The first official visit of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman to Washington beginning on Thursday comes at a crucial time in the history of Saudi-US relations.
Much anticipation surrounds the visit which will see a number of sensitive issues being brought to the table. It is no secret that Saudi-US differences have affected the region. The American mistake in Iraq and Washington’s pointless and naive withdrawal pushing the country into the Iranian swamp is one example. Other issues such as the Saudi-US disagreement regarding the June 30, 2013, events in Egypt, the shameful retraction of President Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the settlement afterward have also led to the two countries drifting apart. The situation has been worsened by the Iranian nuclear agreement that poses more questions than answers.
Probably the most important question is whether our problem with Iran is limited to the nuclear deal. Many feel that the problem has its roots in Iran’s political policies in the region. Tehran seems to insist on intervening in internal Arab affairs and inciting sectarianism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
While Riyadh and other Gulf capitals voice reservations, Washington is busy working for the agreement. Internally, the deal must be approved by Congress and externally, the Americans must keep other countries convinced of the deal’s importance. The Gulf states have made their position and desires clear: A region free of nuclear weapon and free of political conflicts, wars and militias — all of which are linked to Iran.
Saudis recognize the strategic value and importance of the bilateral relations between Riyadh and Washington. As relations have stretched over a long history of ups and downs, the foundation and shared interests of the two countries have met all challenges. This has been particularly true when, on numerous occasions, Saudi-US relations have served as the region’s safety valve.
Saudis stress the importance of the strategic relationship for both countries, acknowledging that disagreements arise from time to time. Washington has sought Saudi wisdom and experience many times since it knows that the Kingdom is a country with balanced and credible political thought which rejects extremism. This translates into both countries needing each other.
The claims that the declining US interest in Saudi oil negatively affects the alliance are short-sighted. Saudi Arabia is not a barrel of oil but an influential country, a great economic power and member of the G-20. Shared interests thus override the points of dispute.
King Salman, a veteran decision-maker and the experienced consultant of previous Saudi rulers, understands the importance of bilateral relations. Just as we saw in Operation Decisive Storm, he can be firm and take the initiative, knowing that Arabs can protect their interests in the region and will not acquiesce in the face of expansionist powers.
In diplomatic relations between countries, respect is for the powerful. And power means not only military force but also the ability to influence and build political alliances. In this context, the Gulf system remains one of the most influential forces in the region, led by the highest-level coordination between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The two countries filled the vacuum in the Arab political system and, with their alliance with Egypt, can save the region and prevent chaos. Once they share a political position, they have an influence on major powers.
Washington knows that Saudi Arabia has launched a war on terror and the Saudi security forces’ success confirm Riyadh’s role. Only a few days ago, it arrested Ahmad Al-Mughassil, the mastermind behind the 1996 Alkhobar attacks.
The Kingdom also provided important information to the US that foiled a possible suicide attack in a plane flying over Detroit in 2009. It also uncovered the presence of a bomb hidden in an ink container on a plane bound for Chicago in October 2010. Apart from intelligence and security cooperation, the US knows that Saudi Arabia has paid the price for its own safety and security in its fight against terror.
The interlinked interests of the two countries make it difficult to put Saudi-US relations at risk. Economically, American companies have enormous investments in the Kingdom while Riyadh has huge deposits and investments in the US. Many senior Saudi officials graduated from American universities and there are currently 120,000 Saudi students studying in the US.
In the context of what I have outlined, certain disagreements between the two countries are expected but their shared interests are stronger and dwarf the differences. It is important to concentrate on, and develop, this relationship for the benefit of both Saudi Arabia and the entire region with all its issues.