The Need for a New “Realism” in the US-Saudi Alliance

The United States does not need to rebuild its alliance with Saudi Arabia as much as build a new form of alliance based on the new realities of the Middle East. Both sides need to recognize these changing realities, and the uncertainties involved, and develop a new level of cooperation. At the same time, they need to be more tolerant of the other side’s positions.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have many common interests, but often have different values and priorities. This requires the leaders of both countries to face facts in private that they may not be able to face in public, and to build a more functional partnership based on the new realities that shape the region.

Different Values and Priorities

Neither side can benefit from assuming its views should dominate, or that public rhetoric about common interests can substitute for the underlying realities in the alliance. The United States and Saudi Arabia – as well as the other Southern Gulf states and Jordan do have many common interests.

The key such interest is in securing the stable flow of energy exports. This is the lifeblood of the Gulf states. It is a vital strategic interest of the United States, and one whose impact on U.S. interests is increasingly determined more by the impact of Gulf exports on the global economy – and the flow of Asian and exports to the United States from other petroleum importing states – than U.S. direct dependence on petroleum imports.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have been close allies in the fight against international terrorism and faced a common threat since Al Qaeda attacked the US in 2001 and Saudi Arabia in 2003. Both nations have a common interest in deterring Iran and limiting the expansion of it regional influence and military capability – especially the nuclear and asymmetric dimensions. Both want regional stability and know it requires political stability, economic development, and improved governance in virtually every state in the region.

But, years of alliance and many close U.S. and Saudi friendships scarcely mean that they do not have different values and priorities.

The United States is a secular democracy with Western values and global interests and priorities. It sees democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as global extensions of its own society and values. The United States has no immediate threats on its borders or peer competitors; terrorism has been reduced to a relatively low level threat, and its own security and its ability to extend its values in global terms.

The US has a network of global allies, and can afford to focus on a mix of longer term threats like the possible emergence of a global rival like China, the threat to the flow of global petroleum exports and the global economy posed by a nuclear Iran, and a mix of constantly evolving global tensions in areas like Ukraine and North Korea.

Saudi Arabia is an Arab, Sunni Islamic monarchy. It has steadily modernized in virtually every dimension, but its royal family gives its own security and that of the Kingdom first priority, and sees the world in terms of its view of Islam and Arab interests.

Saudi Arabia is not a major global power, has relatively weak local allies, and is dependent on outside states for its arms and the civil imports it needs to survive. It cannot finance or operate the global mix of satellites and other intelligence and command and control assets available to the United States. It cannot project power deep into the region – much less at a global level.

Most important, Saudi Arabia faces immediate threats in its neighborhood and on its borders. Iran, Iraq, and Yemen all present a complex mix of threats, as does the broader impact of Islamic extremism and terrorism and the growing divide between Sunni and Shiite. The civil war in Yemen and uprisings in Egypt affect every aspect of Saudi security, and the resulting mix of instability and civil war is a direct threat – not an exercise in seeking some form of democracy and reform.

The rise of Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon – and instability and sectarian issues on Bahrain and Yemen are a central focus of its security and stability, and the real and potential threats posed by the more extreme elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are far more real. Jordan is not a friendly mini-state to Saudi Arabia. It is a vital shield to its Western border. Qatar is not a problem or challenge to the United States, but is a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia do share a common interest in a full Arab-Israeli peace, but view it from very different perspectives. The United States is committed to Israel’s security on virtually every ground – a fellow democracy, common values, domestic politics, preserving Israel’s military “edge” as the key to security and deterring a future regional conflict -- and the moral and ethical impact of the Holocaust.

Saudi Arabia is equally committed to the Palestinians. Islam and an Arab identity are very real values to every Saudi, including all of the leading members of the royal family. Palestinian tensions and unrest are a key source of the ideological pressure and divisions in the Arab world, and a direct threat to Jordan and now increasingly to Egypt and the Sinai. U.S. support of Israel is a challenge to Saudi legitimacy in acting as an ally of the United States.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have learned to live with these differences, but neither nation is happy in doing so and their fundamental differences in values and priorities will remain unless some meaningful form of peace can be negotiated.

