June 16, 2011 8:20 pm

Arab spring tests US-Saudi relationship

 
Saudi King Abdullah and US President Barack Obama

Time for reflection: Saudi King Abdullah and US President Barack Obama hold talks at the White House last year

For the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia’s escape so far from the Arab spring has been a welcome relief.

As revolution fever spread through Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Yemen and Syria, the US’s closest Arab ally threw cash – $136bn of it – at its citizens to buy off any potential dissent.

The result might not be good for Saudis dreaming of political change in the absolute monarchy, but it spares Washington from having to decide which it values more: the tide of democracy or its decades-old relationship with the House of Saud.

“I think the administration is lucky to dodge a big potential bullet in that Saudi Arabia has been least affected by the Arab spring,” says Aaron David Miller, a former government adviser on the Middle East, who is now at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Indeed, the fact that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, is now in Riyadh for medical treatment after coming under attack from protesters underscores the continuing value of the Saudi alliance with the US.

The Obama administration, with limited influence over events in Yemen, is now reliant on the Saudi royal family to prevent Mr Saleh’s return to Sana’a so that an orderly transition of power can take place there.

Still, Washington and Riyadh could be at a turning point in their 60-year relationship as the Arab spring has laid bare its contradictions.

The wave of democracy spreading across the Middle East is widely viewed as good news in America, but the onset of dislocating change in the region is anything but good news for the Saudis. The US support for democratic change means “we have become a source of insecurity rather than security for Saudi Arabia”, Mr Miller said.

The relationship is founded on the core understanding that the US will provide security for Saudi Arabia, which in return will do its part to keep oil prices stable. It has come under strain from the outset, notably when the US recognised the state of Israel in 1948.

But tensions have risen in the past decade after 15 of the 19 terrorists who struck on September 11 were found to have come from Saudi Arabia. Matters were further complicated by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Riyadh opposed and which led to the installation of the first Shia government in Iraq in a millennium.

The relationship has been bedevilled more by recent events in Bahrain – where the Saudis helped the Sunni government violently put down pro-democracy protests by the Shia majority – and the swiftness with which the Obama administration turned on former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, another long-time American ally.

“The irritation with the US is considerable over the way they think we dumped Mubarak and moved too quickly to embrace change,” said Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “It was jarring for them.”

As a result, a visit by Tom Donilon, the president’s national security adviser, to Riyadh in April was “awkward,” according to a former official.

Prince Turki al-Faisal – the former Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US who holds no official position but is part of the ruling family – last week issued a thinly veiled warning to Washington of further looming problems.

“There will be disastrous consequences for US-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes UN recognition of a Palestinian state,” he wrote in a column in the Washington Post, alluding to Palestinians’ plan to seek international recognition in September.

“American leaders have long called Israel an ‘indispensable’ ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region – not least the Arab street – who are as, if not more, ‘indispensable’.”

But this marriage of convenience is likely to survive the latest strains, analysts say. “Where are they going to go?” asked Thomas Lippman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and an expert on US-Saudi relations. “When there is real danger, who are they going to call? Beijing? Moscow? Islamabad? I don’t think so.”

Indeed, the two remain in sync on many issues – ensuring stability in Yemen, combating al-Qaeda and containing Iran.

And the military co-operation remains close. The Saudis are pressing ahead with a $60bn deal to buy arms and F-15 fighter jets, while the US is training a “facilities security force” to protect the kingdom’s vital oil infrastructure.

“It’s a fraught but critical relationship,” said David Rothkopf, a foreign policy analyst and former Clinton administration official. “My sense is that they’re trying to manage it because of what they used to call during the Thatcher era the ‘Tina’ phenomenon – There Is No Alternative.”

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Bahrain added to human rights list

The US has included Bahrain in a list of human rights violators, lumping one of its allies in the Middle East and the host of the navy’s Fifth Fleet into a group of rogue nations.

The move follows the Sunni-led government’s violent crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters from the Shia majority, as the Arab spring movement spread to Bahrain.

“The United States is deeply concerned about violent repression of the fundamental freedoms of association, expression, religion and speech of their citizens,” said Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.

At a meeting of the council in Geneva, Ms Donahoe included Bahrain at the end of a list of human rights violators such as Burma, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe as well as Arab countries that are suppressing protests, such as Syria.

The Obama administration has repeatedly urged Manama to show restraint in its response to the protests since March, and last week welcomed news that the monarchy would lift the martial law that has been in place for the past three months.

Washington has been particularly concerned about the arbitrary detention of workers and other opponents.

Ms Donahoe called the lifting of martial law and tentative moves towards reform “signs of hope”.

“We urge the government to follow through on its commitment to ensuring that those responsible for human rights abuses are held accountable,” she said.

Concerns about worker rights in Bahrain, with which the US has a free trade pact, were first raised by the AFL-CIO labour federation.

“The egregious attacks on workers must end, and the Bahraini government’s systematic discrimination against and dismantling of unions must be reversed,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “These actions directly violate the letter and the spirit of the trade agreement.”

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