WASHINGTON – Saudi Arabia may be upset with the United States over recent strategic decisions, but that doesn’t mean it will cut off all of the ties that have been developed over the decades, according to informed regional sources.
The Sunni Arab nation is tilting away from the U.S. to pursue more of an independent foreign policy, such as with Syria, where it is helping finance and arm Islamist militant fighters.
But the sources don’t expect an open break between Riyadh and Washington.
Nor will Saudi Arabia, the sources add, turn around and openly pledge allegiance to Russia, which has been a major backer of Syria in its three-year civil war and also is a strong supporter of Shiite Iran.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in serious proxy sectarian wars in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. The Saudis are very concerned with Iran’s growing influence in the Gulf Arab countries.
In recent months, the U.S. has signaled it would negotiate over Iran’s nuclear program, which the Israelis have threatened to bomb. Israel believes Iran is embarked on a nuclear weapons program.
In addition, the U.S. has cut back on military assistance to the military-established government in Egypt following the overthrow of the democratically elected but Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi.
Despite repeated threats of military action, Washington also decided to negotiate the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons rather than bomb sites that would have given the Saudi-backed foreign fighters and Syrian opposition forces a military advantage to oust Assad.
These evolving developments in a U.S. policy “tilt” toward Iran, the lack of backing of the military in Egypt and the initiative to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons facilities rather than bomb them have greatly upset the Saudis.
Washington and Riyadh have been close allies ever since 1932. Saudi Arabia has had a major military protector in exchange for a constant supply of oil.
Saudi Arabia underscored its displeasure with Washington by recently deciding not to accept a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, on which the U.S. and Russia have permanent seats.
The developments also prompted Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief and head of the Saudi National Security Council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to declare that the kingdom was making a “major shift” in relations with the U.S.
Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to Washington for 22 years.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a recent secret meeting with Bandar, was reportedly outraged by Bandar’s claim that he controlled Islamist militant Chechen fighters who could return to Russia to continue the ongoing fighting there in the Northern Caucasus of southern Russia.
Bandar reportedly also had told Putin that he controlled the Islamist fighters in Chechnya whose leader, Doku Umarov, has threatened to launch terrorist attacks during the Feb. 7-23, 2014, Winter Olympics which are to be held in Sochi, Russia.
He said that he could guarantee to Putin that there would be no such attacks during the Olympics if Moscow would change its policy of support for Syria and Iran.
These sources say that there are limits to Riyadh wanting to assert an independent course from the U.S. in Middle East matters. In addition, they say, there are limits to what Riyadh can do to prevent the Arab Spring from spreading into the Saudi kingdom itself.
It was due to this prospect that the Saudis supported the ouster of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi, since the Brotherhood, while Sunni, is opposed to the monarchies of the Gulf Arab countries and seeks to establish caliphates in their place.
However, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal said that Obama’s polices, particularly on Syria, were “lamentable” and he ridiculed the recent U.S.-Russian agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons in lieu of military action, even though Riyadh wanted regime change there because of Assad’s alliance with Iran.
To further underscore Riyadh’s limits, sources say that the Saudi kingdom will continue to need the U.S. and the West to help maintain its energy sector, which has been described as the lifeline of the country.
As the U.S. becomes more energy independent, the Saudis see a need to diversify their economy and not rely solely on energy, but that is proving to be difficult.
In addition, the Saudis rely heavily on the U.S. and the West for weapons, as do the other Gulf Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.
Despite the opposition of these Gulf Arab countries to U.S. efforts to enter into negotiations with Iran, the Saudis recently purchased another $6 billion in F-16s and F-15s, the latest air-launched cruise missiles, satellite-guided and bunker buster bombs, and communications equipment, among other things.
The UAE also made a $4 billion purchase of similar equipment.
Regional sources point out that Iran’s military still could defeat the combined military capability of all of the Gulf Arab countries, since they do not have the ability to coordinate their command and control systems.