24 October 2013

The Saudi tail and the American dog

That Israel is the tail that wags the dog of American Middle Eastern policy is a given. Often, however, we overlook the fact this particular dog has two tails. The other is Saudi Arabia.

A complexity of factors explains the close ties between the U.S. and Israel: the sharing of democratic and human rights values; the emotional resonance of the Holocaust; the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, possibly the most powerful lobby in Washington; etc. The factors responsible for American deference to the dictatorial Saudi regime are simpler—oil and guns.

Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves of conventional oil in the world and is the Americans' second largest supplier, and, on the other side of the ledger, it is the major purchaser of U.S. weapons.

Not surprising then that the Americans pay close attention when the Saudis are unhappy with their foreign policy, and they are very unhappy at the moment. They are unhappy that the Americans have not attacked Syria and indeed are not doing more to help the rebels, they are unhappy with the improving U.S. relationship with Iran, they are unhappy with American ambivalence on the Israel-Palestine issue, they are unhappy the Americans didn't support their repression of dissent in Bahrain, and they are unhappy the U.S. has severed military ties to Egypt's new dictators.

Indeed, they are so unhappy the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has publicly stated the kingdom will make a "major shift" in relations with the United States, a shift that would have wide-ranging consequences, including on oil sales and arms purchases. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is urgently meeting with his Saudi counterpart and attempting to play down any divisions.

So, will the Americans stand their ground? Will they call the Saudi bluff and, if necessary, distance themselves from this disreputable ally? Or will oil and guns win out? And that, I expect, is a silly question.

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