ASG Vice President Prem Kumar Discusses US-Saudi Relationship
A Middle East on Fire Tests U.S.-Saudi Relations
Saudi King Salman visits D.C. amid the Iran deal, Syrian bloodshed and Russian meddling.
By Paul D. Shinkman
Syria is soaked in blood. Oil prices internationally are falling. And a new U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iranis forcing most of America’s greatest friends in the Middle East to choose between alienating their longtime patron and unshackling a despised Islamic Republic they see as the source of their regional problems.
Amid this uncertainty, traditional U.S. partners in the region are beginning to feel American retrenchment and are turning to a key U.S. rival for steady international support. Among them is the principal regional ally, Saudi Arabia, whose monarch’s meeting in the Oval Office on Friday will likely determine the extent of future cooperation.
“This visit could potentially be a turning point in Saudi-U.S. relations,” says Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
The visit comes as the Saudi government has made notable overtures toward Moscow in recent months. Officials in the kingdom announced in July a plan to invest roughly $10 billion in Russia as a part of an investment fund – a curious if not shrewd scheme to capitalize on Russia’s economic slowdown amid a downturn in oil prices, as well as European and U.S. sanctions designed to cripple its economy as punishment for meddling in Ukraine.
Russia also is now considering directly arming Saudi Arabia, through potential sales of weapons like its Iskander ballistic missile system.That investment came after Saudi Arabia and Russia’s state-run atomic energy corporation agreed on a massive nuclear energy development deal that would help build and maintain 16 nuclear reactors.
Saudi officials now believe they can maintain a relationship with the U.S. and simultaneously reach out to Russia.
“Most people would admit that there are concerns in Saudi Arabia about the long-term direction of the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” says Prem Kumar, who earlier this year left his position on the White House’s National Security Council as a senior director for Middle East issues. “It is in a better place than it has been in the past few months. That doesn’t mean there are no concerns about where this is going in the longer term.”
Saudi Arabia has not hidden its frustration in recent years with U.S. policies under President Barack Obama that have limited direct American involvement in conflict in the region. The beginnings of a rift grew out of Obama’s now infamous “red line” comment about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and his refusal to employ a military option when it became clear that Syrian President Bashar Assad had indeed gassed his own people.
But now, Salman will travel to Washington for his first-ever trip to the U.S. as king – a visit the White House did not confirm until Thursday afternoon. The meeting comes days after a hasty confirmation that Salman would not, as expected, participate in what would have been the first-ever trip to Moscow by a Saudi king along with leaders from Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, for a likely discussion on future trade and newfound international interest in reaching a peaceful solution in Syria.In May, newly minted Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud sent his son and another senior adviser in his stead to Obama’s summit at Camp David, a move some considered a purposeful snub after the U.S. announced it had reached the framework of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Ahead of the meeting in Washington, one thing is clear: The U.S. and Saudi Arabia must fast secure their more than 50-year relationship to ensure their joint involvement in major diplomatic shifts in the region.
Kumar, now a vice president at the Albright Stonebridge Group, says the Saudis don’t see courting favor with Russia as necessarily detracting from their ties to the U.S. through the oil trade and military support.
“They probably know that can’t go too far without provoking a response from the U.S. They’ll carefully calibrate between the two,” he says.
The primary focus of the meetings will almost certainly center on the Iran deal, including U.S. assurances it can catch Iran if it cheats, reimpose sanctions and, if necessary, follow through on the much-hyped but ill-defined “military option” to destroy Iranian weapons facilities.
The Saudis will also want to know what else the U.S. will do to counter what they perceive as Iran’s growing influence in the region. Iran is believed to be deeply involved in a series of regional conflicts against the Islamic State group and in Yemen, and to be exerting control in four Arab capital cities: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sana’a.
Saudi leaders may ask for support for some military proposals of the Gulf Cooperation Council – the de facto “NATO of the Middle East” – including for a quick-reaction force and a new missile shield, and may call on Obama to pressure Congress to sell the Saudis more Patriot missile systems.
To a lesser extent, the Saudi delegation will want to discuss how the U.S. can participate in prospective new peace talks to end the conflict in Syria, torn apart by a 4-year-old civil war between rebels and forces loyal to Assad. Russia and Iran are seen as some of the chief backers of the regime and perhaps the deciding factors on whether Assad will step down. Moscow has remained firm against such demands in the past, but has led a new round of diplomacy involving even Syrian opposition leaders that is aimed at finding some form of political solution to the crisis, indicating a potential softening of its resistance to replacing Assad.
“Given that the prevailing sentiment in Saudi Arabia views the Obama administration as having ‘disengaged’ from the Middle East, there is wide support among Saudis for closer relations with Russia,” says Nazer, now a senior analyst at JTG Inc.In a rare interview, Assad reasserted his confidence last week in his “principled” Russian friends and blasted the U.S. as a power that “abandons its allies, abandons its friends.”
Crown Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then-head of Saudi intelligence, visited Moscow in July 2013 to help solidify a relationship many Saudis view as having fewer “strings attached” than the U.S. partnership, Nazer says.
The Saudis now see Russia as a key to peace in Syria, but they also have found that no relationship replaces the sole remaining superpower.
“The Saudis like to cultivate security relationships with a variety of different states. It makes perfect sense for them to do so,” says James Russell, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. “In the end, however, it’s the U.S. relationship that counts the most. They know that, and so do we.”
“The Russians have nothing the Saudis need,” Russell adds. “Putin is untrustworthy, is a crook, and an unreliable partner.”
The tone at the meetings will be “cautious but positive,” says Kumar, as both sides will recognize progress that has been made and share a desire to cement their relationship at the highest levels and move forward.
After all, there’s no replacement for U.S. friendship, and the weapons, training and security umbrella that comes with it.
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