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Changing relations with Mideast allies may affect U.S. position in the region

October 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have arisen from "cumulative" disagreements on a variety of international issues. Jeffrey Brown speaks with chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner and former State Department analyst Graeme Bannerman about the history of the alliance and risks of a reduced U.S. role in the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to find out more on how the U.S.-Saudi rift is playing out behind closed doors and the importance of the relationship, I’m joined by our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, and Graeme Bannerman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and former State Department analyst.

Margaret, first of all, how big a surprise has all of this been to U.S. officials? What have you been able to learn?

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff, it was as big a surprise to U.S. officials as it was to Saudi officials at the U.N. If you have seen this photograph after the vote, voting them in, the Saudi ambassador was there with the big thumbs up and a big smile.

So the U.S. has — it came as a shock to the United States officials as well. There was no advanced warning, which is unusual between two allies like this. And they have concluded that it definitely had to come from the highest levels, not just Prince Bandar, who was sending a certain signal, clearly, with that article, but King Abdullah himself and the foreign minister, Saud.

JEFFREY BROWN: Graeme Bannerman, now, how unusual is this, especially, as Margaret said, both sides were taken by surprise to some degree?

GRAEME BANNERMAN, Middle East Institute: I think it’s unusual, but a demonstration of the frustrations in Saudi Arabia over American policies in the region and over the number of issues in which we have severe disagreements.

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I mean, historically we have disagreed on the Arab-Israeli process and we have agreed to disagree. But now, with the move towards Iran and improving — the potential of improving relationship there, the failure to act in Syria.

And also in Egypt, while the secretary can say that we’re in agreement with them on the future, we’re taking very divergent courses, when the foreign minister says they will make up for any aid losses that the Egyptians suffer because of the current government is not in good order in Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: So your sense is, it’s not just one thing, like Syria, but it’s all of the above?

GRAEME BANNERMAN: Oh, it’s all of the above. It’s a cumulative problem that the historic relationship — 40 years ago, when I was the Saudi analyst in the Intelligence Bureau in the State Department, we wrote endless papers about the special relationship.

The core is still there. They have the ability to increase or decrease oil capacity, and we have the ability to protect the region. That said, all of these other issues are building on the outside, and they’re concerned about it. And this is — they’re sending a signal to Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is this how it’s being — go ahead. Is this how it’s being taken?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, I — well, it’s being taken by the more sober-minded people in the administration that it’s really — it’s all the issues that Mr. Bannerman just said and really rooted in a deep division over the meaning and future of the whole Arab spring.

So, Saudi Arabia, which wants to maintain stability in the Gulf — and all these Gulf kingdoms do — see the U.S., in their view, eagerly embracing opposition movements, throwing longtime allies, as they see it, like President Mubarak under the bus, and when Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to quell the uprising there or really just protests in 2011, the U.S. offered criticism, muted, yes, but criticism.

And so there’s really, I would say, a kind of loss of confidence in where U.S. leadership is going and whether, to our allies in the region, we still consider them key allies.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and — well, Mr. Bannerman, you were talking about your long experience there, many — this goes — so, this is a deep relationship, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, explain it. Put the present into that larger context. How important is this relationship, has it been?

GRAEME BANNERMAN: This relationship has been a cornerstone of the American relations in the region for 50 years…


GRAEME BANNERMAN: … as has the relationship with Egypt since the peace treaty.

We have — both those countries, the future of that relationship is in question now from the policies we’re undertaking. And so I think the United States is facing the potential of serious changes in the balance of forces in the region because our relationship is changing with the two states that are most important to us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which has — which has potential in what kind of areas? All kinds of areas?

GRAEME BANNERMAN: Across the region.

Because of our relationship with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, we have been the dominant force for the last 50 years within the Arab context. There’s been no rivals. The Soviet Union is gone. Russia is there. But no one has been able to rival us.

If these relationships were to change, the American role in the region would be reduced. We’re still the world’s most important power. We still will be important there, but our position will be different.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one part of that relationship clearly is military. You were able to talk to some U.S. officials, military officials.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, and former military officials.

It’s been the crucial military relationship, along with the U.S. relationship with Egypt, in the region since the early ’50s. The U.S. is the major arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. It has a commitment to protect the kingdom. The kingdom has always regarded that as a bulwark of their position there.

So, for Saudi Arabia — and the U.S. still maintains, despite a very ostentatious withdrawal of U.S. forces after the first Gulf War, still maintains a presence there to train and equip and — and manage the weaponry that we sell to Saudi Arabia.

I’m told there’s a two-star general there that the U.S. helps train the Saudi National Guard, one job of that — of which have is to protect the Saudi royal family. On the other hand — so — so it’s hard to know where they would go for all of this weaponry.

On the other hand, to the U.S., it’s also very important. They were an important ally in the first Gulf War. Their role was a little murkier in the second Gulf — the second Iraq war. They publicly took a neutral stance, but there have been reports that they were helpful in that. There have been reports, unconfirmed, of secret U.S. drone bases in Saudi Arabia more recently, because the U.S. and Saudi Arabia still share the goal of combating jihadi terrorism.

So it’s hard to see how that military relationship gets extricated, but if the political bonds do, then, you know, who knows.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Graeme Bannerman, to the extent that U.S. officials were taken by surprise by all of this, what are the options for the U.S. at this point to either right the ship or respond in some way?

GRAEME BANNERMAN: Well, I think the issue is, we were not paying enough attention to the feelings of our allies in the region.

I think it’s — this is more of a statement saying, see, we have a problem with you. We need to be — confer better. We need to be more consulted. We need to take — you need to take Saudi Arabia more into account. I think that should be the goal.

MARGARET WARNER: And other U.S. allies in the region, the Egyptians have said publicly and privately as well that they all feel now they’re too dependent on the U.S., particularly militarily and politically.

And one — one Middle East diplomat said to me today, you know, we now — what if the U.S. decided for some reason not to supply spare parts for all the military hardware we buy from the U.S.? That’s something that ought to be a high priority for us to consider, whether there are alternatives.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, very briefly, that goes to your whole question of balance of power in the whole region. Right?



GRAEME BANNERMAN: This is one of the key steps of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Graeme Bannerman and Margaret Warner, thanks so much.