The Need for a “New Realism” in the U.S.-Saudi Alliance

This mix of common and differing interests, values, and priorities needs to be kept carefully in mind by both sides at a time when they face the most complex mix of mutual challenges since the worst moments in the Cold War, Nasser’s efforts to dominate the region, and in the Arab-Israeli conflicts. A successful alliance cannot eliminate any of these differences. It must respect them.

Each side must see the legitimacy of the other’s views. Demanding too much, seeing the other side as failing the alliance because it does not have the same perspective, and raising conspiracy theories and/or impossible demands will serve no one’s interest.

Americans needs to see the region through Saudi eyes, not just their own. They need to see how urgent the mix of threats are that Saudi Arabia, the other Southern Gulf states, and Arab countries like Jordan see around them. They also need to take careful heed to the lessons from political upheavals in the region to date. None have led to stable democracies, economic stability much less economic development, or improvements in the rule of law and human rights. Most have led to sharp rises in civil violence and some to civil war, most have led to serious economic decline, and most have led to serious reductions in living conditions.

Saudis and other Arabs need to see that the United States has no magic wands to change the region. They need to remember that the United States did not start any of its upheavals, conspire to create new governments, or somehow conspire to put the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt.

They need to remember that Arab experts began to warn a decade before 2011 in the UN’s Arab Development reports that poor governance, corruption, weak economic growth, and demographic pressures had reached a critical point. They need to stop focusing on the region’s sillier conspiracy theories like a U.S. rejection of the Arab and Sunni world for rapprochement with Iran.

Both sides need to stop focusing on might have beens, should have beens, and could have beens. The Middle East does not have to remain the region where the ability to remember the past condemns the present to repeat it.

Cooperation in Dealing with Syria

Syria is a grim case in point. Assad is winning. The best outcome now is likely to be Assad controlling the west and urban center of the country, and rebel factions surviving and feuding in the much poorer and less populated West. There is a good chance the Assad regime will remain in power for years, and that Syria will be a major problem in strategic and humanitarian terms for at least the next half decade.

It may still be worth agreeing to let Saudi Arabia take the lead in funding and fully arming rebel factions – in spite of the risks involved. The Saudi Ministry of the Interior has a level of access to the rebels that the United States cannot match, and has shown steadily improving skills in managing the transfer of funds and arms to rebels who do not support terrorist or extremist causes.

Saudi Arabia’s new anti-terrorism legislation and lists of terrorist organizations have made it clear that Saudi Arabia has no tolerance for violent Islamist extremism near its borders, and it has quietly shown that it is able to deal with rebel factions on more direct and informed level. A U.S.-Saudi-Jordanian partnership – with British, French, UAE, and Kuwaiti support – might still have an impact.

Any major success does seem doubtful, but the alternatives are Assad or a paralytic division of the country. Moreover, the United States needs to be honest about the fact it is no more likely to act decisively in the future than in the past, has no other real levers to influence the conflict, and leaving Syria to Assad and any surviving Sunni Islamist extremists is not a better option.

At the same time, the United States and Saudi Arabia do need to start planning for an Assad victory or divided Syria. They need to work together – and with as many allies as possible – to help sponsor aid programs to deal with the massive refugee burden that has been thrust upon Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and to some extent Iraq.

They need to consider conditional aid packages that could be offered to Syria that would help its people, push Assad towards some degree of reform if he accepted them, and create a constant pressure upon his regime if he refuses. They need to cooperate in supporting the UN in continued negotiating efforts in spite of the probability they will fail, and in putting pressure on all sides in Syria to show restraint in violence and dealing with the Syrian people.

Sunni, Shi’ite, and Alawite

The Syrian crisis, however, flags another area where the United States and Saudi Arabia need to refocus their strategic partnership: the growing war for the future of Islam. Syria is only one case where Arab governments need to be far more proactive in creating a religious dialogue to fight the division of Islam into violent competing sects and turning a religion of peace into a religion of hatred.

The broader threat in the region is not that Islamic extremism will lead to a clash between civilizations but that it will become a steadily more divisive and violent clash within a religion – not only on a sect-by-sect basis but between an unworkable vision of religious rule and law and the need to live in a modern and increasingly globalized world.

