Courtesy: Al Arabiya

Courtesy: Al Arabiya

The Middle East Diary: Saudi USA Tensions

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This article is part of series of articles on the developing situation in Middle East and its impacts on the entire region as well as globe.

The costly and unsuccessful Saudi expedition in Yemen, the rising threat of the so called “Islamic State” along the Saudi Arabia’s northern frontier, the failure to topple Assad’s regime in Syria, low oil prices in international market, increasing influence of Iran in Middle East and the P 5+1 & Iran Nuclear Deal have put Saudi Arabia under huge stress. These developments come at a time when Saudi Arabia’s relationship with staunch supporter and ally USA are getting tensed. Strong ties between these two states were unsettled by Arab uprisings in 2011, when Saudi officials saw the USA cut loose another Arab ally, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, amid popular protests. Since then, the relations have gone cold due to American policies in Libya, Syria and elsewhere which Saudis consider threatening to their interests in the region.

The post Arab Spring developments in Middle East led Saudi Arabia, under a new monarch, King Salman to abandon its quiet checkbook diplomacy and adopt a more aggressive approach. The Saudi war in Yemen against Houthi Shiite fighters, the open military and financial support to Syrian rebels fighting against Assad regime and the executions of Shiite clerics and Al-Qaeda militants in January 2016 are a clear message to deter Saudi rivals from destabilizing the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is also increasing its military spending’s. Last year, its military budget increased to $87.2 billion, as the country passed Russia to become world’s third highest military spender.

This aggressive Saudi posture has resulted in increased differences between her and the USA. In Syria, the Saudis saw the uprising against President Assad as an opportunity to replace an Iranian ally with one of their own in hope of countering Iranian influence in that country. USA was considered pivotal in achieving this aim. However, President Obama prioritized fighting Islamic State over ousting Assad. This infuriated Saudis who started to accuse the Obama administration of prolonging the war by not ousting Assad whose removal in Saudis opinion would be important step towards a settlement of Syrian crisis.

The differences between USA and Saudi Arabia were aggravated by the P 5+1 and Iran nuclear deal. Saudis believe that this deal would result in removal of economic and trade sanctions from Iran and it will not hamper the Iranian capability to create nuclear weapons, since the deal will take effect only for 15 years. Both results would strengthen Iran and its allies in the region at the expense of Saudi Arabia. After this deal, the Saudis made public statements against USA and accused her of abandoning its allies in the region. This resulted in war of words between Washington and Riyadh which indicated a thaw in the relations between the two.

Saudi Arabia also changed its policy towards Lebanon where she suspended $4 billion in aid to Lebanese Army and Security forces on the pretext that Iranian backed Hezbollah has become too powerful. The Saudis and their gulf allies also issued travel warnings to its citizens from traveling to Lebanon hence depriving her of gulf tourism dollars. These moves surprised American officials who have reported no change in the security situation in Lebanon.

Adding fuel to the fire is the demand by US lawmakers and Senators to pass a bill which would allow victims of 9/11 and other terror attacks to sue foreign governments and financial partners of terrorism. If this bill is passed by USA Congress, it would enable the US citizens to sue Saudi Royal family members in US courts for their alleged involvement in 9/11 attacks. Saudi Arabia has told Obama administration that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets held by kingdom if Congress passes a bill that would allow Saudi government to be held responsible in US courts for any role in 9/11 attacks. However, experts are skeptical of this Saudi threat and are of the view that Saudis would never do that since it would damage the Saudi economy whose currency the Riyal is pegged against US dollar. Moreover, US would not risk lifting sovereign immunity of foreign diplomats in USA, since this would set a precedent and other states might wave off sovereign immunity of US diplomats exposing them to criminal prosecutions.

These threats made by Saudi Arabia’s government are another indication of deteriorating relations between her and USA. However, the thaw in relations between the two states does not mean that the cooperation between the two is over. Saudi Arabia and United States cooperation remains robust on issues like security, counter terrorism and business. America has been continuously supporting the Saudi war in Yemen despite pressure from opposition in Congress. In order to appease Saudi Arabia, the USA has not removed Iran from list of terrorism supporting countries. Moreover, the military sanctions on Iran are still in place. The USA has reassured Saudi Arabia of continuous military support and has signed new military contracts with Saudi monarchy.

President Obama will land in Riyadh on April 20, 2016. His meetings with Saudi King and other high officials will be centered on the Syrian conflict, the threats posed by IS and increasing influence of Iran in Middle East. This visit by US President Obama holds great importance and will be vital in ending mistrust between the two states. Despite all threats made by the two states to each other, none is in a position to deteriorate tensions to a level of confrontation. USA cannot afford to lose an ally in an energy rich region where Russia and Iran are increasing their influence. Saudi Arabia is under huge pressure and will try to rebuild the damaged relationship. Officials involved in Saudi-United States relationship acknowledge the chill, but are sure that relations between the two will get warmer.

Zeeshan Munir
Advocate Zeeshan Muneer is currently pursuing his LLM in International Law from IIUI. He has also acquired his Masters degree in International Relations from National Defense University Islamabad. He has deep interest in global affairs and International Humanitarian Law.


  1. once again “shaandar” ..i appriciate this writer…

  2. Syed Rehan Ullah shah says:

    Try to be more specific and to the point people don’t have time nowadays people will prefer to the news ticker’s on reading one or two pages article’s.but u did an out standing job as always .i can anticipate the handwork you have done in this article.Allah Bless you dear for your future endeavors.

  3. I would’ve liked If you had covered the affect of King Salman on the foreign policy of Saudia and the role it has played in the current US-Saudi tension. Nevertheless an informative piece.

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