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Arab Spring Pits Saudi Security Against U.S. Support for Change

The Arab Spring might be turning chilly for the U.S.’s alliance with Saudi Arabia.

With the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and more Saudi oil sales to Asia, U.S. sway over Saudi Arabia has declined as their policies diverge, said Theodore Karasik, an analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. The popular uprisings in the Middle East this year tested their partnership by pitting U.S. support for democracy against Saudi Arabia’s desire for a status quo.

“Now, when push comes to shove, Saudi Arabia will pursue its own policies regardless of what the U.S and others think,” Karasik said in a telephone interview from Dubai.

Saudi Arabia backed former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak right to the end of his rule in February and sent troops to protect the Al Khalifa rulers in Bahrain. The U.S., which last year approved a $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, called for a transition in Egypt and dialogue in Bahrain.

President Barack Obama’s government on June 16 put Bahrain on its list of human rights violators along with countries such as North Korea and Iran. The same day, Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, a son of Bahrain’s King Hamad, signed a marriage contract with the daughter of Saudi King Abdullah.

“Saudi Arabia wasn’t happy with the way the Obama administration dealt with Hosni Mubarak,” Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political science professor, said in phone interview. “They also disagreed over Bahrain.”

Oil for Security

Since King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud met U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, the U.S. and the Al Saud monarchy were practical partners. Oil for security underpinned the relationship, even if they disagreed on such issues as the Arab-Israel conflict.

Since the latest unrest started, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, has used its financial wealth to back allies. The kingdom provided Egypt with $900 million of grants and loans under an accord last month and gave Jordan $400 million in financial aid. In Yemen, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council has called for a transition of power.

The two countries “will cooperate on things where we have a common interest,” said Gregory Gause, a political science professor at the University of Vermont. “Right now, that includes containment of Iran, some solution in Yemen, counter-terrorism. At times the Saudis will take positions in the oil realm that we will like, at times they won’t.”

Different Needs

Saudi Arabia this year announced spending plans totaling about 500 billion-riyals ($130 billion) as the kingdom seeks to prevent regional unrest from sparking dissent at home. With the spending, Saudi Arabia will need an $85-a-barrel oil price to balance its budget this year, Nomura Holdings Inc. said in a report e-mailed on July 2.

Saudi Arabia has many of its “own objectives for their military that fit their national security needs, not ours,” said Paul Sullivan, a political scientist specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University. “The entrance into Bahrain is an example of this.”

In Egypt, hundreds of protesters are continuing a sit-in in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez that started on July 8 to demand the government accelerate political and economic changes.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on July 11 that her government is working to help “begin the slow, hard work of building sustainable democracies rooted in guaranteed human rights, accountable institutions, and the rule of law.”

‘Flagrant Interference’

A day before Mubarak ceded power to the military, Saudi Arabia denounced the “flagrant interference of some countries” in the internal affairs of Egypt, the Saudi Press Agency said, citing Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Since then, the officials in Riyadh have said little publicly about Egypt or Syria, where the government this month said the U.S. was trying to incite rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. Clinton said on July 11 that Assad had lost his legitimacy to rule amid a crackdown on dissenters.

The changing relationship with the U.S. is also a reflection of how Saudi Arabia has increasingly turned toward Asia to tap new oil markets and for business expansion.

About 65 percent of the kingdom’s 2009 daily exports of 6.27 million barrels went to Asia and the Pacific, while North America received 17 percent, OPEC said in its 2009 statistical bulletin. In 2008, Asia received 58 percent of Saudi exports, while North America got 22 percent.

Turning East

Saudi Arabia’s independence from U.S. foreign policy “is not just from the Arab Spring, but also from the fact that oil demand has shifted from the U.S. to China more and more each year,” said Sullivan at Georgetown University.

Saudi Basic Industries Corp.’s Chief Executive Officer Mohamed al-Mady said in May that the world’s largest petrochemical maker, plans further expansions in China. King Abdullah, 86, picked China as the first destination on his maiden foreign tour in January 2006, months after becoming king.

The Saudi government said on July 11 after a discussion on the “continuing crises” that it is “keen on the security, stability, unity and independence of Arab countries.” The Saudi government “doesn’t want to see further instability in the Middle East,” said Karasik in Dubai.

Nawaf Obaid, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, wrote in an editorial for the Washington Post in May that a “tectonic shift has occurred in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”

He argued that Saudi Arabia will chart its own policy after U.S. “missteps in the region” since Sept. 11 and its “ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movement.”

Saudi Arabia’s perception of the U.S. hardened with invasion of neighboring Iraq in 2003. Saudi Arabia started to pursue a more independent regional policy, al-Dakhil said.

When demonstrations erupted by mainly Shiite protesters in Bahrain in February, Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf were concerned that Shiite Muslim-led Iran was stoking the unrest. Saudi Arabia sent more than 1,000 troops to Bahrain to protect a red line against Iranian influence.

“The Americans handed Iraq to the Iranians,” al-Dakhil said in a telephone interview from Riyadh. “The Saudis weren’t willing to let this happen again in Bahrain.”

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