US struggles to explain fractious Saudi alliance: Analysis

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz (L) speaks with US President Barack Obama during their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on September 4, 2015. (AFP photo)

The United States is facing the “fundamental contradiction” in its alliance with Saudi Arabia, failing to condemn the execution of a prominent Shia cleric, who challenged the kingdom, for fear of undermining the fragile Saudi leadership, according to an analysis.

For years, oil was the bedrock of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, two nations that share few common values, the New York Times said in a report Monday.

Today, that oil-based mutual dependency that goes back to the early 1930s, when the US began investing in the Saudi oil fields, is becoming increasingly irrelevant as American oil production is surging and the Saudi leadership is running into trouble, the analysis added.

However, the political upheaval in the Middle East and the perception that Saudi Arabia is a major factor in regional stability continue to hold together the fractious alliance.

US officials have privately acknowledged in recent weeks that Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses as well as widespread civilian casualties from its military intervention in Yemen have raised difficult diplomatic issues.

The recent execution of 47 people, including Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, in a style that most Americans associate with Daesh (ISIL) rather than a close US ally (many of them were beheaded by a sword), made it increasingly difficult for the Obama administration to explain the relationship, the Times said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday the administration had warned Riyadh in advance about the damaging consequences that would follow the execution of Sheikh Nimr.

Saudi Arabia announced Sunday that it was cutting diplomatic ties with Iran after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was the scene of angry protests following the announcement of Nimr’s execution.

A US official, speaking to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity, criticized Riyadh for deliberately stoking tensions in the region.

“This is a dangerous game they are playing,” the official told the Post. “There are larger repercussions than just the reaction to these executions,” including damage to “counter-ISIL initiatives as well as the Syrian peace process.”

In fact, the mass executions, which have set off angry protests around the world, were the culmination of a series of events that have strained the US-Saudi relations over the past few years.

Iranian and Turkish demonstrators hold pictures of Sheikh Nimr as they protest outside the Saudi Embassy in Ankara, on January 3, 2016. (AFP photo)
Iraqi protesters hold posters of Sheikh Nimr during a demonstration in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on January 4, 2016. (AFP photo)
Iranians gather during a demonstration against the execution of Sheikh Nimr in the capital Tehran on January 4, 2016. (AFP photo)
Pakistani women hold placards of Sheikh Nimr during an anti-Saudi protest in Quetta, on January 3, 2016. (AFP photo)

“We haven’t been on the same page with the Saudis for a long time,” Martin S. Indyk, the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution and a former top aide to Secretary of State John Kerry, told the Times.

In 2011, Saudi leaders slammed President Barack Obama and his aides for failing to support Egypt’s strongman Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring, fearing the same fate might befall the kingdom.

Saudi officials have also questioned whether they could rely on their American ally after the US along with other nations forming the P5+1 group reached a nuclear agreement with Iran, much to the dismay of Riyadh.

The kingdom is worried that the nuclear pact might herald the beginning of a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran, at a time it is facing crisis.

“The kingdom faces a potentially perfect storm of low oil income, open-ended war in Yemen, terrorist threats from multiple directions and an intensifying regional rivalry with its nemesis, Iran,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA officer with long experience in the region, according to the Times.


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