian National Council to talk with the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Saudis have sent precisely the opposite messages to the rebels they’re funding. The Saudis, have resisted attempts by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to visit and have applied little pressure on its allies within the Syrian opposition, according to U.N.-based diplomats.

The Saudis have made no secret of their displeasure over U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to call off his cruise missiles and negotiate a deal with Russia to work to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program. On October 7, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal abruptly cancelled plans to deliver his government address to the U.N. General Assembly; the move was widely viewed as a response to the Security Council’s endorsement of the Syrian chemical weapons deal. "They saw that as a complete capitulation," said one U.N.-based diplomat.

In protest, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief announced that Riyadh will dial back  cooperation with Washington to train and equip Syrian rebels. "Our interests increasingly don’t align," a U.S. official told the paper.

A further sign of pique: the Saudis didn’t even inform America’s top diplomats in New York that they planned to abandon the Security Council. The Saudi protest at the U.N., according to Davidson, constituted a kind of cry for attention, an effort to "shock and wake up their erstwhile allies."

From Riyadh’s perspective, the Syrian civil war represents a pivotal front in an existential political and religious struggle for influence in the region, pitting Iran’s Shiite rulers against predominantly Sunni Arab rulers. "There is a realization in Riyadh that it is time for the major Arab powers to prepare a response for maintaining order in the Arab world and to counter Iran’s expanding infiltrative policies," Nawaf Obaid, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies,  wrote in Al-Monitor. "The kingdom and its regional allies will increase their support to the Syrian rebels and prevent a collapse of collateral nations, such as Lebanon and Jordan. The removal of the tyrannical regime in Damascus is simply too important for the future of the Arabs."

Kerry today met with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister for a two-hour lunch, where he assured the Saudi diplomat that Washington remained committed to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon or continuing to destabilize the region. The two also "discussed the decision by Saudi Arabia to decline the seat on the UNSC," according to a senior administration official. "Secretary Kerry conveyed that while it is Saudi Arabia’s decision to make, the U.S. values Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the region and the international community and a seat on the UNSC affords member states the opportunity to engage directly on these issues."

Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma, said that the Saudis’ latest decision to abandon their Security Council ambitions reflects mounting concern in Riyadh that the council seat could be a "trap" that will increases pressure on the ruling family to support diplomatic measures in Syria and Iran that it opposes.

"If the Saudis were to join the U.N. Security Council they would have to follow the U.S. and Russia’s lead," Landis told Foreign Policy. "There would be heavy pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop subsidizing Salafist militias in Syria and they don’t want to do it. Russia and America would say ‘Look, you are part of the United Nations and you have to sever your ties with the Syrian rebels and stop sending them arms and money.’ But Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to rein them in."

Landis said that the Saudi reliance on jihadists to pursues its goal of unseating Assad risks further fracturing the Saudis’ relations with the United States, which he added, may eventually view the Saudi-backed jihadists as a greater threat than even Assad. Some regional specialists say that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia relationship is too important for both sides not to find a way to overcome their current differences. Indeed, even as U.S. and Saudi officials differ over the approach to regional security, American arms deal continue apace, including this recent U.S. deal to sell $460 million in cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.

But others, like Davidson, believe that the relationship has fundamentally changed. The United States is emerging a major global energy supplier in its own right, lessening  its dependency on Saudi oil. "America is not locked into the same kind of relationship that we have seen over the past few decades;  it has more room to maneuver than it had in the past," Davidson said.

But the question on many U.N. diplomats’ minds was why the Saudis went to so much trouble to win a Security Council seat if they had no intention of serving out its terms. Over the past three years, Saudi official undertook an intensive lobbying campaign to win support for its bid, enrolled more than a dozen Saudi diplomats in a year-long course on the Security Council at Columbia University. The erratic way in which the Saudi government managed the issue at the United Nations, according to several U.N.-based diplomats and outside experts, reflected the personal and emotional way in which the Saudi Royal family sometimes confronts diplomatic problems.

Anybody who witnessed the Saudi U.N. envoy’s reaction to the Security Council vote in the General Assembly could tell he had no idea what his political masters were planning. "It is a defining moment in the Kingdom’s history. As one of the founding members of the United Nations our election is much to rejoice over," Saudi Arabia’s U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, who looked ecstatic after the vote, flashing a thumbs up. "We welcome the positive shift as well as challenges of being part of the Security Council body."

But a day later, the Saudi foreign ministry pulled the rug out from underneath his feet, issuing a statement thanking the more than 170 countries that backed its first ever Security Council bid. At the same time, it said it had no intention of filling its seat, denouncing the council’s application of "double standards" that promotes the "expansion of the injustices" as well as "violations of rights and the spread of conflicts around the world."

"Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stands by idly" constitutes "irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities," according to the statement. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the statement added, "announces its apology for not accepting membership to the Security Council until the council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security."

The Saudi action has left the U.N. in something of a quandary. On Saturday, the U.N. Arab Group, which includes all the U.N.’s Arab governments, issued an appeal to Saudi Arabia to reconsider its decision and take up the seat. "They could simply leave the seat vacant by not showing up. That would allow them to show up at any time in the future during the two year membership on the Security Council," said one senior U.N.-based official. "Or they could inform the GA president that they are withdrawing, prompting a new election. Who knows what the king (and it must be the king) is thinking." Today, however, Arab governments appeared to have had a change of heart, expressing support for the Saudi decision.

Others say the Saudis may be overplaying their hand.

"The twin Saudi decisions to give up their speaking slot in the General Debate in the General Assembly and their elected seat on the Security Council suggest a worrisome retreat from global diplomatic engagement," Edward Luck, the dean of the University of San Diego School of Peace Studies. "To the Saudis, the game in the Council may appear rigged, but it is the only game in town."

"It would be a blow for stability in the turbulent Middle East and for the interests that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia share in the region if Riyadh gives up on open multilateral diplomacy," he added. "Regional bodies, weak and increasingly divided along the Shia- Sunni fault line, will not provide an alternative to the UN. More global involvement is needed in the region, not less, especially in the end game in Syria. Many in the West are already worried about alleged Saudi support for more radical elements in the Syrian opposition.  They could prove to be the biggest obstacles to attaining both peace and justice in Syria and stability in its neighborhood."

Luck said it is only inevitable that the Saudis would "be extremely sensitive to any signs of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, no matter how modest and tentative. But much of the action on sanctions and curbing Iranian nuclear ambitions will be in the Security Council. If Riyadh wanted a bigger voice on these existential matters, it should have taken its seat. The Saudi refusal to join the Council can only be seen as a victory for its Iranian rivals."

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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