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U.S.-Saudi rivalry intensifies

The quest for greater influence includes a tug of war over Jordan, just one example of the contest between the longtime allies split over the democracy uprisings sweeping the region.

June 19, 2011|Paul Richter and Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times
  • President George W. Bush and then-Crown Prince Abdullah visit in April 2005. Riyadh was alarmed when the Bush administration allowed a Shiite-dominated government to take control in Iraq.
President George W. Bush and then-Crown Prince Abdullah visit in April… (Pool, Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — Senior U.S. diplomats have been dropping by the royal palace in Amman almost every week this spring to convince Jordanian King Abdullah II that democratic reform is the best way to quell the protests against his rule.

But another powerful ally also has been lobbying Abdullah — and wants him to ignore the Americans.

Saudi Arabia is urging the Hashemite kingdom to stick to the kind of autocratic traditions that have kept the House of Saud secure for centuries, and Riyadh has been piling up gifts at Abdullah's door to sell its point of view.

The Saudis last month offered Jordan a coveted opportunity to join a wealthy regional bloc called the Gulf Cooperation Council, a move that would give the impoverished kingdom new investment, jobs and security ties. To sweeten the pot, the Saudis wrote a check for $400 million in aid to Amman two weeks ago, their first assistance in years.

The quiet contest for Jordan is one sign of the rivalry that has erupted across the Middle East this year between Saudi Arabia and the United States, longtime allies that have been put on a collision course by the popular uprisings that have swept the region.

"We do have a lot of friction there," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The 'Arab Spring' has injected tension into the relationship."

The Obama administration has generally supported the protests, and urged the region's governments to share more power. But when President Obama demanded reform from Arab regimes in a major speech last month, he carefully avoided any mention of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that brooks little or no dissent.

Riyadh, which believes the U.S. is turning its back on loyal allies, is trying to step out of America's shadow. It is embracing a foreign policy that often diverges from Washington's — and sometimes seeks to undermine it.

On the key political issues "the Obama administration doesn't really listen to the Saudi views," said Abdullah Askar, who is vice chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the king's Consultative Council, or Majlis Shura, in Riyadh.

This shift doesn't mean the end of the 70-year-old U.S.-Saudi alliance, which is built on a simple foundation: Saudi oil for U.S. military protection. But it means a further loss of influence for Washington in the Middle East at a time when other crucial relations — with Egypt and Turkey, for example — are facing new strains.

The Saudis, who see their own stability threatened in the region's unrest, have shelled out billions of dollars to neighbors in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and elsewhere in hopes they will resist political change. Saudi Arabia is expanding and strengthening ties to its fellow Sunni monarchies, charting a new course on both Arab-Israeli issues and its campaign to contain Iran. It is even showing independence from America on core energy issues — which could end up affecting the price Americans pay at the pump.

The pivot has come after years of growing unhappiness with the U.S. approach to the region.

Riyadh was alarmed when George W. Bush's administration allowed a Shiite-dominated government to take control in Iraq after an invasion it opposed. Saudi King Abdullah was outraged when President Obama urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to surrender power after 18 days of street demonstrations.

The Saudis also have taken offense at other perceived slights, including a tough pro-reform speech by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar in January, in which she warned that the region's foundations are "sinking into the sand."

The Saudis "are upset, they are frustrated, they are angry," said a former senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the Saudis' traditional reticence. "They don't know exactly what to do."

A senior State Department official insisted that on security and energy issues, the alliance remains "rock solid."

The two countries also continue to cooperate closely on counter-terrorism, and have collaborated on the political crisis enveloping Yemen that has raised the specter of a resurgent Al Qaeda, officials note. The United States is selling the Saudis $60 billion in arms and other military hardware in a multiyear deal, the largest U.S. weapons transaction ever.

The tension has been most visible in Bahrain, where Riyadh ignored U.S. warnings and sent more than 1,000 troops in mid-March to suppress Shiite-dominated demonstrations. Saudi officials view the protests as an effort by Iran to gain a foothold on their border, and they believe Washington has failed to see the threat.

In Egypt, while U.S. officials urge reform, Riyadh has given Cairo $4 billion to maintain the status quo and to counter the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization. The Saudis fear the group could challenge the religious doctrine that provides legitimacy to the Saudi monarchy.

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