The U.S.-Saudi Rift: Three Things to Know

November 1, 2013

The U.S.-Saudi Rift: Three Things to Know
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Diplomacy and International Institutions

Tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia have reached their highest point in the countries’ decades-long alliance as Riyadh expresses its dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of Middle East affairs. CFR’s Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow Fred Kaplan highlights three things to know about the rift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship:

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  • Rising Tensions: The Saudis have been upset over the U.S. decision not to support ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Washington’s reversal on its threat to attack government targets in Syria, and the recent resumption of nuclear talks with Iran. "Twenty years ago or so, [these tensions] would have been seen as an enormous crisis. Now, it’s not being looked at that way, nor should it be," says Kaplan.
  • Opposing Interests: The Saudis view the Middle East as a cauldron of conflict between Shia and Sunnis, while the United States has allies and adversaries of both denominations of Islam. The Saudis want to "crush Shia powers," but the United States "has interests all over the map," Kaplan says, complicating joint goals. .
  • Waning U.S. Dominance in the Mideast: "It would be a very good thing if everybody in the Middle East realized that the United States is not the dominant power in the region," Kaplan says. The United States’ declining reliance on Saudi oil, which used to be the "bedrock" of the two countries’ relationship, also informs decisions over U.S. involvement in regional and domestic crises.

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