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The first time Barack Obama met with the King of Saudi Arabia, it was at a London conference in April 2009. Greeting the elderly monarch before the cameras, Obama slightly lowered his torso as he shook the King’s hand–a bow, in the eyes of his conservative critics back home. The Washington Times fumed that the gesture constituted “a shocking display of fealty to a foreign potentate.” The White House dismissed the suggestion, and the video evidence was ambiguous. But Obama was hardly the first American President captured in an unusual moment with Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. A few years earlier, George W. Bush had been photographed strolling at his Texas ranch with Abdullah, then crown prince; the two men walked hand in hand.
Such encounters underscore the fact that America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia’s anachronistic monarchy is as awkward as it is important. At issue between the two countries is the very nature of the U.S.’s role in the Middle East and whether a 70-year alliance is splitting at the seams.
In recent months, the American approach to three regional hot spots–Iran, Syria and Egypt–has shaken the U.S.-Saudi relationship to its core. Obama’s diplomacy with Tehran, the hated Shi’ite Muslim enemy of devoutly Sunni Saudi Arabia, has alarmed Riyadh no less than it has Jerusalem. Obama’s failure to follow through on his threat of military strikes on Syria last year inflamed worries about Washington’s willingness to use force in the region. And Saudi leaders deride Obama’s criticisms of the Egyptian generals who seized power last summer and are cracking down on their rivals. Throw in America’s growing energy independence, shrinking military budget and talk of a strategic shift toward Asia, and Saudi Arabia is wondering whether it can still rely on Washington’s longtime security guarantees or if it needs to form new alliances–and perhaps go nuclear itself.
“There’s a lot of talk in Saudi Arabia about America abandoning them,” says Greg Gause, a senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. “The more extreme view is ‘The U.S. is going to cut a deal with Iran and sell us out.’ The less extreme view is ‘It’s going to pivot to Asia and cut us out.'”
The insecurity may be mostly on the Saudi side, but the U.S. can’t afford to be complacent. For all the alarm over Vladimir Putin’s designs in Eastern Europe, the Middle East still dominates Obama’s foreign policy agenda: a nuclear deal with Iran and the Arab-Israeli peace process are his best prospects for an enduring international legacy. Putin’s Crimea grab threatens American interests less directly than Syria’s civil war, whose violence is spilling across borders and threatening governments friendly to the U.S. and in which a frightening new generation of anti-Western jihadis are cutting their teeth. Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch remains the most likely near-term source of a lethal foreign attack on Americans. On all of these issues, Abdullah can help Obama. But first the two men need to rebuild their relationship.
Dining With the Monarch
The King requires a certain amount of TLC. “This is a very personalized relationship. It’s always the King and the President,” says Elliott Abrams, a former Bush White House national-security aide who has met Abdullah many times. The special relationship between Washington and Riyadh has endured since 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt met with Abdullah’s father Abdulaziz ibn Saud and established an informal deal: the U.S. provides for the kingdom’s security in exchange for reliable oil supplies. (History buffs will note that Roosevelt saw the King on his way home from the Yalta conference, held in Crimea.)
To this day, there is nothing quite like dinners with the Saudi monarch in his Riyadh palace. The King and the President are seated at the head of a massive U-shaped table, flanked by dozens of people, most of whom can’t see either leader because of the large flat-screen televisions that are placed in front of them. The King enjoys dining with his TV tuned to the news channel al-Arabiya, Abrams says.
That may not be Obama’s idea of a good time. But communication with the King, now 89, comes much more easily in person than the grouchy mumbling one gets from afar. “The King doesn’t like to talk on the phone,” says a diplomat who knows Abdullah. Despite such obstacles, Obama has maintained a workmanlike, if not quite hand-holding, relationship with Abdullah. In their past meetings, says Jim Smith, Obama’s ambassador to Riyadh until last October, “Obama was deferential and respectful of the King’s age, and the King was respectful of the President’s position and his brainpower.”
