Some Differences, Many Benefits in the U.S-Saudi Relationship

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The Wall Street Journal reports today that the ongoing political situation in Bahrain has not only turned into a proxy struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but has reignited a diplomatic push by the Saudis to enlist nations like Pakistan in helping to deter Iranian aspirations. Despite the common enemy in Iran, the WSJ writes, the US and Saudi Arabia might experience some diplomatic friction given the nature of the political struggle in Bahrain.

The article is evidence of the growing political and economic power of the GCC, and highlights areas in which the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a fairly sizeable difference – the emergence of democracies in the so-called Arab Spring.

Taking the opposite position on the Arab Spring, the G8 today in France announced that it would make available $20 billion in loans to assist the governments of Tunisia and Egypt in fostering a transformation into “democratic and tolerant societies,” the Financial Times reports. The article does not make mention of Bahrain, but journalists and commentators alike are noticing that a palpable policy divergence is happening between the US and Saudi Arabia over the situation in Bahrain and the entire Arab Spring.

While it is evident that Saudi Arabia and the GCC’s political and economic clout is growing, and that U.S. and Saudi interests diverge in many areas in the “Arab Spring,” to argue that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will have a falling out with each other because of this is too much of a stretch at this point. After all, the two nations share a common enemy in Iran, longstanding diplomatic and economic ties, and share other security goals like fighting terrorism and maintaining a steady global economic order.

It is too common for commentators and analysts to see Saudi Arabia as the sort of friend America shouldn’t have – the not so nice boy down the street that is a bad influence and finds ways to get you into trouble. The opposite is true, in our opinion: Saudi Arabia is a good friend to the United States which tries to be a positive influence on US actions in the region. Saudi Arabia, in many ways, shifts its behavior to accommodate our national interests for the sake of maintaining a strong bilateral relationship – like all allies do.

Think about the current state of U.S.-British relations with respect to the Middle East. On the most divisive and important issue in the Middle East today – the Israeli/Palestinian unresolved conflict – the U.S. and Britain differ on how to handle the creation of a Palestinian state, with Britain seeming to favor statehood through the U.N. The U.S. and the U.K. share common goals elsewhere, like in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Egypt and beyond, but are not without their differences in other areas. The reason why one hears far less discussion about the dire straits of U.S.-U.K. relations is, presumably, because commentators see many areas of cooperation and few areas of difference.

Commentators should view the U.S.-Saudi relationship with a similar lens. There are many areas of cooperation and a few areas of difference, even on very serious issues. This is the nature of diplomacy between friends and allies; not everyone can get their way. Fortunately, despite the negativity and speculation that the U.S. and Saudi Arabian relations are not well off diplomatically, tough diplomatic situations appear to be breeding grounds for both struggle and cooperation. The U.S. and Saudi Arabian governments, and hopefully the citizens of each nation, will continue to see the greater benefits to be had in working together on common goals, both political and economic, rather than becoming too consumed by their areas in which they differ.