The United States is confronting a growing crisis in its relations with Saudi Arabia, for decades its staunchest ally in the Middle East, amid reports that the kingdom is purposefully turning away from Washington including on policy towards Syria.
Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud, a member of the royal family who served as ambassador to Washington for 22 years and is now the kingdom's intelligence chief, reportedly told European diplomats that he plans to scale back cooperation with the US on arming and training rebels in protest against American policies in the region.
The sudden realignment came under the spotlight at the end of last week when the kingdom astonished the diplomatic community by turning down a seat on the UN Security Council just one day after being elected to the body. Riyadh has been infuriated both by the US decision to hold back from launching air strikes against the Syrian regime and by paralysis in the Security Council since the conflict in Syria began.
Irritation with Washington has also stemmed from signs of a thaw in US-Iran relations since the election of President Hassan Rouhani as well as its failure to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also dates back to America's reluctance to back Riyadh in condemning the 2011 uprising in Sunni-ruled Bahrain by its Shi'ite majority
"The shift away from the US is a major one," a Saudi source noted yesterday. "Saudi doesn't want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent." He added: "All options are on the table now." Prince Bandar is believed to have told western diplomats that the UN turnabout was meant to deliver a message first to the US.
"Prince Bandar told diplomats that he plans to limit interaction with the US," the source said. "Relations with the US have been deteriorating for a while, as Saudi feels that the US is growing closer with Iran and the US also failed to support Saudi during the Bahrain uprising."
Attending a conference in London on Syria, John Kerry, the Secretary of State, acknowledged the rift. "We know that the Saudis were obviously disappointed that the (Syrian) strike didn't take place and had questions about some of the other things that may be happening in the region," he said. But he added: "I am convinced we are on the same page as we are proceeding forward and I look forward to working very closely with our Saudi friends and allies".
While President Barack Obama earlier this year authorised the supply of small arms to rebels in Syria and their training, the US has been warier than Saudi Arabia in engaging with rebel groups for fear that some of the support could end up benefiting fighters affiliated with al-Qa'ida.
The rift threatens not just diplomatic but also extremely extensive economic and military ties between the countries. The US has traditionally been a supplier of arms to the kingdom which in turn has held most of its foreign assets, estimated at nearly $700 billion, in US dollars.
The US was accused of holding back in its response to Bahrain's repression of the 2011 uprising because it is the home base of the US Fifth Fleet which it considers vital to safeguarding of the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly 40 per cent of all seaborne oil traffic passes.Reuse content