The Cable

Despite King’s Death, U.S.-Saudi Relationship Unlikely to Change

Relations between the two countries will remain largely the same, and for a simple reason: Saudi Arabia badly needs the U.S.

President Obama Meets With Saudi Arabian King Abdullah
U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah speak to the media after their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on June 29, 2010. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg

From Iran’s nuclear program to Syria’s future, the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud found himself at odds with a U.S. administration run by a president he didn’t fully trust and carrying out policies he firmly opposed.

Driven by his own narrow interests, Abdullah felt that President Barack Obama was too slow to arm the Syrian rebels fighting to unseat Bashar al-Assad, too quick to abandon autocratic Arab allies like Hosni Mubarak, and too credulous in pursuing an historic nuclear deal with Tehran. The U.S.-Saudi relationship, mirroring that of the U.S.-Israel one, has plunged to new lows in recent years, and largely for the same reasons.

Riyadh also looks to neighboring states and sees enemies rising on all sides. Saudi officials have watched for months as the Islamic State, which routinely calls for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, has continued to attract new recruits and maintain control of broad swaths of Syria and Iraq. In Yemen, the country’s fragile Sunni-led government has effectively collapsed in the face of a Houthi rebellion that some say is supported by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s primary rival for power and influence in the Mideast.

Abdullah’s death — and the ascension of his brother, Salman — means that there will be a changing of the guard within the ultra-conservative monarchy for the first time in nearly two decades. But for better or worse, experts inside and outside the U.S. government believe that relations between the two countries will remain largely the same, and for a simple reason: Saudi Arabia badly needs the U.S.

“The Saudis know there is no other game in town but America and they will work with us despite their doubts about how effective and competent the American approach will turn out,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and Saudi expert at the Brookings Institution.

That’s largely the view shared by officials at the State Department as well.

“We have a long history of cooperation. We don’t have any indication that that cooperation will change,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at the daily press briefing on Friday. “I’m not going to analyze Saudi politics from here.”

A State Department official, speaking on background, said one of the key areas of cooperation between Washington and Riyadh — the fight against the Islamic State — was likely to remain relatively stable.

“Everyone’s trying to read the tea leaves as to what will suddenly change,” said the official. “Saudi is extraordinarily conservative and governing will still be left to ministers… Don’t expect big changes here.”

A big factor in this assessment is the personalities who are now in charge in the Saudi Kingdom. Not only do many of them share similar beliefs as Abdullah did, they also were already running the show in many ways. “My understanding is that Salman’s views are not that much different,” said a senior congressional aide who focuses on the Middle East.

In a nationally televised speech on Friday, Salman said he would keep in place the policies of his half brother. “We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” Salman said.

According to Andrew Hammond at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi’s militancy policy was already “firmly in the hands of Mohammed bin Nayef,” the interior minister who has now been promoted to deputy crown prince, making him the second-in-line to the throne.

Mohammed, 69, is the first grandson of the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Mohammed’s promotion clears up a lot of uncertainty over which grandson would inherit the throne: For more than a half-century, power has transferred among the sons of King Abdul-Aziz, but they’ve been dying off as they approach their late 70s and 80s, potentially paving the way for the elevation of a new generation of royals.

While more of the status quo may come as a relief to some diplomats, it also does little to improve some of the thorniest problems in the Middle East, such as the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has fueled so much of the violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Syria, Lebanon and beyond. “I don’t anticipate any Saudi leader all of a sudden waking up and deciding that a real rapprochement with Iran is good for Sunni Arabs,” said the congressional aide.

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