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U.S.-Saudi Relationship Increasingly Strained, says CFR Report

December 12, 2011


The U.S.-Saudi relationship has become strained by increasing mistrust and misunderstanding—most recently over Egypt and Bahrain—and gone are the old foundations of the informal alliance: the Cold War and U.S. operation of Riyadh's oil fields. This is the judgment of F. Gregory Gause III of the University of Vermont, in Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East. The two countries can no longer expect to act in close concert, and the United States should recast the relationship as transactional, one based on cooperation when interests dictate, he argues.

In this Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Special Report, Gause says Saudi Arabia is the "least affected of the major Arab states by the upheavals of 2011." He explores the foundations of Riyadh's present political stability and concludes that the House of Saud is likely to remain in place.

Gause goes on to recommend that the United States spend its political capital where it really matters: preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, maintaining regional security, and dismantling terrorist networks. "If Washington keeps its own priorities in the relationship clear and speaks with one voice about them to the Saudis, it should be able to realize those common interests with Saudi Arabia."

On nuclear nonproliferation:

— Saudi concerns about the Iranian nuclear program "are so intense that they have signaled in numerous ways that—without saying it directly—they would feel it necessary to obtain their own nuclear deterrent if faced with an Iranian nuclear capacity."

— "Washington needs to make clear to the Saudis that a proliferation decision by them would fundamentally change their relationship with the United States, destabilize the region, and ultimately reduce their own security."

— "Riyadh would, in all probability, support an American military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, allowing U.S. forces access to Saudi facilities if needed (though without any publicity) and upping oil production to try to calm markets in the immediate aftermath, if Washington chose that path. But the Saudis would also blame the United States for any Iranian counterstrike."

— "A steady U.S. policy of pressure on Iran, organized at the international level, regarding the nuclear issue might not be seen as enough by the Saudis, but is the only practical and long-term solution to this difficult situation."

On regional security:

— "Saudi worries about Iran, voiced regularly to U.S. officials, should be met with the response that political dialogue across sectarian lines in Bahrain and Iraq would reduce the Iranian ability to meddle in the Arab world."

— "If Riyadh would like to coordinate with Washington on regime change policy in Syria, Washington could ask for help on Iraq as part of its larger shared goal of regional stability. A new Saudi-U.S. initiative on Yemen could be made contingent on a Saudi promise to ratchet down the sectarian rhetoric."

On counterterrorism:

— "Cooperation in the counterterrorism field has improved dramatically in the decade since the 9/11 attacks and the mutual suspicions that followed."

— "If Saudi authorities do not act on intelligence leads from the United States on terrorist financing in a reasonable time, Washington should not hesitate to move itself, publicly, against Saudi citizens who are funding al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups through its own legal system and international legal channels."

"There is arguably no more unlikely U.S. ally than Saudi Arabia: monarchical, deeply conservative socially, promoter of an austere and intolerant version of Islam, birthplace of Osama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers," notes Gause. But, despite these differences, "the two countries have generally agreed on important political and economic issues and have often relied on each other to secure mutual aims."

This report is published by the Center for Preventive Action. For the complete document, visit Gause addresses Saudi Arabia's Middle East challenges in this interview.

F. Gregory Gause III is a professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Vermont. In 2009 and 2010, he was the Kuwait Foundation visiting professor of international affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. He was previously at Columbia University, and was also CFR fellow for Arab and Islamic studies. Gause is the author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf. He has a PhD in political science from Harvard University and a BA from St. Joseph's University. He also studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo and Middlebury College.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

CFR's Center for Preventive Action (CPA) seeks to help prevent, defuse, or resolve deadly conflicts around the world and to expand the body of knowledge on conflict prevention.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

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