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Rethinking the US tilt toward Saudi Arabia - Brian Downing

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Military and policy analyst Brian Downing shows why relations with Iran may overtake those with Saudi Arabia in the near term.
Michael Collins

President Barack Obama with Saudi Royals
(image by Tribes of the World)
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A Rapprochement with Iran may further American interests better than keeping the tilt toward Saudi Arabia.

Brian M Downing

From the end of World War Two, until the outset of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the US maintained good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. The US imported hydrocarbons from both, exported weapons to both, and maintained cordial diplomatic relations with both. This contributed to stability in the Gulf region.

Stability was upset by Khomeini's revolution, his call for uprisings across the Islamic world, and Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran (backed by many Sunni states) which led to eight years of war and enormous casualties on both sides. The US is no longer positioned to moderate tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The US is left in the unwelcome, restrictive, and potentially disastrous position of being too close to Saudi Arabia.

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Entangling alliances

The US has found itself siding, if only hesitatingly and partially, with Saddam Hussein after he invaded Iran in 1980, providing his army with transportation equipment and intelligence. A few years into the war, the Reagan administration tried to negotiate an opening with Iran, providing surface-to-air missiles and antitank weapons -- a move supported at the time by neoconservatives in the administration. The effort failed and the US found itself in the Saudi camp once again.

Today, the US is trying to stay out of the fray in Yemen as the Saudi air force, with help from Sunni allies, is attacking the Shia Houthis. The Houthis enjoy a measure of support from Iran, though its offensive isn't driven by Tehran's urging but rather by longstanding Yemeni regional tensions, especially the growing influence of Saudi Arabia. This should be abundantly clear to Saudis who may look into the not-so-distant past to learn that they once backed the Northern Shias against the Southern Sunnis. Americans, too, might bear this in mind.

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Saudi interests in the region, and their perceptions of Iranian-Shia moves in the region, are often enough highly skewed. Every country, including the US, views world events through the lens of its history and culture. There is no pure objectivity or complete knowledge in world affairs. Saudi policymakers see events through their Wahhabi beliefs which are taught in schools and professed by most princes. Those beliefs pervade the country's national security bureaus.

Shias in general, and Iranians in particular, are despised as expansionary heretics. The Saudis make every effort to draw the US into their sectarian conflicts. Iran is hardly a blameless victim in the Middle East, but Wahhabi perceptions should be understood for what they are and should not have undue influence on US perceptions, let alone its policies.

Instability in the Kingdom

American planners cannot look upon events in the Middle East and see Saudi Arabia as a reliable partner for years to come. Though the House of Saud keeps its doors closed and curtains drawn, signs of distress are plain. The turbulence of the region may find its way into the Kingdom. Indeed, it already has.

Many younger Saudis wish to replace archaic family government with a more modern one that gives voice to people outside a small privileged clique. They are educated and informed, yet live as subjects. They witnessed their government repress reform movements in Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt, leaving little doubt as to the prospects of reform at home.

Even within the royal family, an expansive stratum that includes thousands of princes with varying pedigrees and influence, there are many who do not want to see power retained by the Sudairi clique which has governed since the dynasty's founder died in 1953.

Women are increasingly resistant to Wahhabi strictures. They want to vote, drive, and walk freely down the boulevards of their country. They look across the Gulf to their putative enemy and see that even the harshest ayatollahs allow greater freedoms to Iranian women.

Shias make up fifteen percent of the population and are concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province and along the Yemeni frontier. Saudi rulers interpreted the short-lived domestic reform movement, which included Sunni and Shia youths, as an Iranian plot and placed tighter controls on the sectaries. Limited in their opportunities for work and education, the Shias are second-class subjects of an increasingly hostile Sunni regime.

The Saudis have long supported Salafist teachings, at home and throughout the Middle East, in the hope of gaining popular support. This may work against them. Many adherents of this austere, militant school see the House of Saud as once again working hand in glove with the US, allowing its troops back on Saudi land once more. And word spreads of Saudi cooperation with Israel against Iran. Further, they see the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sweeping all before them and representing a foreordained movement that will restore past glory.

Shias in Bahrain protest Saudi allies iron fisted rule
(image by Al Jazeera English)
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Strategic weakness

Geopolitical alignments try to increase collective military power. Although the Saudis spend huge amounts on armaments (third highest in the world) and have a reasonably large standing army and national guard, they, like many armies of the region, are of dubious effectiveness. In the First Gulf War, Saudi units showed little aggressive spirit and deferred as US troops led the way.

More recently, the Saudis have shown no appetite to use their army against ISIL, even though its forces are just to the north and have attacked Saudi checkpoints on the border. Nor have Saudi ground forces deployed into Yemen, even though the Houthis have been goading them into an incursion with missile and mortar attacks. The Saudis attempted to convince Pakistan and Egypt to invade Yemen but neither is willing -- financially dependent though they are on petrodollars.

The Saudi air effort in Yemen has come at the expense of the one it had been previously at least partially engaged in -- the ISIL war. Riyadh's strategic priorities do not mesh well with Washington's. Its Yemeni campaign is weakening regional stability and placing further strain on Washington's military resources.

The Saudis may worry that popular uprisings will come to the Kingdom and its well-armed forces will be called upon to suppress them. However, the regular army is made up of conscripts from across the country and the national guard comprises an array of tribal militias with varying allegiances to the royal family. Neither force can be relied upon to hold it up. The senior officer corps comprises members of the royal family and patronage networks, not professionals who have risen through merit. This state of affairs has historically led to simmering grievances in the officer corps and to movements for reform -- sometimes jarring ones.

Arms purchases are designed more to garner military support from arms-exporting nations than to field an effective army. An unsettling implication here is that the Saudi princes may one day call upon outside armies to keep them in power. This would not be without support in Washington if the rebellion were presented, by the Saudis and US security bureaus, as instigated by Iran.

One of the more portentous developments of the last decade is the remarkable increase in US oil and gas production, recently surpassing that of Russia and Saudi Arabia. The US will be exporting gas soon and will become self-sufficient in oil within two decades. Saudi oil is of limited importance to the US. What little comes in is at the behest of Saudi-owned refineries along the Gulf Coast and the network of gas stations the Saudis operate in partnership with Royal Dutch Shell.

This affords the US the opportunity to detach itself from a part of the world with poor human rights records, hidebound regimes near an abyss, and negligible economic significance to the US. However, American interest in the Gulf is based on ensuring world oil supplies. Globalism imprinted in its soul, the US will undoubtedly maintain its presence in the Persian Gulf.

A rapprochement with Iran may further American interests better than keeping the tilt toward Saudi Arabia. The US would be better able to prevent the Gulf rivals and sectarian enemies from going to war with each other and limit their proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. Neither side could rely on Washington in its schemes. Each would be mindful of irritating the US, through foreign policy adventures or human rights violations at home, lest Washington lean toward its rival. And if one power should fall into chaos, the US would still have a partner in its efforts in the Gulf.

2015 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam . He can be reached at brianmdowning|AT|gmail.comEmail address.


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