Thursday, December 24, 2015

US-Saudi ties cool down - Zalman Shoval

by Zalman Shoval

The U.S.'s increased oil independence and more cordial stance on Iran are major factors in a shift in its long alliance with Saudi Arabia.

The long-standing alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is not breaking down, but the relations between the two are not as wonderful as they once were. More and more reports have been presenting Saudi Arabia in an unflattering light recently, and have been raising questions about the possible justification for or benefit of the U.S. continuing its special relationship with the sheikhdom. 
The change has taken place on the world political map. The U.S. has moved its foreign policy and defense focus from the Middle East to the Far East, while at the same time its traditional allies in the region are growing more concerned over the U.S. moving closer to Iran, particularly after the nuclear agreement. Another important factor in the cooling is oil. For years, the formula was simple: Arab oil to America and American defense for the Saudi kingdom and its subjects. That formula is still in place and neither side has any interest in gnawing away at it, for both economic and diplomatic reasons. 
But if in the not-so-distant past the U.S. was dependent on Arab oil, things turned around as a result of the oil shale revolution that in recent years has made the U.S. not only its own oil supplier, but also a potential oil exporter, and that will have ramifications on policy and strategy, including the turn to the Far East and the more cordial relations with Iran. However, the Saudis have found a way to return economic fire by maintaining a high rate of oil production, thereby causing its price to drop drastically, making U.S. production from oil shale not worthwhile financially. One possible outcome: American dependence on Saudi oil could increase, forcing Washington to reassess the resulting strategic implications. Another side effect: hurting the Russian economy, and, more importantly to Riyadh, dealing a serious blow to Iran's chances of economic recovery after sanctions are removed. 
Israel is a central player in none of this, but it's also not looking on from the sidelines. Its relations with the U.S. have a different character than those of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, but there are common denominators between the policy positions of Jerusalem and Riyadh, especially when it comes to Iran. While we cannot expect Israel and Saudi Arabia to form official ties, due to Saudi Arabia's extreme fundamentalist character, pragmatic ties on specific matters are certainly possible, which justifies Jerusalem's conducting diplomatic activity with Riyadh. The Palestinian issue is not a top priority for Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis cannot ignore it. 
However, we should remember that even the late King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, despite his anti-Semitic positions and his public and private statements against Jews in Israel, recommended that the Arab leadership in Israel work cautiously and made it clear that he would not join any war but a symbolic one against Israel -- and that's what he did.

Zalman Shoval


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