Will the Saudi-U.S. Relationship Remain as ‘a Catholic Marriage’ Despite Tension?

A senior Saudi official once described the US-Saudi relationship as a “catholic marriage” — that is, one that can never be broken. Since the September 11 attacks, it has been a dysfunctional union, in which the couple knows the marriage is over but cannot agree on the terms of separation, said the Financial Times in an article by Roula Khalaf titled: “Saudi Arabia and its toxic relationship with America”

There is clear evidence that the historically cozy U.S.-Saudi relationship is on the decline. A couple years ago, few questioned the decades-old political alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. But, amidst a heated election season in the U.S., the bloody Saudi-waged war on Yemen has led to a wave of protest by Capitol Hill lawmakers and human rights organizations who want to reexamine this relationship, according to a Foreign Policy report.

During the Obama administration, a whopping 42 weapons deals have been brokered between the U.S. and the Saudi government, worth over $110 billion. However, the latest deal, amounting to $1.15 billion, was met with unprecedented opposition over concerns of apparent Saudi war crimes in Yemen, said the FP report.

In a letter to the White House, 64 members of the House of Representatives asked President Obama to withdraw the weapons deal, and 27 Senators voted in favor of a resolution opposing the deal.

There are still benefits to be derived from the alliance. Despite mounting economic strains, the kingdom is one of the few countries that can still be described as stable in a region of failing states and flaring violence. It retains unrivalled influence in oil markets and can rally behind it swaths of the Muslim world, said Khalaf.

The Saudis, for their part, have found no substitute for US diplomatic and military support, and still spend billions of dollars on American hardware (which the US happily supplies).

And yet the interests of the US and Saudi Arabia are steadily diverging. They have taken conflicting positions on the Middle East’s biggest crises, ranging from the 2011 Arab uprisings to the Iran nuclear deal, and to a lesser extent the Syrian civil war.

While the US sees the Saudi attitude to Iran as inflexible, the Saudis consider American overtures towards Tehran as naive. In the past year, the US has reluctantly backed Riyadh’s war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, in part to compensate for Saudi frustration with the nuclear agreement the US and other world powers reached with Tehran.

The tension in the US-Saudi relationship has also been apparent in the broader war against terrorism. Al-Qaeda may be a shadow of its former self but the rise of Isis has once again exposed the pull of intolerant Salafi ideology that spreads out of the kingdom. True, Isis threatens the Saudi monarchy but its ideology and some of its practices are adapted from teachings of radical Saudi clerics, said Roula Khalaf in her article on the Financial Times.

Despite threats by the Saudi government to sell billions of dollars’ worth of their assets and reexamine the bilateral relationship with the U.S., Congress snubbed the monarchy and passed the bill, then overturned a presidential veto to it almost unanimously.

This is just one of the most overt pieces of evidence that the historically cozy U.S.-Saudi relationship is on the decline.

The JASTA passed by Congress was never the real problem between the US and the Saudis. It merely reflected the extent to which ties have frayed. In Saudi Arabia, the US is now the unreliable, untrustworthy ally; in the US, the Saudis are an unpredictable, destabilizing factor in the region.