Although the relationship has seen its strains through the years–notably during the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks–a split was never in the cards. This time it feels different, for three big reasons.
The first is Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alarm over a potential Iranian nuclear bomb routinely commands headlines in the U.S. Abdullah’s anxiety, while less public, is just as intense. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia considers Iran an existential threat, a mortal Shi’ite rival to its Sunni theocracy. That anxiety is fueled by the recent growth of Iranian influence in the region, from post-Saddam Iraq, where a Shi’ite government friendly to Iran has replaced a Sunni rival that fought with it, to Syria, where Iranian-backed Hizballah fighters are defending Tehran’s staunch ally Bashar Assad. The Saudis see Iran’s hand in stirring up the Shi’ites of Yemen and neighboring Bahrain, where Saudi forces helped quash Arab Spring protests in 2011. A U.S. diplomatic cable leaked in Obama’s first term revealed that as far back as April 2008, Abdullah implored American officials to launch a strike on Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama prefers diplomacy to military action, however. And the Saudis have watched his negotiations with Tehran with growing alarm. They fear that Obama’s eagerness to cut a deal with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will prevent him from demanding limits on Iran’s nuclear program to ensure that Tehran can’t produce a nuclear bomb in the foreseeable future. The Saudis also worry that Obama will content himself with a nuclear deal that doesn’t address other aspects of Iranian behavior that threaten Riyadh, like support for terrorism–in 2011 U.S. officials uncovered an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington–and incitement of Shi’ites across the region, including in the kingdom’s eastern provinces. In a worst-case scenario, the Saudis imagine that the U.S. is grooming their Persian archrival as a new regional power to help police the region.
When that happens, the Saudis fear, the U.S. can worry about other matters, with the Saudis “having essentially been left alone to maintain stability in the Arab world and check Iranian influence,” wrote Nawaf Obaid, an adviser to the Saudi royal family, in a December policy paper for Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. And if Obama’s diplomacy fails to stop Iran’s progress toward a bomb, Obaid adds, “then Saudi Arabia … will have no choice but to go nuclear as well.”
Saudi Arabia has no domestic nuclear program. But its Sunni allies in Pakistan might be willing to assist it with one, if not simply sell it nuclear weapons, should they be called upon to do so. “Pakistan does have a surplus” of nuclear material, notes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It could easily happen in the future.”
The War Nearby
Syria is another point of friction. The Saudis are unhappy that Obama hasn’t provided more support to the rebels fighting the Assad regime, and Obama officials have bridled at recent Saudi support for radical elements within the Syrian opposition. But the most serious dispute stems from Obama’s aborted plan last September to strike Assad in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Having drawn his famous “red line” against chemical-weapons use, Saudi officials said, Obama had to follow through to maintain his credibility–particularly in the eyes of Iranian officials wondering if they can get away with developing nukes. “When that kind of assurance comes from a leader of a country like the United States, we expect him to stand by it,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, an influential royal and former intelligence chief, told the New York Times in December. “There is an issue of confidence.”
Compounding the tension over Syria has been the kingdom’s chief of intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a crafty operative who served for many years as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. and whom the King put in charge of Syria policy in 2012. Bandar pushed a more aggressive effort to topple Assad, steering Saudi money and arms to more radical elements of the opposition, including Islamist fighters who wouldn’t mind seeing the Saudi royals themselves toppled.
Then there’s Egypt. Abdullah saw a troubling precedent in Obama’s willingness to withdraw support for the country’s longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak, as the Arab Spring reached Tahrir Square in 2011, and he blanched at U.S. support for the subsequent presidency of Mohamed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood organization is seen as a mortal enemy in Riyadh. “For the Saudis there is no gray area with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.
The Saudis were thus delighted to see Morsi overthrown by a military junta in July 2013 and cheered as the generals began cracking down on the Brotherhood, including a recent death sentence for 529 alleged supporters of the group. Washington responded with condemnations and restrictions on military aid to Egypt. Meanwhile, in early March, the Saudis officially declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist” group.