For the United States and Saudi Arabia to pretend this risk does not exist – and fail to work together with other states to reduce it – would be a major tragedy. At the same time, this is a struggle where Saudi Arabia must be a key leader. The United States needs to work closely – but quietly – with Saudi Arabia in its efforts to create a broader religious dialogue, and to break down the barriers and growing hostility between Islamic sects. The is an effort some senior princes already are pursuing, and it needs to be coupled to broader efforts to ensure that moderate and more pragmatic regimes get support in economic development and improved governance. The United States needs to be more pragmatic about the need for stable and effective governance, and that the immediate challenge in the region is not democracy or idealized human rights but preventing religious extremism from block progress or coming to power.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia needs to put its own house in order and deal more equitably and realistically with its native Shi’ites. It needs to both pressure Bahrain for similar reform and help Bahrain finance it. It needs to reach out to all of the Islamic sects in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen and actively encourage its own internal tolerance. These are measures that the United States and other Western states can encourage but not take, and the map of the modern Middle East is now virtually a warning that Islamic sects could repeat all of the worst abuses of the Christian reformation and counterreformation.


Iraq is a critical case in point. The Maliki regime in Iraq must take responsibility for alienating many of Iraq’s Sunnis and helping to revive violent Sunni extremists like AQI and the other elements of ISIS. However, a United States that failed to prepare for the aftermath of its invasion and a Saudi Arabia which stood aside rather than sought to help Iraq rebuild, must also, however, share some of the blame for Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions.

The United States cannot afford to distance itself from Iraq, and leave it to civil conflict and Iran. The flow of U.S. aid to Iraq is already tied to quiet but serious efforts to get Maliki to deal more realistically and fairly with both Sunnis and Kurds, and the United States must continue these efforts.

There are, however, efforts where Saudi Arabia also needs to be far more proactive. The most sophisticated border fence in the world cannot separate Saudi Arab and the Southern Gulf from their problems with Iraq. The example of Syria is all too clear. No defense or effort to isolate Iraq can cope with the spillover of an even more serious Iraqi civil conflict or one where Iraqi Shi’ites turn to Iran and Iraqi Sunnis are caught in the middle.

There is also a strong incentive for U.S. and Saudi cooperation. Iraq is a major oil power and a vital strategic interest. Unlike Syria, there is still a real chance of avoiding a major loss – either in the form of open sectarian fighting or Iranian gains that link Iran directly to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. A mixture of U.S. military aid and Saudi/UAE/Kuwaiti aid linked quietly to Maliki and other Shi’ite better treatment of Sunnis might have a real impact.


It is hard for Americans to understand the depth of the Saudi and Gulf concerns that the United States may be turning away from its current alliances and shifting to Iran. Any American involved in shaping and implementing U.S. policy in the Middle East knows just how different the reality is.

The United States is still building up its forward deployment and power projection capabilities in the Gulf states. It signed over $72 billion dollars worth of new arms agreements with Saudi Arabia and the Southern Gulf states in recent years. It signed $45.6 billion with Saudi Arabia alone between 2008-2011, plus $5.9 billion in actual deliveries. While its forces are no longer based in the Kingdom, they are based in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. The United States has major training and advisory missions for Saudi military regular forces and the National Guard, and more quietly is working with the Ministry of the Interior, Saudi intelligence, and other counterterrorism efforts.

Slogans like a “pivot to Asia” do not describe the real world priorities in U.S. strategy and force planning. U.S. strategic guidance has given partnerships in the Middle East the same new priority as those in Asia since the new guidance was issued in 2011, and the US FY2015 defense budget repeats this priority while the new U.S. longer term QDR both repeats it and singles out the threat from Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE each now have many more modern combat aircraft than exist in the entire Iranian air force, and far more modern and effective surface to air missiles and missile defense capabilities.

The fact remains, however, that the United States and Saudi Arabia need to develop a much more cooperative approach to dealing with Iran. On the one hand, they need to make it clear that Iran will not face an external threat if it does give up its search for nuclear weapons and that a broader easing of tensions and reduction of military threats can take place if Iran works with both the United States and Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies.

