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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

Deeply frustrated with the Obama administration's stalled efforts on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Riyadh is pushing for U.N. recognition of Palestinian sovereignty this fall, an approach the White House is determined to thwart.

Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, warned this month in an op-ed in the Washington Post that an American veto of the Palestinian effort would have "disastrous consequences" for the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are drifting apart on energy, too.

For decades both countries saw mutual benefit in holding down oil prices. But now, with Riyadh stepping up foreign aid and embarking on a $130-billion domestic subsidy program to prevent internal unrest, it needs steeper oil prices.

"In the old days, you could call them and ask them to do something about high oil prices," said Herman Franssen, former chief economist at the International Energy Agency, a 28-nation organization that seeks to ensure stable energy supplies. "They are not going to be dictated to by the United States anymore."

This month, the Saudis announced that they would break from OPEC's consensus by increasing their oil output. But their motive was not Obama's repeated public calls for price relief, but their own needs for revenue, experts say.

U.S. officials are clear that they intend to tread lightly because of their appreciation that upheaval in the world's largest oil exporter could upend a fragile world economy.

Yet diplomatic delicacy will accomplish only so much to repair the relationship, and analysts expect to see the Saudis strike out again on their own.

Steven A. Cook, a Mideast specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Riyadh's forceful response in Bahrain "demonstrates the Saudis have absolutely no faith in our position on the region, and are going to look after their own interests in a way they know how."

Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.

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