The Real Challenge
That’s a lot of weight for even the most special of relationships to bear. But reports of an imminent U.S.-Saudi split may nonetheless be exaggerated. Ultimately, neither the Americans nor the Saudis are better off on their own. The anchor of the relationship–oil–remains crucial. Yes, America is enjoying an energy boom, and the U.S. imports only 26% of its oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. (About two-thirds of that is from Saudi wells.) But energy markets are global. If the Saudis tighten their spigots, prices will rise everywhere, threatening the global economy. That’s reason enough to keep the U.S. military watching the kingdom’s oil fields. For their part, the Saudis know no one else can do it. “There are no alternatives to the U.S. as the security guarantor for the Gulf Arab states,” Hanna says.
Moreover, the bluster in newspapers doesn’t reflect the close cooperation behind the scenes, especially among military and intelligence officials. A tip from a Saudi official allowed the U.S. to intercept a cargo bomb headed for America in October 2010, and it was Saudi intelligence, in cooperation with the U.S., that managed to plant a mole in al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch and foil a plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner in May 2012. Saudi largesse has also helped stabilize Yemen and prevent it from becoming an outright al-Qaeda safe haven. “Saudi Arabia has done more for Yemen than any other country in the world in terms of financial support,” then White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said in August 2012.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s top buyers of American arms. In late 2011 the U.S. inked a $29.4 billion sale of F-15 fighters to the kingdom, and last October–just as Saudi grousing about Obama’s Syria policy was peaking–the Pentagon announced an $11 billion deal to sell cruise missiles and bunker-buster bombs to the Saudis and the neighboring United Arab Emirates. Those and other American-supplied arms, including Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, come with teams of U.S. trainers and technicians who help keep the governments in close touch. “The U.S. defense relationship with Saudi Arabia is as strong as ever,” says a Pentagon official, who describes the weapons as “part of our defense against common threats.”
Washington has worked to heal the bruises. The Saudis “felt kind of betrayed,” in the words of one source with firsthand knowledge, to learn that top Obama aides had conducted months of secret back-channel diplomacy with the Iranians in Oman. Nor did they appreciate learning through the media that Obama had backed away from Syria air strikes. Since then the Obama team has stepped up meetings with lower-level Saudi officials; Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Riyadh with Obama will be his third since November.
An important personnel change could also be a balm. Bandar inflamed tensions over Syria, taking a belligerent tone in talks with Kerry and complaining publicly about Obama’s policies. “Bandar was brash, and in the press, and pissed a lot of people off,” Hanna says. But earlier this year the King pulled Bandar from the Syria account and handed it to Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef. That’s significant because Nayef oversees the King’s counterterrorism efforts, work that keeps him in close touch with U.S. officials like Brennan, now CIA director.
While differences over Iran will be hard to resolve, some of the other policy issues will be easier to smooth over. In reality, Obama has been fairly tolerant of Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. And despite their concerns, the Saudis also have reason to show restraint in pursuing their own nuclear capability. Taking such a step before Iran does would do severe damage to the kingdom’s international image and only reinforce Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. “I don’t think the Saudis have the slightest interest in the near term in rushing out to buy nuclear weapons,” Cordesman says.
A nuke certainly wouldn’t protect the Saudi royals from what may be the greatest threat facing them: Arab Spring–style protests. Abdullah has so far managed to fend off such dissent with vast social largesse funded by oil revenues. That has blunted discontent in a population where youth unemployment is 30%. The money hasn’t bought total calm, however. Human Rights Watch describes “a dramatic crackdown on civil-society activists and dissidents” while “most social reforms are stalled or blocked and domestic pressures continue to rise.” One senior Obama official worries that instability is unavoidable, especially if oil prices should fall.
Then there is the question of the King himself, approaching 90 and in increasingly frail health. His obvious successors are elderly, and their successors are not obvious. A royal succession could be tricky–and when Obama sees King Abdullah, he may worry less about their relationship than what might replace it.
This appears in the April 07, 2014 issue of TIME.