On the other hand, the United States and Saudi Arabia need to show that they and their allies will be united in continuing to build up their military capabilities if Iran does not move forward in ending its nuclear program with the permanent agreement due on June 20, 2014, if it does not stop seeking to expand its military influence into Iraq and Syria, if it does not use its al Quds force to cause problems in Bahrain and Yemen, if it does not stop building up a medium and long-range missile forces that is clearly more targeted on its Arab Gulf neighbors than Israel, and if it does not stop building up an asymmetric warfare capability to threaten petroleum and other maritime traffic in and near the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia needs to be assured that any P5+1 agreement with Iran will really end the Iranian nuclear weapons program and will actually be enforced. It needs to know the United States will be an active, forward deployed security partner as long as there is an active Iranian threat. Both countries need to work together to develop more effective measures for military containment and deterrence and to deal with the full range of threats in the Gulf – not just nuclear weapons. Moreover, both nations need to work together to press for the renewal and expansion of U.S., EU, and UN sanctions if Iran does not reach a permanent agreement with the P5+1.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar and GCC and US Power Projection

One critical step in this progress is for the US and Saudi Arabia to cooperate in healing the breach with the GCC that has led to a split with Qatar, tensions with Oman, and a failure to develop effective plans for shaping an integrated approach to deterring, defending, counterterrorism, and containment. It needs to be clear that there is a far more real partnership than simply selling arms, and that that partnership is as real between the Gulf states as it is between each state and the United States.

This is about as bad a time for internal feuds within the Gulf as possible. The GCC not only needs unity in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but in every aspect of counterterrorism and dealing with sectarian tensions and religious extremism. Unity within the GCC has a critical impact on any effort to reduce the problems raised by Iraq and Iran, cooperation with Jordan and Yemen, and the ability to use the GCC’s massive arms buys with real effectiveness.

There is also a need to make the GCC a truly effective military alliance and not leave as the shell of one. The GCC may not need to be a federation, but its lack of integrated planning, interoperability, coordinated cooperation in power projection with the United States and its allies, and proper focus on readiness and sustainability probably reduce the effectiveness of each GCC country defense dollar by at least a third. That is equivalent to rough 2% of the GDP of the Gulf each year – or some $27 billion out of total military spending of over $82 billion for the entire GCC in 2014.


As has been touched upon earlier. The tensions between Bahrain’s ruling Sunni elite and its Shi’ite majority are another critical fault line in the Gulf. The challenge to the US and Saudi Arabia is not whether the US push for negotiation or the Saudi emphasis on security is right. It is how to help Bahrain to find a way forward, and to create a cooperative effort that would link aid incentives to Bahrain and help support dialogue and reform.


There already is good U.S. and Saudi cooperation in dealing with Yemen. The challenge is to maintain and improve it, and link it to similar efforts that have already produced major cooperation in counterterrorism. The tragedy is that unlike Bahrain, there do not seem to be workable economic options for Yemen’s development. Moreover, its need for outside help in moving towards some form of effective political leadership and effective governance is so open ended as to be almost endless.

Yemen, however, is too serious a problem for Saudi Arabia and the US to try to contain and ignore. Its potential threat to the Kingdom, and in acting as a sanctuary for Al Qaeda, is another key reason for the US and Saudi Arabia to do all they can to strengthen their cooperation.


Egypt, like Syria, has become an open wound in the U.S. and Saudi strategic partnership. It is, however, a wound that should never really have occurred. The United States did not trigger the events that pulled down Mubarak and had no magic wand to keep him in power. It supported democracy, but did not bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power and the U.S. Embassy team made repeated efforts to moderate the Morsi government, made it more inclusive, and make it more realistic.

At the same time, the United States did need to be far more pragmatic about the impact instability in Egypt could have on Saudi Arabia and the entire region – and about the fact that the regime was creating an economic nightmare for the Egyptian people. The United States needs more balance in defining human rights in terms of stability, the quality of governance, economic growth, and the ordinary conditions of life.

