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Review: ‘The United States and Saudi Arabia’

The United States and Saudi Arabia: Explaining the Strange Relationship after the End of the Cold War

By Tim Pfefferle, Grin Verlag, 14 pages, $20.90

“Curious” about the eight-decade-old alliance between Washington and Riyadh, Tim Pfefferle, a German student at Queen Mary University of London, sets out to understand what unites the “role model of the values of democracy and human rights” with “one of the most repressive regimes to be found anywhere” (page 1).

In this diminutive paper, he proposes to go beyond the conventional explanation — that hovered around the “oil for security” paradigm — for the apparent puzzle, arguing that the coalition endured because the two countries perceived Iran as a regional hegemon that required a balancer, and that in the post-9/11 era, Saudi Arabia “became a crucial partner in the effort to provide effective counterterrorism activities” (page 2).

Pfefferle says the common foe, Iran, has been the chief motivation that integrated various interests among the two members and insists that in the post-Cold War era, it became “a major threat to the [Gulf] region’s stability” (page 7).

Moreover, and in the post-Arab Spring epoch, Iran apparently presented a genuine “threat to the monarchy’s security and legitimacy” (page 7), without explaining how. Of course, there was the Sunni-Shiite rivalry, which rekindled centuries-old tensions. Likewise, preoccupied with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions Washington and its partners (P5+1) formulated a variety of options to curtail what most feared was a real military goal, predictably concerned that such an eventuality could lead to a regional arms race.

The author clarifies that US-Saudi ties further converged around the two partners’ perceptions of how best to deal with terrorism, notwithstanding facile conclusions that Saudi financial support sustained Al Qaida and similar groups or, even worse, that Riyadh “directly sponsors terror” (page 9).

After the May 2003 attacks, Pfefferle posits, Saudi officials dismantled various home-grown terrorist networks, and shut down putative funding mechanisms that sustained terrorist organisations.

Over the next decade, he spells out, Riyadh assisted Washington throughout the region, most notably in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, in carrying out various counter-terrorism operations.

Pfefferle closes his short paper, optimistic that the US-Saudi alliance is no longer dependent on the “oil for security” archetype, even if the most recent rift, which occurred after Saudi Arabia rejected its UN Security Council seat, led critics to conclude that ties were increasingly odd.

One in particular wrote in Foreign Policy that the oddity was not surprising. He even quoted Christopher Davidson, the author of “After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies”, who concluded in his inimical way: “This is not how a protection racket is supposed to work,” identifying the source of the Saudi dissatisfaction as a careless US move that overlooked handing over “several per cent of their GDP to Western arms companies”.

The ongoing rift was primarily the result of US foreign policy moves that were at odds with those pursued by its ally, including a bewildering response to dramatic developments in the most critical Arab country, Egypt, and, the equally confusing rejoinder to the revolution in Syria.

Like the overwhelming majority of Arabs, the people of Saudi Arabia cared deeply about the Syrian uprising, and were not ready to accept the mass killings under way as a mundane fait accompli.

Frustrated beyond description, senior Saudi leaders concluded that Washington was careless in applying its global leadership responsibilities at the UN, and were shocked to learn that the US favoured a new round of nuclear talks with Iran, aware that militarised nuclear capability remained an Iranian objective.

Pfefferle’s essay provides an evaluation different from the more recent gloom and doom, as well as somewhat stale fare, ie, Fareed Zakaria’s Time magazine opinion piece that concluded Saudi Arabia objected to the Obama administration’s policies towards Syria and Iran not because of any humanitarian concerns for the people of those countries but because of pervasive anti-Shiite ideology.

One does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that Riyadh and its Gulf allies look after their own interests, no different from others who search to advance theirs, which means that the Davidsons and Zakarias of this world need to look in the mirror.

Of course, Washington is free to sustain its alliance with Saudi Arabia or re-evaluate it as necessary, which means that the US national security establishment ought not be surprised when its counterpart also seeks alternative alignments.

It is crucial to add that such a reassessment does not signify a fully fledged divorce. Rather, and as secretary John Kerry embarked on his most recent tour to clarify US intentions, it means that the US owes certain clarifications over Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and other key countries, if the alliance partners are to continue cooperating on peace and security matters.

Simply stated, Washington and Riyadh share far more interests than are generally acknowledged, including commitments to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon or continuing to destabilise the Arab world. Pfefferle understands that.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the recently published “Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia” (London: Routledge, 2013).