U.S. Scrambles to Repair Damaged Saudi Ties

By Josh Rogin

Bloomberg View

April 6, 2016


U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will soon head to Saudi Arabia to discuss ways to increase cooperation in the war against the Islamic State. But there’s little indication he will be able to restore a vital relationship that's become riven with distrust in the last year, which would require him to reassure the Saudis on the very nature of the U.S. commitment to the kingdom and the region.

Carter is slated to meet on April 20 in Riyadh with Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud, the 30-year-old deputy crown prince and defense minister who is widely believed to be in contention to succeed his father, King Salman. Carter’s visit will come one day ahead of President Barack Obama’s stop there for a leaders’ summit between the U.S. and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a follow-on to their meeting at Camp David last May.

At a speech at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Tuesday, Carter said he wanted to ramp up the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. “We’ve got to get these guys beaten and as soon as possible,” he said. “We’re looking for opportunities to do more.”

This will be the fifth time Carter has met with Prince Mohammed since the latter became defense minister last year. But despite the number of personal interactions, according to U.S. officials and experts, the U.S.-Saudi relationship at the highest levels hasn’t improved since the Camp David summit, when the Saudi leaders no-so-privately expressed displeasure with the nuclear deal Western countries were striking with Iran.

Many of the arms deals that the U.S. promised the Gulf states at Camp David have been held up, such as sales of F-15 fighters to Qatar and F-18 fighters to Kuwait. With Saudi Arabia, differences over the way forward in Syria have become even starker and the personal relationships seem cooler than ever.

Two U.S. officials told me that after Carter and Prince Mohammed met in February on the sidelines of a counterterrorism meeting Brussels, the prince requested a follow-up conversation on Syria, but couldn’t get Carter on the phone. Carter finally called his Saudi counterpart six weeks later, in what these officials viewed as an unreasonably delayed response.

The Saudi government, through a representative, declined to comment. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told me that Carter and Prince Mohammed “meet and speak at regular intervals, and that matches the closeness of the U.S.-Saudi defense relationship."

If the Saudi government saw the lack of response from Carter as an insult, it was only one in a string of perceived slights. In a recent interview with the Atlantic, President Obama said that Saudi Arabia and Iran “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood” and explained that if the U.S. sided with Saudi Arabia over Iran in every dispute, it would inevitably lead to American military involvement in the Middle East.

Obama’s dim view of the Saudi leadership goes back to at least 2002, when he called Riyadh America’s “so-called” allies, and he has repeatedly criticized the Saudi leadership for a lack of progress on human rights and the treatment of women. But Obama’s most recent comments struck a particular nerve because they seemed to show waning U.S. support for the Saudi effort to curb Iran’s regional influence, which the kingdom regards as its number one threat.

“Obama’s comments on sharing the neighborhood are interpreted very clearly in Saudi Arabia as Iranian power has to increase and Saudi power has to diminish,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at CSIS. “For the Saudis, they see that as they have to continue fighting Iran, just from a weaker position.”

On the surface, Carter's and Obama’s meetings in Riyadh will be about how to ramp up the fight against the Islamic State, primarily in Syria. But the two allies have a fundamental disagreement over the smartest approach. The U.S. government is considering ramping up airstrikes against the jihadists, but it still committed to a larger cease-fire between the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Syrian rebels, even though that deal shows signs of crumbling.

Saudi officials have been telling their U.S. counterparts for months that they want to increase the amount and quality of arms being provided to Syrian rebels, especially in the north near Aleppo, Syria's largest city. The Saudis have even proposed giving rebel groups shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, an idea the White House has repeatedly rejected.

Simon Henderson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me that Saudi distrust of the Obama administration’s Syria policy dates back to 2013, when Obama failed to enforce his “red line” over Assad’s use of chemical weapons. This has grown, he said, into an overall Saudi concern that the U.S. is lessening its commitment to helping Saudi Arabia push back against Iran. Henderson noted that Saudi Arabia declined to send any senior officials to Obama’s final Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last week, another signal of Riyadh's displeasure with the current administration.

“MBS, as far as one can make out, is a supporter of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but he regards that Washington has failed to live up to what the Saudis expect of the U.S. for years,” he said, referring to the deputy crown prince by his initials. “Both sides are trying to repair the relationship but there are all sorts of indications the split is as wide as ever.”

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is complex, and there’s still robust cooperation on several levels, including in Yemen. But if Carter is serious about improving ties, he should bring more to Riyadh than arms deals; he must square the U.S. and Saudi visions for the region going forward.