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Reinforcing the Sunnis (and Israel, Too)

Prepared by: Michael Moran
August 7, 2007

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The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia rarely fails to raise eyebrows. For many in the United States, after all, the kingdom’s most famous son is Osama bin Laden. Add to that a perceived Saudi stranglehold on oil prices, a value system alien to Americans, and the support lent by some wealthy Saudis to radical Islamic sects (CRS) the world over, including Iraq’s Sunni insurgents (LAT). Given all this, writes Steven Simon, CFR senior fellow, it should be no surprise that the relationship often gyrates between good and bad (American Prospect).

A $20 billion U.S.-Saudi arms deal (NYT), announced before a visit to Riyadh by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, suggests the relationship has returned to more solid footing. “It would make no sense to leave Saudi Arabia or the other Gulf states undefended,” Rice tells Fox news, “at a time when the security challenges in that region are increasing.” The security challenges in question, of course, emanate in large part from Iran– a Shiite nation which may be on the verge of nuclear weapons status and which Sunni Saudis have long regarded as their primary rival in the region. To drive home the geopolitical point, the United States added $13 billion in military aid to the region’s other mostly Sunni heavyweight, Egypt. And, anticipating the backlash in Congress during an election year, another $30 billion in state-of-the-art military aid has been pledged to Israel over the next decade.

Congress, which will have to approve these new expenditures, did indeed lash back (DefenseNews), with over 100 House members signing an Aug. 2 letter to President Bush vowing to block the Saudi sale on the grounds that it poses a threat to Israel. The weapons involved include upgrades to existing U.S.-supplied warplanes and armored vehicles, as well as a first-time sale of precision bombing technology to an Arab client. Others objected to the seeming lack of a quid pro quo. F. Gregory Gause III, a Saudi Arabia expert at the University of Vermont, tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman the arms deal is part of an effort to get the Saudis more involved in stabilizing Iraq. Rice, in announcing the deal, noted the Saudis had agreed to open an embassy in Baghdad. Yet, as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens notes, “the Saudis have not announced their intention to put an embassy in Baghdad, merely their willingness to discuss it with an Iraqi government they have demonized at every turn.”

Eyebrows abroad also rose. Israel's former ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval, says the Israeli military aid increase amounts to a political ploy by an administration hoping to deflect opposition to the Saudi sale (Ynet). Egypt’s state-owned Al-Ahram, noting Rice and Gates came to the Middle East ostensibly to promote President Bush’s idea for a peace conference, wrote: “Drowning the Middle East in arms … seems a peculiar way to promote peace.” Yet the United States argues Saudi Arabia and Gulf emirates need this military upgrade to face down and deter an unpredictable, increasingly reckless Iran (NPR). Politically, U.S. officials note, the U.S. bases these Gulf nations host -- at great discomfort to some local regimes -- must be maintained if Washington is to maintain a credible threat of force (WashPost) against Iran.

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