Test for Saudis: How far to push ire over America?

Brian Murphy and Matthew Lee - The Philippine Star

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In Washington last week, arms regulators announced that Saudi Arabia is seeking $6.8 billion in advanced missiles and other equipment in its latest military buying spree. Days later, Saudi officials snubbed a seat on the U.N. Security Council in a stunning protest mostly aimed at U.S. policies in the Middle East.

This role of being an eager customer and emboldened critic may come to define the new relationship between Saudi Arabia and its longtime ally: The kingdom warns it won't sit idly as Washington's views increasingly drift away from the Gulf state's priorities of keeping Iran and the West as far apart as possible and steadily supplying arms and aid to Syria's rebels.

The Saudi-U.S. alliance has been among the bedrock elements of Middle East affairs for decades, and even small fissures carry outsized significance in a region that is in huge flux amid the chaotic Arab Spring fallout, the Syrian civil war and the election in Iran of moderate-leaning President Hassan Rouhani.

But there is very little chance that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners will push their grievances against Washington far enough to risk any deep damage, knowing they need the U.S. as a source of protection, arms and international standing.

Still, the script of Saudi Arabia enjoying predictable U.S. support has been rewritten somewhat after a series of high-profile breaks, including America pulling back from possible military strikes against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and last month's historic U.S. outreach to Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival.

"The Saudis and other Gulf states may complain loudly about turns in U.S. policy," said Mona Abass, a Bahrain-based political analyst. "But, at the end of the day, they know they need America and won't do anything too much to damage that relationship."

It leaves Saudi Arabia at an unfamiliar crossroads.

It has already made clear, through leaks and intermediaries, that collaboration with Washington could be scaled back in regional intelligence-sharing and strategic planning. This could potentially undercut U.S. monitoring of al-Qaida factions and others in Yemen, where Saudi spy networks are strong. It also could leave U.S. officials facing more challenges in Syria, where rebel factions count on support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others seeking to bring down Assad and his Iranian-backed government.

Saudi Arabia has the potential, meanwhile, to deal a huge blow to a proposed Syrian peace conference next month in Geneva. Any talks would ring hollow if Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states stayed away.

The Saudi ruling monarchy, however, knows it cannot chip too deeply into the foundations of its U.S. ties. These include intricate and established business networks built around oil and tens of billions of dollars in arms purchases from U.S. defense contractors in recent years, including more than 80 F-15 fighter jets and, last week, plans to buy more than 1,000 precision-guided missiles and bombs.

The enormous Saudi arsenal is built with one main objective: countering possible threats from Iran. The U.S. overtures to Tehran have dismayed Saudi leaders and their Gulf partners, who worry that nuclear talks could leave Iran with a scaled-down but mostly intact nuclear program under stricter U.N. monitoring.

Saudi Arabia was blindsided by the U.S. decision to put aside possible military strikes in favor of a plan to dismantle Assad's chemical weapons stockpile. It was seen as "wrecking" the designs of the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who is believed to be directing the flow of cash and arms to rebel factions, said Theodore Karasik, a security and political affairs analyst at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

The strains with Washington are deepened by worries that Saudi support extends to radical Islamist groups that share the strict brand of Wahhabi Islam in the ultraconservative kingdom.

"Saudi Arabia will increasingly begin to test its regional goals without consulting and coordination with the U.S.," Karasik said. "This is pretty significant change."

In Washington, officials acknowledge the Saudi frustration. But they insist that broader U.S.-Saudi ties remain on a solid footing.

Neither country wants to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, neither wants to see Assad remain in power, neither wants to see the situation in Egypt deteriorate further, and Saudi Arabia remains the top backer of an Arab-Israeli peace proposal that the Obama administration sees as critical to its Middle East objectives.

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in Paris on Monday and maintained afterward that he detected no sign in their two-hour discussion over lunch that relations had been badly damaged.

"Saudi Arabia and the United States agree on a great deal here going forward," Kerry said Tuesday in London. "We work closely with Saudi Arabia on a range of regional, political, and security issues, including Syria, Iran, Middle East peace, Egypt.

"We're still working with them on those," he said, adding, however, that he was aware of strains. "We know that the Saudis were obviously disappointed that the strike (on Syria) didn't take place and have questions about some of the other things that may be happening in the region."

But Kerry stressed that the U.S. has an "obligation" to work through any differences it may have with the Saudis.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf flatly denied that there was any serious rupture in relations.

Kerry and Saud "have a warm friendship, and even during moments of disagreement have always found ways to have honest and open discussion," Harf said.

A key test for Saudi Arabia will be whether to stick with its unprecedented rejection of one of the non-permanent seats on the Security Council.

In Jordan, an Arab diplomat with firsthand access to Saudi and Gulf Arab politics, said Saudi Arabia used the U.N. snub to underscore its anger over U.S. policies, led by Syria.

The diplomat noted that Saudi Arabia has not formally advised the U.N. it was declining the seat.

"The Saudi leadership will retract and accept the seat. ... It's only a matter of time," he said, adding he was told that by top officials serving Saudi King Abdullah.

Saudi Arabia "is frustrated by U.S. policies," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. "It hears the U.S. telling it one thing, then it sees Secretary Kerry meeting his Iranian counterpart in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, with both officials exchanging smiles and reciprocating in warm gestures toward each other and the other's country."

The diplomat added that much of internal Saudi grumbling over Washington is led by intelligence chief Prince Bandar, a longtime Saudi ambassador in the U.S.

Bandar "has advised his leadership and has been pushing it to take steps toward distancing Riyadh from Washington," the diplomat said.

Meanwhile, in a curious reordering of regional views, the outlook by Saudi Arabia and some Gulf partners increasingly overlap with Israel on U.S. overtures to Iran and attempts to settle the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program. Iran denies it seeks atomic weapons, but says it will not give up its capacity to make nuclear fuel.

"It's not just America's shift on Syria that is deeply upsetting the Saudis," said Fawaz A. Gerges, a Middle East affairs expert at the London School of Economics. "It's the corresponding shift in Washington's relations with Iran that Riyadh considers as nothing short of a rapprochement."

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