CAIRO » Over seven decades, the United States and Saudi Arabia forged a strategic alliance that became a linchpin of the regional order: a liberal democracy and an ultraconservative monarchy united by a shared interests in the stability of the Middle East and the continued flow of oil.
But with President Barack Obama arriving in Riyadh on Friday, the rulers of Saudi Arabia say they feel increasingly compelled to go their own way, pursuing starkly different strategies from Washington in dealing with Iran, Syria, Egypt and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.
"Their view of Mr. Obama is that his entire understanding is wrong," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center who is close to the Saudi monarchy. "The trust in him is not very high, so he will not have an easy ride, and a lot of hard questions will be put on the table."
Saudi Arabia’s leaders had historically favored a quiet, backstage approach to international relations. They preferred to use their oil wealth to buy influence from behind the scenes while allies like Egypt and the United States led the way out front. But the United States has scaled back its military role in the region after the war in Iraq, and since the Arab Spring, Egypt has been consumed by its own internal turmoil.
Saudi officials say that has forced them to pursue their own course, to try to contain Iran, oust President Bashar Assad of Syria and support the military-backed government that has taken over in Egypt.
For Obama, the disposition of the Saudis is now a main concern as he plots a policy toward both Syria and Iran. A central goal of his visit is to reassure Saudi Arabia that Washington’s commitment to its security will not be compromised by negotiations with Iran about lifting sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.
In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, in tandem with the United Arab Emirates, has effectively replaced the United States as Cairo’s chief benefactor, giving the two monarchies enormous influence in the country, which was once Washington’s other key Arab ally. And the Saudis have already used that influence to undercut American policy. Riyadh encouraged the military’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power and the subsequent crackdown on its supporters while U.S. diplomats hustled in vain to avert both moves.
Now the Obama administration is hoping to persuade Saudi Arabia to use its greater clout with Cairo to convince the government there to rein in its repression of the opposition and begin to overhaul its economy — the Western formula for restoring stability.
"The Saudis realize that the interim Egyptian government is overshooting the runway with regards to their crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood," an administration official said on condition of anonymity to discuss Obama’s coming visit. "The Saudis realize that the Egyptians have crossed the line with the massive crackdown on journalists, secular opposition, foreign embassy employees, etc."
But after backing the removal of the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as president of Egypt, the Saudis have now taken the lead in a campaign against the Brotherhood across the region.
"It is a war," said a former Saudi official with ties to members of the royal family. "They see the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat, and there are some people who think that it is possible to eradicate the Brotherhood throughout the region."
Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, along with Kuwait, have already given more than $15 billion in aid and loans to Egypt. In recent weeks, a construction company linked to the government of the Emirates announced plans for a partnership with the Egyptian military to build more than $40 billion in new housing in Egypt.
Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the general who ousted the elected president and is now planning to succeed him, presented the housing project to the Egyptian public on the eve of declaring his intention to seek the presidency. And the Emirates have dispatched one of its government’s ministers of state, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, to spend much of his time in Cairo to help the Egyptian government with its economy.
The Saudis have sometimes financed jihadists abroad when it served their interests, in Afghanistan during the 1980s, for example, and in Syria now. But the Saudi royal family, which draws its legitimacy from an ultraconservative Salafi branch of Islam, has long feared the Muslim Brotherhood because of its rival blend of religion and politics and its effectiveness at political organizing. Saudi officials often quote Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the former long-serving interior minister: "All our problems come from the Muslim Brotherhood," he once declared, arguing that the group "has destroyed the Arab world."
But the country’s open support for the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood has risks as well. The takeover and crackdown have elicited stirrings of dissent from Saudi clerics sympathetic to the Brotherhood. And around the region, Saudi Arabia is "losing friends left and right," said Frederic Wehrey, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The generals are going to have to show that they can govern more effectively than the Brotherhood did, and it is a great worry for the Saudis that the generals might flame out as well," said Robert W. Jordan, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi journalists say the country’s government-controlled news media has been more protective of Egypt’s new military-backed government than of the royal family. When an Egyptian army doctor recently announced that the military had discovered a cure for AIDS and hepatitis C, for example, the rest of the Arab world reverberated with ridicule. But Saudi Arabian news outlets all but ignored the fiasco.
In the last month, Saudi Arabia criminalized membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and classified it as a terrorist organization on par with al-Qaida.
Its interior ministry issued a new law imposing harsh penalties on Saudis who join the fighting in Syria for fear that they might return as hardened militants. And to punish neighboring Qatar for its support of the Brotherhood, King Abdullah led coordinated withdrawal from Qatar of not his own ambassador and the envoys from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.
At a private gathering of Arab security chiefs at the Four Seasons Hotel in Marrakesh, Morocco, two weeks ago, the Saudi Arabian interior minister asked every Arab country to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood, to heated opposition, according to officials from several countries who were briefed on the meeting. Brotherhood-aligned parties are accepted parts of the political establishment in much of the Arab world.
Saudi leaders are already vexed at Obama for failing to throw American military might behind their proxy war with Tehran in Syria, where the Saudis are sending money and weapons to back the Sunni-dominated rebels. And the Saudis were flabbergasted last year when Obama reversed course at the last minute, calling off missile strikes against the Assad government for its use of chemical weapons.
Obama opted instead for a deal for Assad to surrender the weapons, and then watched as the Syrian government rolled back the rebels using conventional force.
Obama "has got it all wrong when it comes to Iran," Faisal J. Abbas, a commentator for the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news network, wrote in a column this week, accusing the president of a "new fondness" for the Iranians and calling it "the heart of the problem" in his relations with the Saudis.
But the Obama administration still hopes for Saudi help with Egypt. "The Saudis also don’t have the intent or inclination to float the Egyptian economy forever," said the administration official, so it will need to restructure its economy. "The Saudis also get that won’t happen if the current political climate continues."
David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times