Tuesday, March 15, 2011
US-Saudi tensions intensify with mid-east turmoil
Even before Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain on Monday to quell an uprising it fears might spill across its own borders, American officials were increasingly concerned that the kingdom's stability could ultimately be threatened by regional unrest, succession politics and its resistance to reform.
So far, oil-rich Saudi Arabia has successfully stifled public protests with a combination of billions of dollars in new jobs programs and an overwhelming police presence, backed by warnings last week from the foreign minister to "cut any finger that crosses into the kingdom."
Monday's action, in which more than 2,000 Saudi-led troops from gulf states crossed the narrow causeway into Bahrain, demonstrated that the Saudis were willing to back their threats with firepower.
The move created another quandary for the Obama administration, which obliquely criticized the Saudi action without explicitly condemning the kingdom, its most important Arab ally. The criticism was another sign of strains in the historically close relationship with Riyadh, as the United States pushes the country to make greater reforms to avert unrest.
Other symptoms of stress seem to be cropping up everywhere.
Saudi officials have made no secret of their deep displeasure with how President Obama handled the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, charging Washington with abandoning a longtime ally. They show little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls "universal values," including peaceful protests.
When Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were forced to cancel visits to the kingdom in recent days, American officials were left wondering whether the cause was King Abdullah's frail health -- or his pique at the United States.
"They're not in a mode for listening," said one senior administration official, referring to the American exchanges with Saudi officials over the past two months about the need to get ahead of the protests that have engulfed other Arab states, including two of Saudi Arabia's neighbors, Bahrain and Yemen. In recent days, Washington has tried to focus on the areas where its strategic interests and those of Saudi Arabia intersect most crucially: counterterrorism, containing Iran and keeping oil flowing.
The Americans fear that the unrest sweeping the Middle East is coming at a bad time for the Saudis, and their concerns have increased in recent weeks, partly because of the continued tumult in Bahrain. Many of the issues driving the protests elsewhere are similar to those in Riyadh: an autocratic ruling family resistant to sharing power, surrounded by countries in the midst of upheaval. At the same time, Saudi Arabia's leadership is in question. King Abdullah, 87, is, by all accounts, quite ill, as is the crown prince.
The latest tensions between Washington and Riyadh began early in the crisis when King Abdullah told President Obama that it was vital for the United States to support Mr. Mubarak, even if he began shooting protesters. Mr. Obama ignored that counsel. "They've taken it personally," said one senior American familiar with the conversations, "because they question what we'd do if they are next."
Since then, the American message to the Saudis, the official said, is that "no one can be immune," and that the glacial pace of reforms that Saudi Arabia has been engaged in since 2003 must speed up.
But the Saudi effort to defuse serious protests appears to take a different approach: a huge police presence, which smothered relatively small demonstrations in Riyadh and the Eastern Province last Friday; an appeal to the innate religious conservatism of the country; and an effort to throw more cash at Saudi citizens, who have become accustomed to the ultimate welfare state.
This month, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the interior minister and No. 2 in the line of succession, publicly underscored the kingdom's ban on demonstrations. The government called in top Saudi newspaper editors to dictate how to report on protests foreign and domestic. The country's senior religious clerics condemned public protests for not conforming to Islamic law. These steps built on $36 billion in pay raises, housing support, unemployment benefits and other subsidies that King Abdullah promised to keep the peace.
"All this is about social control in Saudi Arabia," said Christopher Boucek, who studies the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "People have been forecasting the fall of Saudi for a long time, and they've always been proved wrong. It's a pretty resilient place."
One of President Obama's top advisers described the moves as more in a series of "safety valves" the Saudis open when pressure builds; another called the subsidies "stimulus funds motivated by self-preservation."
Saudi officials, who declined to comment for this article to avoid fueling talk of divisions between the allies, said that the tensions had been exaggerated and that Americans who criticized the pace of reforms did not fully appreciate the challenges of working in the kingdom's ultraconservative society.
Even as Libya has occupied much of the public debate, White House officials have said they have been focused most intently on the two Arab allies whose fates are most tied to American strategic interests: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In a briefing for reporters last Thursday, Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, said that "the success of the democratic transformation under way in Egypt is absolutely critical," and described his own conversations with its interim leadership. Mrs. Clinton will be visiting Cairo this week.
But Mr. Donilon, like other administration officials, said very little about the conversations they have held with Saudi leaders. Those have been strained in part by the slow-motion transition of power: King Abdullah, a popular monarch who just returned to the country after months of medical treatment in New York and Morocco, has been described by Saudi specialists as reform-minded but constrained by more conservative family members; the country's next in line, Crown Prince Sultan, is also severely ill.
"We've focused on Nayef and a next generation, who seem to understand a lot better what's got to happen," said one American official, referring to the Saudi interior minister, whom some Saudi experts view as a conservative who would take the kingdom backward, while others say that is a misreading and that he is more aligned with members of the next generation of Saudi princes who favor reforms.
In a relationship where the United States hardly has the upper hand, so far the discussions have largely steered clear of democratization and focused on safer subjects: energy and foreign threats.
Saudi Arabia has helped stabilize world energy prices by increasing its crude-oil production to make up for the loss of Libya's oil.
In the case of Bahrain, the senior official said, the administration's goal has been to enlist the Saudis' help to open up the Bahraini political system without overthrowing the government. Instead, the arrival of the Saudi-led troops underscored the approach advocated by Riyadh: Crack down and allow no room for dissent.
At a press briefing on Monday, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, carefully avoided direct criticism of the Saudi-led entry of gulf forces into Bahrain, telling reporters that, in the view of the White House, "this is not an invasion of the a country." But he added: "We're calling on the Saudis, the other members of the G.C.C. countries, as well as the Bahraini government, to show restraint. And we believe that political dialogue is the way to address the unrest that has occurred in the region in Bahrain and in other countries, and not to, in any way, suppress it."
Some officials say that in some ways the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia may grow closer, particularly on security and counterterrorism issues, where there has been increased cooperation in the months before the protests began in the Middle East.
John O. Brennan, President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, speaks regularly with Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, his Saudi counterpart and the son of the interior minister, most recently last week about the political tumult in Yemen and the threat from Al Qaeda, an administration official said.
In the past several months, the Saudis have played a pivotal role in helping to thwart several terrorist plots. Prince Nayef alerted the Obama administration last October that bombs might be on cargo flights bound for the United States. A frantic search turned up two shipments containing printer cartridges packed with explosives, sent from Yemen by a Qaeda affiliate, and addressed to synagogues in Chicago.
The American military's longstanding ties to the Saudi armed forces have also weathered the recent diplomatic tempest. More than 4,100 Saudi and American soldiers conducted a training exercise in northwestern Saudi Arabia last week.
Demonstrating to Iran that the Saudi-American alliance remains strong has emerged as a critical objective of the Obama administration. King Abdullah, who was widely quoted in the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks as warning that the United States had to "cut off the head of the snake" in Iran, has led the effort to contain Iran's ambitions to become a major regional power. In the view of White House officials, any weakness or chaos inside Saudi Arabia would be exploited by Iran.
For that reason, several current and former senior American intelligence and regional experts warned that in the months ahead, the administration must proceed delicately when confronting the Saudis about social and political reforms.
"Over the years, the US-Saudi relationship has been fraught with periods of tension over the strategic partnership," said Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center, a public policy organization. "Post-September 11 was one period, and the departure of Mubarak may be another, when they question whether we are fair-weather friends."