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A weakened alliance

Improved relations between Obama and Iran have increased the Saudis’ mistrust of the US president

Over the course of 70 years, Saudi Arabia and the United States have forged a strong alliance. For the superpower, such a relationship ensures their oil supply, among other things. And for the feudal monarchy, the link means survival as well as a reliable supply of arms. This idyll would appear to have been compromised, based on the latest movements made by the Saudis. The most spectacular of these was their renunciation of a seat on the United Nations’ Security Council, something that had been an objective of Riyadh’s for quite some time. The decision was basically aimed at snubbing US President Barack Obama, whom the Saudis are beginning to see as an ever-more unreliable ally.

The grievances that the Saudis have with the United States have traditionally been resolved with behind-the-scenes diplomacy, in the best tradition of the monarchy. But recent events in the Middle East have reflected the seemingly unstoppable confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis, and exacerbated disagreements. Riyadh sees Obama as on the wrong side. This view is based on his lack of determination to offer a military response to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, his political zigzagging in Egypt since leaving Mubarak to fall, and his passivity in the face of Israeli excesses and the deterioration of the situation in Iraq. The definitive episode that has prompted the fury of the Saudis has been the sudden thawing of relations between the US president and Iran, aimed at reaching a deal that would stop the ayatollahs from developing nuclear weaponry.

Iran, which is a Shiite state, is the enemy par excellence of the Saudi leaders in the battle between the two main branches of Islam. The improvement in relations between Washington and Tehran will mean that all of the years and funding that have been spent on patiently constructing a united front against Iran in the region will have served for nothing. An eventual thawing of relations would not only relegate the importance of Saudi Arabia in the region, but it would also give weight to the demands and grievances of many Shiites in countries under the sway of Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia is not an ideal ally for any country that proclaims itself to be a defender of democratic principles. But having said that, the relationship between the United States and the Middle Eastern country has served the interests of both. Obama has just set the priorities of reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran and working toward peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. These objectives will be difficult to achieve in the face of opposition from a regime whose doctrinal influence and unlimited economic resources make it a determining factor in the Arab world.

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