U.S.-Saudi Tensions Intensify With Mideast Turmoil
By DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITT
Published: March 14, 2011
WASHINGTON — Even before Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain on Monday to quell an uprising it fears might spill across its own borders, American officials were increasingly concerned that the kingdom’s stability could ultimately be threatened by regional unrest, succession politics and its resistance to reform.
Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Help Put Down Unrest (March 15, 2011)
Times Topic: Middle East Protests (2010-11)
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Can the monarchy defuse frustrations by doling out benefits or are pressures for reform mounting?
Monday’s action, in which more than 2,000 Saudi-led troops from gulf states crossed the narrow causeway into Bahrain, demonstrated that the Saudis were willing to back their threats with firepower.
The move created another quandary for the Obama administration, which obliquely criticized the Saudi action without explicitly condemning the kingdom, its most important Arab ally. The criticism was another sign of strains in the historically close relationship with Riyadh, as the United States pushes the country to make greater reforms to avert unrest.
Other symptoms of stress seem to be cropping up everywhere.
Saudi officials have made no secret of their deep displeasure with how President Obama handled the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, charging Washington with abandoning a longtime ally. They show little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls “universal values,” including peaceful protests.
When Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were forced to cancel visits to the kingdom in recent days, American officials were left wondering whether the cause was King Abdullah’s frail health — or his pique at the United States.
“They’re not in a mode for listening,” said one senior administration official, referring to the American exchanges with Saudi officials over the past two months about the need to get ahead of the protests that have engulfed other Arab states, including two of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, Bahrain and Yemen. In recent days, Washington has tried to focus on the areas where its strategic interests and those of Saudi Arabia intersect most crucially: counterterrorism, containing Iran and keeping oil flowing.
The Americans fear that the unrest sweeping the Middle East is coming at a bad time for the Saudis, and their concerns have increased in recent weeks, partly because of the continued tumult in Bahrain. Many of the issues driving the protests elsewhere are similar to those in Riyadh: an autocratic ruling family resistant to sharing power, surrounded by countries in the midst of upheaval. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s leadership is in question. King Abdullah, 87, is, by all accounts, quite ill, as is the crown prince.
The latest tensions between Washington and Riyadh began early in the crisis when King Abdullah told President Obama that it was vital for the United States to support Mr. Mubarak, even if he began shooting protesters. Mr. Obama ignored that counsel. “They’ve taken it personally,” said one senior American familiar with the conversations, “because they question what we’d do if they are next.”
Since then, the American message to the Saudis, the official said, is that “no one can be immune,” and that the glacial pace of reforms that Saudi Arabia has been engaged in since 2003 must speed up.
But the Saudi effort to defuse serious protests appears to take a different approach: a huge police presence, which smothered relatively small demonstrations in Riyadh and the Eastern Province last Friday; an appeal to the innate religious conservatism of the country; and an effort to throw more cash at Saudi citizens, who have become accustomed to the ultimate welfare state.
This month, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the interior minister and No. 2 in the line of succession, publicly underscored the kingdom’s ban on demonstrations. The government called in top Saudi newspaper editors to dictate how to report on protests foreign and domestic. The country’s senior religious clerics condemned public protestsfor not conforming with Islamic law. These steps built on $36 billion in pay raises, housing support, unemployment benefits and other subsidies that King Abdullah promised to keep the peace.
“All this is about social control in Saudi Arabia,” said Christopher Boucek, who studies the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “People have been forecasting the fall of Saudi for a long time, and they’ve always been proved wrong. It’s a pretty resilient place.”