WASHINGTON — The strange thing about the crackup in U.S.-Saudi relations is that it has been on the way for more than two years, like a slow-motion car wreck, but nobody in Riyadh or Washington has done anything decisive to avert it.
The breach became dramatic over the past week. On Oct. 18, Saudi Arabia refused to take its seat on the U.N. Security Council, in what Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, described as “a message for the U.S., not the U.N,” according to The Wall Street Journal. On Tuesday, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence, voiced “a high level of disappointment in the U.S. government's dealings” on Syria and the Palestinian issue, in an interview with Al-Monitor.
What should worry the Obama administration is that Saudi concern about U.S. policy in the Middle East is shared by the four other traditional U.S. allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
Saudi King Abdullah privately voiced his frustration with U.S. policy during a lunch in Riyadh on Monday with King Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the U.A.E., according to a knowledgeable Arab official. The Saudi monarch “is convinced the U.S. is unreliable,” this official said. “I don't see a genuine desire to fix it” on either side, he added.
The Saudis' pique, in turn, has reinforced the White House's frustration that Riyadh is an ungrateful and sometimes petulant ally. When Secretary of State John Kerry was in the region a few weeks ago, he asked to visit Bandar. The Saudi prince is said to have responded that he was on his way out of the kingdom, but that Kerry could meet him at the airport. This response struck U.S. officials as highhanded.
Saudi Arabia obviously wants attention, but what's surprising is the White House's inability to convey the desired reassurances over the past two years. The problem was clear in the fall of 2011, when I was told by Saudi officials in Riyadh that they increasingly regarded the U.S. as unreliable and would look elsewhere for their security. President Obama's reaction to these reports was to be peeved that the Saudis didn't recognize all that the U.S. was doing behind the scenes to help their security. The president was right on the facts but wrong on the atmospherics.