What Next for the US and Saudi?
Author: Rob Wood
Note: This piece was written on 1 April, 2003, a month before the announcement that the US was withdrawing forces from KSA.
It would almost be an understatement to say that relations between the US and Saudi Arabia (KSA) have been strained over the last few years. The fact that many of the 911 suicide bombers hailed from KSA as well as the corresponding perceived lack of action by the Saudi Government in curbing the influence of extremists within the gulf state after 911 has been a major bone of contention between these powers. Recent developments, however, might indicate that the US is willing to tolerate recalcitrant rhetoric in return for securing practical Saudi cooperation, at least for the time being. KSA is pursuing a public face of strident opposition to the attack on Iraq at the same time lending active practical support to the US in that attack. But will the changed strategic environment after the attack on Iraq change things between these powers?
The rhetoric coming from Riyadh might lead many to suggest the strident opposition of the KSA government to the war. The comparative silence by Washington on issues of Saudi cooperation for the attack on Iraq would do little to dispel this view. Riyadh speaks of “brother Saddam” and publicly condemns the war. Crown Prince Abdullah publicly proclaims that,. “The kingdom will not in any way participate in the war on Iraq. Its forces will not in any way enter one inch of Iraqi territory.” There have been many offers of Saudi involvement in brokering peace deals between Iraq and the US in an effort to stave off the action, as well as public professions of discomfort with the US position on this issue.
The press of both the Middle East and the West, with only a few exceptions, has chosen to focus on the rhetorical opposition of KSA to the US attack on Iraq. Some reporters have even mistakenly named KSA as being absent from the list of US allies – a symptom of the lax press coverage of their real cooperation and the focus on their rhetorical damnation of the military action. The fact that Donald Rumsfeld’s revelation that some members of the “Coalition of the Willing” did not wish to be publicly named was most likely a result of Saudi requests, was overlooked by most media.
The extent to which KSA is willing to go to cover up its cooperation with the US is also an interesting factor in this relationship between the US and KSA. An element of the sensitivity of Riyadh to public disclosure of its close ties with Washington was seen during the last Arab Summit. Colonel Gadhafi of Libya launched a verbal assault against KSA, warning of the dangers of allowing US troops to be stationed there. He was met by the angry interdiction of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah who publicly called him a liar. It was heated exchange which made news around the world. Unfortunately for the Prince, this episode simply highlighted to many the fact of Saudi cooperation with the US in allowing the current troop buildup. The Prince’s retorts were effectively hot air.
The cold hard cooperation of the KSA government with the US is quite far reaching. The US commander of the air war is actually being hosted by the KSA government and the bombing campaign is being directed from that country without the wide knowledge of the Saudi public. The airfields at Tabuk and Arar were closed months ago to civilian traffic and have been devoted exclusively to American military operations. Prince Sultan Airport is also being used by the Americans in their push to Baghdad with up to 5000 troops being based there (it was previously used as the US air command centre for operations to Afghanistan). Total US troop deployment within KSA has reached as high as 11000 without even taking into account the reports of UK troops deployments to the Kingdom.
Saudi cooperation with the US attack on Iraq again came to the fore at the time of Turkey’s decision not to allow the US to use Turkey as a staging ground for the attack. Reports came as late as March 15 that the US was redeploying some of its naval assets from the Mediterranean so that any missile attacks from the ships would not cross Turkish soil (even though some missile have in fact crashed in Turkey). Those ships were to be redeployed to the Red Sea where they would have the ability to strike at Iraq with Saudi cooperation via the use of Tomahawk Missiles. Once again the permission of KSA to conduct such attacks across Saudi territory is indicative of the practical cooperation they are lending the US campaign. Effectively, the Saudis are pursuing a policy of conciliation to anti-US domestic elements whilst at the same time conciliating the US with practical cooperation kept under wraps – a duplicitous policy carried on for some time now.
So what does this mean for the future Saudi-US relationship? It would seem that the US came to the realisation a while ago that the Saudi government is willing to lend the US practical support on the condition that the US doesn’t make the domestic situation for the Saudis uncomfortable. The current practical realities of waging war on Iraq means that the US has accepted the double-dealing role of the Saudis without much complaint. The real test for the relationship between KSA and the US will come with the conclusion of the war on Iraq when the US no longer strictly needs its military based in KSA due to its position in Iraq. At that point we are likely to see the true sentiment of America towards the Saudi penchant for publicly criticising US actions. At such a time it would seem unlikely that the relationship will benefit from the existing Saudi attitude.