US-Saudi relationship facing 'long deterioration': Experts

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)
US President Barack Obama (R) poses for photographs along with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, November 15, 2015. (AFP photo)

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has become progressively worse amid Riyadh’s growing international isolation and increasing domestic instability, experts say.

“We've seen a long deterioration in the US-Saudi relationship, and it started well before the Obama Administration,” a former US ambassador to Riyadh, Charles W. Freeman Jr., told the Los Angeles Times.

“The US-Saudi relationship is based entirely on interests, not values,” he said. “It's been an impossible relationship in value terms from the beginning.”

And in recent years, the two countries have increasingly seen their interests diverge, according to analysts.

For decades, the United States needed Saudi oil; now, thanks to shale oil, the US has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world's largest energy producer.

The fracture in US-Saudi relations isn't going away, because the foundations of the relationship — the interests the two countries once had in common — are no longer as strong, Freeman said.

“We can't undo everything we've done,” he said. “We can't put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

One challenge is that the US has lost credibility in the region in recent years and the Saudis are listening to the US less than they used to, said CBS News senior national security analyst Juan Zarate.

"They don't trust the United States as they once did. And so in a sense, Saudis are going to go at it alone. And we've seen that in Yemen, we're seeing it here, and we can tell them what we want, and we can ask them to do what we want," Zarate said.

“They see themselves as in a battle for influence with Iran, and they're not sure the US is going to be there with them," he added.

Moreover, the plummeting price of oil has caused a major budget deficit in Saudi Arabia while the population, accustomed to subsidized housing and utilities, keeps growing.

"Saudi Arabia is in serious trouble, and they know it," Ian Bremmer, an American political scientist and president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider last week.

By severing relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia also shifts public attention away from its domestic problems, which include a sharp drop in oil prices and growing political instability stemming from rivalries within the Saudi ruling family, Bremmer said.

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia escalated last week after Riyadh executed 47 people in one day, including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, which set off worldwide protests.

Saudi Shia men hold placards bearing portraits of Sheikh Nimr during a protest on January 8, 2016 in the eastern coastal city of Qatif against his execution by Saudi authorities. (AFP photo)

Saudi Arabia announced it was cutting diplomatic ties with Iran following protests at the Saudi embassy in Tehran over Nimr’s execution.

In an OP-ED for the New York Times published on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said some in Saudi Arabia are determined to drag the entire Middle East into chaos and conflict.

“Following the signing of the interim nuclear deal in November 2013, Saudi Arabia began devoting its resources to defeating the deal, driven by fear that its contrived Iranophobia was crumbling. Today, some in Riyadh not only continue to impede normalization but are determined to drag the entire region into confrontation,” he wrote.

“Saudi Arabia seems to fear that the removal of the smoke screen of the nuclear issue will expose the real global threat: its active sponsorship of violent extremism,” Zarif noted.


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