In any case, both the United States and Saudi Arabia now face a very different Egypt where the military takeover from Mohamed Morsi has become steadily more repressive, where Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may effectively come to power in a one candidate election, and there is a growing risk that Egypt’s government will lack both stable popular support and the ability to address its critical need for improved governance and economic development.

It now seems all too likely that it will take at least half a decade for Egypt to find a new balance between military rule and a more open political system that will creating lasting political consensus and stability. Unless the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other key aid donors like the UAE and Kuwait cooperate, Egypt may return to crony capitalism, corruption, and a kind of development that fails to meet the needs of many of its people. Repression is likely to lead to growing internal violence, and spillover into the region.

The best way to avoid this is not to either give Egypt’s military aid without conditions or to try to isolate Egypt and force it to reform. It is to work with institutions like the World Bank to offer the most credible economic aid and development plan and incentives possible and address governance and economic reform. It is for both the United States and the West – and the Arab Gulf states – to quietly and steadily push for gradual political moderation and reform. The United States and Saudi Arabia need unity, patience, and pragmatism.

Israel and the Palestinians

It is all too likely that the best efforts of the Obama Administration will not produce a framework agreement for peace this April or at any time in the foreseeable future. Both the Israelis and Palestinians are too divided internally, too suspicious of each other, and Israel is focused on too many outside security concerns. If there is such success, however, the United States and Saudi Arabia should be immediately ready to not only support such an effort politically, but back it with the kind of aid that will guarantee Israel as much security as possible, and fund the economy and economic development of a Palestinian protostate.

In fact, this is the same course that the United States and Saudi Arabia should pursue if a peace agreement fails. The United States should continue it peace efforts, and Saudi Arabia should keep the Arab peace plan option open. The United States should continue to ensure that Israel remains secure – and here Arabs really need to consider how a nuclear armed Israel might behave if the United States ever did remove such aid.

There is still much more that can be done to aid the Palestinians, however, even if this peace effort fails or is indefinitely delayed. In fact, providing a major economic aid package – tied carefully to conditions that require a realistic development plans, fiscal controls, and effective governance would aid the Palestinian people, encourage political moderation, and help lay the conditions for some form of statehood. For far too long, aid has been a mix of political bribes to the Palestinian Authority, an awkward form of Danegeld, or an exercise in undelivered promises.

The Palestinian people deserve far more. So, for that matter, do the Israelis and Jordanians. Walls, rivers, and boundaries can only do so much. Palestinian economic development is the minimum step that can help bring some degree of added security to both the Palestinians and their immediate neighbors.

Jordan and Lebanon

Finally, the Unites States and Saudi Arabia need to take a hard look at how cooperation can best meet the needs of Jordan and Lebanon. Both face a critical new burden from Syrian refugees. Both face internal and external security threats.

There are no magic ways to bring unity to Lebanon, but focused economic and security aid can help bring added stability and help Lebanon from being dragged into a new sectarian conflict or Iran and Syria’s sphere of influence.

As Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states already seem to recognize, Jordan is effectively a Gulf state – a strategically critical shield to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. It has become a key ally to the US in dealing with Iraq and Syria, as well as a key element in securing the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Creating a New Realism in the U.S. -Saudi Strategic Partnership

There are always good reasons to avoid trying to jump the chasm between analysis and prophecy, but the United States and Saudi Arabia probably do face a future in the Middle East where most – and possibly all – of the problems that have just been listed will require years to deal with. The United States and Saudi Arabia – as well as their allies – face a future where today’s challenges have no quick and convincing answer and where more problems are likely to get worse in the near term than get better.

The fact that there are very real limits to both U.S. and Saudi resources is a further reason to cooperate. Far too often, conflicting policies, unstable patterns of military and economic aid, waste the limited resources that are available. The leverage that can be gained through cooperation – and through avoiding having one state seem to set conditions for another – are lost.

There may be bright spots in the future. The Iranian nuclear issue offers at least some hope, and even “at most a 50% probability” is far better than none. In broad terms, however, there has never been a stronger case for a functioning U.S. and Saudi alliance and for realism, and effective cooperation. Neither side can afford to ignore the other’s needs, and all of the alternatives to a more effective partnership are far, far worse.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserve.